When photographer Dorell Creightney passed away in 2011, he left behind an archive of over 300,000 photographs. Since then, his family has been trying to catalog those images and figure out a way to make his work publicly available. And, if they have their way, it will be somewhere in Austin, the place where the photography lived during the latter years of his life.
Creightney specialized in advertising photography, but most of the photographs in the archive were of street scenes, jazz musicians, portraits and nude photography. One of his daughters, Vanessa Stokes, said that the family hopes to do more than showcase the archive. They want to provide a venue for Austin artists — a cultural institution that the neighborhood could be proud of.
Ultimately, they want to do their part to counter the negative images of the neighborhood that tend to appear in larger media outlets, and show that good things can happen in Austin, too.
Creightney was born in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, in 1936. He and his family immigrated to Unied States in mid-1950s, moving to Chicago suburb of Harvey. He lived there until he got his own place in the Morgan Park neighborhood.
At the time, he was working in a shopping mall in the south suburbs. The fashion photography in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion magazines inspired him to try his hand at photography. As the United States military ramped up its involvement in Vietnam, Creightney thought about ways to avoid the draft. He eventually moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he had relatives. In Sweden, the budding photographer’s career took off, culminating in a body of work that amounts to a Who’s Who of African American icons, including Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross and the Supremes and Janis Joplin.
“He was freelance photographer for about three or four years before he came back to states,” Stokes said.
After his return, Creightney married Stokes’ mother, Maxine. The couple then moved back to Sweden for a few more years before returning to Chicago for good in 1969. They settled in what is now known as Clybourn Corridor. While the neighborhood has since become a major North Side commercial hub, Stokes recalled that it was anything but that when she and her sister, Samantha Creightney, were growing up.
“In that time, in the late 60s to early 70s, that area was pretty much a ghetto,” Stokes said. “It’s really interesting, because people think that Lincoln Park was a prominent area. And it’s actually what I would say Wicker Park used to be before Wicker Park became what it is. The area was largely black and Latino, with a lot of working-class people. And just over time, through gentrification, it became what it is now.”
Creightney continued freelancing, doing a lot of work for what eventually became known as Burrell Communications Group, a Chicago-based African-American advertising agency.
“Being a kid, I remember him taking pictures of Sunkist and other ads,” Stokes recalled, adding that her father also took plenty of photos that would eventually hold considerable historical weight.
“My dad was commissioned to take pictures of the first O’Hare expansion, so there were a lot of pictures of O’Hare,” Stokes said. “He took pictures of Marina City when that went up. He had a lot of interesting images. We just have to find them.”
Around that time period, Creightney met Chester Sheard, a photographer best remembered for capturing iconic jazz musicians.
“My dad would go with Chester to shoot jazz [performances],” Stokes said. “There’s a lot of jazz artists, we just don’t know who they are, but a lot of them are local.”
Some of the artists they were able to identify include John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
Creightney also did plenty of photography around Clybourn Corridor and on the South Side, mostly in Hyde Park and Woodlawn. He also captured portraits and artistic nudes.
In the early 1970s, Creightney opened a photo studio in River North, which was then in the process of transitioning from an industrial area into an arts district. Stokes said it was the first black-owned photography studio in Chicago. But he wound up closing it down in 1983 out of frustration.
“It’s a very competitive field,” Stokes said. “He had to compete with a lot of other photographers who weren’t black. I think it was very hard. He was very frustrated. I remember him talking about how frustrating it was; that he was not only a black American, but also a foreigner. It was hard for him to assimilate, to fit the status quo. He was that type of person.”
When asked to elaborate, Stokes said that a major issue for her father was not getting paid on time.
“It was just hard, it was hard for a lot of artists to compete, especially if you were black, against people who had more connections, more financial backing,” Stokes said. “From a small business standpoint, it’s just the way, at the time, industry was. Being foreign and being black, it kind of stigmatized him a little, I think. And I think it was depressing [for him], being a man and being a person who needed to support family. It was very hard on him, not being able to do what he wanted to do and support his family. People would just kind of block him off and not take him seriously.”
She said that her father still did some photography in the 1980s, but by 1990 he had retired for good.
Stokes said that her parents didn’t move to Austin until 2004. At that time, they were living in an apartment in West Town.
“My sister finally convinced them to buy a house,” Stokes recalled. “They wanted to stay in that general area, just west of where they were living, so they started looking at Austin.”
She said her father didn’t like Austin at first, but it eventually grew on him.
“My mom was active with the Austin Green Team and my dad helped out, too,” Stokes said. “They were active in gardening projects in the neighborhood. It seemed like the nice area where we could put our roots down and we could grow in this community.”
When Creightney died, her sister was already living with her mother. Stokes wound up moving in after separating from her husband. For the past five years, they’ve been trying to organize the photo archive, but they still have ways to go — only about one-sixth of the photos have been archived and organized.
Stokes said that the family simply doesn’t know what the remaining photos contained and many things they’ve already found surprised them. In many cases, they don’t necessarily know where the photos were taken, or even who they depict, but they want to try to figure it out.
“It’s beautiful, and something this beautiful shouldn’t be locked up in box,” Stokes reflected. “It needs to be shown to the world.”
In 2015, Stokes was able to successfully apply for a city grant to get some of the photos exhibited in Wicker Park. Stokes is currently applying for another grant to do an exhibition in Austin.
“It’s either going to be an exhibition or some public art in Austin, like a sculpture or mosaic,” she said. “We’ve been looking to see what’s available.”