Robert Sengstacke had always been artistic. In kindergarten, his teacher showed off his talents to his parents. The revelation that he could shoot photographs came a bit later, in eighth grade, during a class trip to Washington, D.C.
“It was in the spring, there were colorful flowers,” Sengstacke, 65, recalled. “I took this picture, I took another. When I got through, it kind of blew my mind. I went through the whole cycle.”
By age 16, he had his own studio in the basement of his house, and was snapping shots of teenagers and publishing them in the Chicago Defender, the daily newspaper owned by his family, serving as a touchstone throughout his career as he traveled in and out of Chicago, New York, Memphis and other cities.
Photographs from Sengstacke’s vast portfolio chronicling Chicago’s African-American communities and the civil rights movement are on display at Lusenhop Gallery, 73 E. 16th Street, in the South Loop. The exhibit concludes next Saturday, Oct. 11. The showcase marks the first time many of Sengstacke’s works has ever been shown, said gallery owner David Lusenhop, who organized the exhibit.
“It was about showing a significant photographer whose work is under-appreciated. He was a fine-art photographer who came to photo journalism,” Lusenhop said.
In his 20s, Sengstacke was working evenings for the Defender. That left his mornings free to listen to John Coltrane and then wander through Chicago’s black community, photographing people in their everyday moments on the street and in their homes. Later, he made a name for himself documenting the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to Chicago.
Michael Flug, senior archivist at the Carter Woodson Library, attended the exhibit’s opening earlier this month. He called Sengstacke “one of the finest photographers of the civil rights movement and of life in the black community who has ever photographed in this country.”
More than a dozen of his black and white prints are on display. One shows kids watching a 1968 Bud Billiken Parade while sitting and hanging from a stoplight. Another shows a girl holding a bunch of 45-rpm records hanging from her finger as she smiles at Sengstacke’s camera.
On the opposite wall of the gallery are the civil rights photos that, as Sengstacke puts it, gave him his name. In one photo from 1966, Dr. King speaks to a crowd near the Robert Taylor Homes (now demolished) on the South Side, capturing King with his hand outstretched to the people as the towering CHA high rise looms in the background.
Highlighting such positive aspects of African American life was the norm for black photographers in the 1960s, Sengstacke explained. They disliked the press’s tendency to focus on the suffering and misery of blacks, he said. In addition, Sengstacke lived in neighborhoods he covered, which gave him access.
“We didn’t like the images of blacks in the white press. We had a conscious purpose to document our people,” he said.
At the Sept. 12 opening reception for the exhibit, several black photographers from around the city arrived to check out the photographs and pay tribute to an important practitioner of their craft. They stood out among the dapper crowd shifting through the small gallery, wearing photographer vests with multiple pockets, their cameras-sometimes more than one- hanging over their shoulders.
“I like the composition-the positive and negative space going on there,” said Javet Kimble, a city photographer, while glancing at a 1970 photo of poet Amiri Baraka; his face strained as he speaks, the background black behind him. “It’s filling up the face. You can read all types of things into that.”
It’s an understandable description of Sengstacke’s work. He said he looks for universal expressions in his subjects. “I see myself as a painter with a camera.”