By Charles Hallman
The daily life of Minneapolis’ Black community during the 1970s and 1980s, which has been documented in black and white and color photos, is now on display at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. “Sights, Sounds & Soul: Twin Cities through the lens of Charles Chamblis” opened April 26 and runs through January 4, 2015.
Chamblis was called “The Pictureman,” says Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) Exhibit Developer Ben Petry during the one-hour tour he conducted for the MSR several days before the exhibit opened last weekend. “Somebody told me if you really knew him well, you called him ‘The Pictureman,’ and if you casually knew him you called him ‘The Cameraman.’”
His daughter Reva found boxes of her father’s photographs and lent them to MHS in 2001, added Petry, who admitted that he “emerged himself in the photographs and the time period” while he prepared the historical exhibit.
He poured over 2,200 photographs by Chamblis (1927-1991) — his daughter still has an estimated additional 3,000 photos in her possession, reports Petry, who interviewed many people who knew him to get as much background information as possible. “One of his close friends said he would give you the shirt off his back,” he learned of the legendary local photographer. “Trying to get bits and pieces of Charles was really nice.”
Along the bright, multi-colored walls hang over 60 images, including the old Riverview Supper Club, Minnesota’s oldest Black club; photos of the beginnings of the “Minneapolis sound”; and various shots of everyday people doing everyday things.
“What stood out to me, besides the legacy of these photographs, was him being all over the place, in every part of the community; it was the kind of man he was,” explained Petry. “Charles was such a people person,” he discovered. “He was loquacious and would talk on any subject. He enjoyed people, and I think that’s what helped him in his career.”
When it came to deciding which photos to include, “It was difficult because there are so many good pictures” to select from, “and you are dealing with this confined space,” noted Petry, who used basic themes, including social gatherings, businesses and events to organize the photos. “We tried to capture a broad spectrum within those themes, and also let the photographs speak. Some of the photographs are really artistic. Some are of important people in the community.”
Reva Chamblis also provided her father’s 14 appointment books, said Petry. “He’d jot down little notes, and I wrote a panel based on his notes. I tried to put myself in his place, in his shoes, and [imagine] what he was thinking…being at those clubs and those gatherings, and not take license, but using his words and [how] he felt about people and felt about his work.”
In one book, Petry said Chamblis had written, “‘I take pictures of people. That is a garden to me.’ And he capitalized ‘me.’ He had these little sayings in his book, and I used those wherever I could.”
Petry wrote short introductions and captions for the photographs: “Up until he couldn’t do it anymore, he was taking pictures,” Petry said of Chamblis, who died in 1991 of a rare blood disorder. “He started getting real weak on assignments and couldn’t do any more.”
Chamblis’ photos overall captured an era that showed the best of the Black community. “It was optimism,” believes Petry. “The music, the dances were fun, and now we have two, three people having to work [or] can’t find a job.”
Artifacts also are included in the exhibit, including suits worn by Prince and Jellybean Johnson in Purple Rain and a “24k gold-plated microphone used by the Valdons.”
When asked why the Historical Society is opening such a Black-themed exhibition after February, the annual Black History Month, Petry said, “I think it just worked out on the exhibit schedule, and it just works out that it came at this time.
“But I think the museum feels and realizes that in order to survive in the world we live in, you’ve got to open the doors to everybody and have a welcoming environment for every community. The museum has been moving in that direction for a long time.
“You learn about the legacy he left, the people, and what their passion was and what their lives were all about,” concluded Petry on the Chamblis photo exhibit. “It’s not so much this collective Black community, but it’s people. But at the same time, there is a culture and things that we do as a culture.”
Some people and places in Chamblis’ photos are unidentifiable, and Petry said community members are welcomed to help him identify them by going to the MHS website at www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/exhibits/chamblis.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]