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How Howard Got His History Back

A young DJ stumbled on a warehouse cache and reunited a barrier-breaking photographer with some 500 lost works.

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In the summer of 2007 Dave Mata spotted a crate of records outside a warehouse in Wicker Park. Mata, a musician and soul DJ, asked the workers inside if he could buy the vinyl, and also asked about work. He wound up with three crates of records and a job helping to clear out the packed space.

In the course of the job, he came across a life-size, full-length, mounted photograph of a young man with an Afro, his arms folded and his ankles crossed, leaning against a wall and laughing. "I was like, 'That is one fly-looking dude,'" Mata says. "The dust and years had yellowed it in a cool way."

Digging into the strata of junk, he found more black-and-white mounted photos, some of them under a broken-down convertible that was one of several cars abandoned in the warehouse. He found the young Jesse Jackson preaching, Dizzy Gillespie playing his trumpet, and four black men—photographers apparently, from the cameras on display—sitting on the concrete front steps of the South Side Community Art Center. One looked like the laughing dude.

There was a box filled with negatives in labeled envelopes. There were negatives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., negatives of Abbie Hoffman, negatives of Lyndon Johnson. Next to this box was another one that was full of invoices; their letterhead said howard simmons.

"Then it all got too weird," Mata says. "I realized this was all probably part of a collection. If I had lost my songs, records, equipment, I would have nothing to show for myself as an artist. And it seemed that that had happened to someone else."

Mata put the materials aside. He found a Web site for a photographer named Howard Simmons, and its logo matched the letterhead. The address was in Oak Park. He called the number. Mata described what he had found, and the man on the other end exclaimed, "It's like Christmas!"

Simmons had bought the warehouse in 1987 and turned half of it into a photography studio. It was where he'd shot ads for Schlitz Malt Liquor and Luster hair products. But it became a financial burden, and in 1990 a contractor who was already occupying the unrenovated half took over the entire building. Simmons cleared out, removing his equipment and all his significant negatives—or so he thought. Later he tried to collect the rest of his things but the contractor didn't want to let him back in. Thinking none of it was all that important, Simmons didn't force the issue. He didn't realize the value of what he'd left behind until Mata returned it.

Michael Jordan

Mata discovered the life-size laughing man was Simmons himself, a self-portrait he'd taken with a timer. He'd taken the picture of the four photographers the same way; it had been used to promote "Through Eyes of Blackness," a 1973 exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center by four of the first African-American staff photographers at metro Chicago newspapers. They were John White of the Daily News, Ovie Carter of the Tribune, and from the Sun-Times Bob Black and Simmons himself. Many of the mounted photographs Mata retreived were from this exhibit.

"The show was symbolic of a situation we never thought would be possible," says Black, who was hired by the Sun-Times in 1968. "The civil rights leaders were beginning to impress upon the media organizations that if you really want to cover our situation and the community, you need people who come from that community. . . . We'd broken the barriers of the newspapers downtown."

"The exhibit was Howard's brainchild," Black says. "He realized it was a historical situation. . . . He spearheaded everything, from the printing to the funding."

The warehouse stash also contained some of Simmons's later commercial work: head shots of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony; a proof sheet of Michael Jordan pictures taken for a 1987 Coca-Cola campaign; a picture of Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, as it appeared in a print ad for a 1985 Channel Five retrospective on his murder; young Channel Five reporters Warner Saunders and Mark Giangreco posing with some of the '84 Cubs at Wrigley Field.

In his Oak Park living room recently, Simmons, now 66, rummaged through boxes of old negatives that were new to him again: Mayor Richard J. Daley; Cook County assessor P.J. Cullerton, of the long-running Chicago political dynasty; his wife, Marva, when they first met over 40 years ago. James Brown, the godfather of soul. "I can't believe I forgot that I shot James Brown," Simmons said, shaking his head. "I shot so many people and so many places, so many times—man."

Simmons grew up in Pittsburgh. His parents didn't have much money, the family moved around a lot, and Howard and his sister found themselves sometimes sleeping with bedbugs. But he remembers his childhood as happy. He built model trains with his dad, who liked to screen movies for the neighborhood kids.

Howard Simmons
  • Saverio Truglia (photo of photo); Pam Rice
  • Life-size self portrait; a recent portrait of the artist

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