Richard Cahan: The Curator Of Chicago’s History

When it comes to cataloguing the city’s history via photography, there’s no one more prominent than Richard Cahan

For decades, Richard Cahan had been captivated by an iconic photograph by Jonas Dovydenas. It features an iron worker hunched on a beam one thousand feet above street level atop the John Hancock Center as it was being built in 1969. It took years, but finally, in 2015, Cahan “tracked down”  the photographer in Lenox, Massachusetts, and got the backstory on the image.

After the experience, Cahan returned home to Evanston and had a light-bulb moment: “I thought to myself, ‘This is a classic Chicago photograph. What other ones are there? It would be a great book to find other photographs that were just as classic.’”

The result was “Chicago Classic Photographs,” published in 2017 by CityFiles Press, a Chicago publishing company co-founded and run by Cahan and Michael Williams. Over the past thirteen years, CityFiles has produced fourteen critically acclaimed books, often focused on Chicago, and always on the power of photography and dogged reporting to deliver maximum emotional and artistic impact.

Among Cahan’s productions is the all-encompassing “Chicago Classic Photographs,” which began by Cahan searching for a classic image of an iron worker high above the city during the Hancock Center’s construction. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

For this book, they scoured library, newspaper, museum, commercial, and academic sources, as well as their photographer friends, to finally arrive at two hundred twenty-six classic images that tell the city’s story over the past one hundred years. “The people who took the pictures are people who have spent their lives documenting Chicago,” said Cahan, who talked to forty of them, both as a means to add context to their shots and to more fully honor their careers. The story suitably illustrates the “how” and “why” of Cahan’s growing reputation in Chicago as a resolute photo historian and culturally inclusive recorder of both the city and the nation’s twentieth-century past.

Following the publication of “Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America,” published by CityFiles Press in 2008, Chicago author Stuart Dybeck wrote to Cahan and Williams that their book reminded him of the work of Studs Terkel. Somewhat shy by nature, Cahan conditionally accepts the comparison: “Just as Studs learned that people could tell their own story in a powerful way, we’ve learned that in an equally powerful way people can show their own story with pictures that are capable of reflecting the entire range of human emotions.”

With no hesitation, Cahan believes in the power of photography to put both the past and present, known and unknown, into focus. “I think the big hidden secret of the world is that we form our opinions on the world more on pictures than anything else,” said the Niles West High School and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate, who was a picture editor for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1983-1999. “Visually, we think we know the world because we see pictures. We can read about an event and we don’t own it. It is like somebody talking to us, but when we see it, we feel like we can respond from it. We could have read about the moon landing, but the picture of Neil Armstrong placing his foot on the moon brought us to the moon visually.

“We are such incredibly visual people, and when we can look at a picture, we can see things. For better or worse, pictures really do help us define the world.” Cahan also noted that disturbing photographs moved public opinion during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

There is also the prurient factor. “If you look at a magazine rack, ninety-five percent are just head shots. All we want to do in life is look at each other, but we sometimes can’t because it just doesn’t seem right. Pictures give us a chance to look,” he said.

The photographs and accompanying stories Cahan has given us a chance to look at, particularly those focusing on life in Chicago in the nineteen hundreds, are as varied as they are revelatory, starting with “CITY 2000.”

“When I am dead, it will be the most important thing I ever did, and it is what I am most proud of,” said Cahan of the project, which he organized and which was paid for by philanthropist Gary Comer, a lifelong Chicagoan who co-founded Lands’ End. The challenge was to create a lasting record of life in “Chicago In The Year 2000.” Cahan hired six full-time photographers and more than two hundred freelancers, who spent three hundred sixty-six days canvassing the city and chronicling its people, places, and personality. The photographers shot more than five hundred thousand frames and visited each of the city’s neighborhoods. Roughly sixteen thousand images are now online. The negatives are housed in a refrigerated unit and available for viewing by the public at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which plans to store the images for one thousand years. The archive also contains audio and video recordings, offering insights into everyday life, such as how to operate a washing machine, circa 2000. “I wanted to create what it was like to be an everyday Chicagoan,” said Cahan. “It was like anti-news, what it was like to live in the city that day.”

“CITY 2000” won three of the four major awards given by the National Press Photographers Association in 2001, a few months after it was disbanded.

Cahan’s name recognition increased dramatically in Chicago in 2012 when he and Williams collaborated to produce “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.” A BBC special followed in 2013, as did a Chicago History Museum exhibition and a second book, “Eye to Eye: Vivian Maier” in 2014.

Maier’s story was of a reclusive North Shore nanny and amateur photographer who died in 2009, leaving behind a secret hoard of thousands of photographs—found by chance in a storage locker—that she’d taken mid-century and that depicted everyday life in urban and suburban Chicago. Never before seen by the public, they were pictures “filled with truth,” said Cahan.

Over the years, with a particular fascination for “the little guy,” Cahan and Williams have teamed on numerous Chicago-centric books. Among them “Chicago: City on the Move,” which documents the near one-hundred-fifty-year history of Chicago’s public transportation system; “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed its River and the Land Beyond,” which draws from nearly twenty-two thousand photographs made between 1894 and 1928 for the Sanitary District of Chicago about the reversal of the Chicago River; “Edgar Miller and the Hand-Made Home: Chicago’s Forgotten Renaissance Man;” and “Real Chicago” and “Real Chicago Sports,” books that tell Chicago’s history through Sun-Times’ photographs.

Cahan has produced fourteen books through his company CityFiles and says, “I just find something and go with it.” (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

Others books that Cahan has worked on include: “The Game That Was,” about baseball photography, and “Chicago under Glass: Early Photographs from the Chicago Daily News,” both with Mark Jacob; and “A Court That Shaped America: Chicago’s Federal District Court from Abe Lincoln to Abbie Hoffman.”

“I do it because I love it,” said Cahan, who emphasizes that his work has been a group effort. “Michael (Williams) makes all of this possible, and Mark (Jacob) has been a supporter since the first book. And my wife, she has stuck through me through all of this; though there were times when she said, ‘I wish you would get a job.’” Cahan and his wife, Cate, a senior editor at WBEZ, have been married for forty-one years and have four children and two grandchildren.

Cahan’s work is what he calls “a combination of journalism and art. … Words are really important in our book.” Nowhere is that more evident than in “Un-American: the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II,” published in 2016. The book, which Cahan calls “our most important book,” teams photographs of prisoners taken by the U.S. Government during the war with expansive, descriptive text that includes portions of interviews Cahan conducted with twenty-four of the subjects in the book. “We never do easy things in any of our books,” he added. “We have this philosophy that every spread should be a surprise, so when you turn the page you have no idea where you are going to go.”

What keeps Richard Cahan going? That’s easy, he said: “I find something and then I just can’t stop.”

That would help explain the story behind Cahan’s first book, “They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture,” which Cahan began researching in 1979 and finally saw published in 1994. It would become the first of three he produced on the photographer/historian/preservationist. Nickel, whom Cahan called “the father of historic preservation in Chicago,” died in the wreckage of Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building in 1972 as he continued his attempt to chronicle the destruction of the city’s architectural masterpieces.

“Nickel’s determination really intrigued me. He saw something that was worthwhile and he never stopped, and that is exactly what I do. I just won’t stop,” Cahan said. “Photographs of the city are really worthwhile. There are so many problems, but the legacy of the city, through photography, is something I am interested in every day of my life, and something I am committed to preserving as best I can.”

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

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