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A photographer's look back at late-70s Chicago

David Gremp spent a year taking pictures in and around the city's libraries.


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In September 1978, 30-year-old photographer David Gremp began a yearlong residency with the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. His job was to take pictures of nine branches of the Chicago Public Library and their surrounding neighborhoods and to teach a few workshops.

The 100 rolls of film he went through that year amounted to a portrait of the city in the Bilandic/Byrne era. Gremp shot shop owners, activists, library patrons, high school couples, home owners watering their lawns, and an awkward-looking family in a bowling alley. He shot Comiskey Park on a cold and rainy weeknight in the spring. The stands were so deserted that fans could sprawl across several seats and form pyramids in the bleachers, and anyone could walk up to organist Nancy Faust and request a song. Later he paid a visit to Wrigley Field, but the game was sold out, so he shot fans in the street—including a very young Ronnie Woo Woo.

At the end of the year, Gremp ended up with 150 medium-format black-and-white prints. One of them, of a fully clothed man using the shower in the center field bleachers at Comiskey, ended up in the Reader. The city Gremp captured looks a little grungier than ours, and a little funkier—that could just be the clothes—but is still recognizably Chicago.

"I can't remember ever having a better assignment," says Gremp now. "I made the most of it." But at the end of the year, he put the photos into storage and went back to his regular life, working as an editor at Calumet Photographic and teaching photography classes at Columbia College, among other places. He rarely showed his 1978-'79 photos to anyone besides his students.

But recently he gave Adam Holtzman, owner of Alibi Fine Art, a peek. "They were showing a snapshot of Chicago in the past," Holtzman says, "but they had the relevancy of contemporary images." He went through Gremp's photos and selected 30 to exhibit.

"I feel like Vivian Maier," Gremp says, referring to the nanny and street photographer whose enormous cache of photos was discovered only after her death. "But I'm still alive."

These days, Gremp still carries a camera with him everywhere he goes, but he shoots only sporadically. He still thinks back on '78 and '79. "Chicago has changed in so many ways," he says, "but sometimes I'll be driving up Halsted from the south side, and there are large chunks that look the same as they did in 1979. I want to stop and shoot them again."

Correction: This has been amended to accurately reflect the location of the shot of the showering fan at Comiskey.


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