They meet every Friday evening at 8 PM as they have done for 93 years now, in a modest suite of rooms with green linoleum floors on the fifth floor of an old South Loop office building. The members of the Fort Dearborn-Chicago Camera Club gather to discuss photographic techniques, to plan outings together, to socialize. They critique each other's prints, talk about enlargers, drink coffee, and eat cookies.
"It gives you a chance to share your ideas and experiences with other photographers. There's a lot of experience in them, and inexperience too," says Bob McCormick, who has been a member for about a decade.
"What's fun here is there's such a wide variety of interests," says Jane Sparhawk, who was the club's president from 1986 until earlier this year. "Everyone shares; no one says, 'That's my idea.' They were very patient with my dumb questions when I was starting out."
"I'd been taking pictures for a long time, ever since I can remember," says Ed Moragne. "But this is the first place I learned how to print."
"I learned how to do it here," says Jim Goodpasture, meaning photography. "This place jumps. You get hands-on learning, not just competitions, like at other camera clubs. And the fun thing is that then you can pass it on to someone else."
"A lot of the people here are very advanced photographers," says Bob McCormick, "who are capable of being professionals if they didn't happen to be doctors or lawyers or whatever."
The Chicago Camera Club was formed in 1895; in 1950 it merged with the Fort Dearborn Camera Club--which accepted women members long before most other clubs did--and it's now the second-oldest camera club in the country. An ethnic mix pretty representative of Chicago finds its way to the weekly Friday meetings at the headquarters suite, which includes two darkrooms, a studio, and a meeting room lined with books and prints. Every other meeting is devoted to a hard-fought in-house print or slide competition; winners go on to compete against other Chicago-area clubs.
In June 1987 the club embarked on a project far larger than its usual instructional seminars and weekend outings. Sparhawk and others enlisted a bunch of club photographers, convinced Governor Jim Thompson and Mayor Harold Washington to declare June 27 "Fort Dearborn-Chicago Camera Club Day" in Illinois and Chicago, and sent the photographers out to document the life of the city over a 24-hour period.
"When visitors come to Chicago, they visit the Art Institute or Wrigley Field," says Sparhawk. "I wanted to show them what the rest of us do, what visitors don't see. I also felt that 20, 40, 50 years from now it would be interesting for people to see how it was back then."
The club organizers turned to the format that has spawned such photography books as A Day in the Life of America and A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union. At 10 AM on that June day, 89 club photographers fanned out over the city to document the next 24 hours. The weather was fine: bright skies brought Chicagoans out to a variety of outdoor activities.
Some of the photographers stayed up all night, and one was at the top of the Sears Tower the next day to photograph the sunrise. When they were finished they gave more than 14,000 slides to Jane Sparhawk, and the rest of the judging staff. "A good many of them were not very good," says Sparhawk, who fairly bubbles with enthusiasm for the project nonetheless. "I just can't tell you how thrilled I am. It went way beyond my dreams." Many of the slides were good enough to pass on to a panel of outside judges, several of them professional photographers, who picked out 59 of the best images.
The results were wildly mixed: from crisp and striking architectural shots of Loop skyscrapers to intimate family portraits, from lakefront recreation to the U.S. Steel mill on the southeast side. If the photos have anything in common, it is a boosterish tendency to focus on the positive side of life on what certainly looks to have been a pleasant summer day. The views of the skyline are not unlike those you'd see on a postcard rack. And if some photos were chosen perhaps for their interesting subjects more than for pure photographic merit, at least they depict some vintage Chicagoana: Studs Terkel working on The Great Divide, Laotian kids playing in a park, a Western Avenue hot dog stand.
The winners--59 of them--have been collected in a 1989 weekly calendar/datebook entitled 24 Hours in Chicago. It's a slick-looking affair with good color reproduction; the cover shot--a luminescent juxtaposition of Buckingham Fountain and the Standard Oil Building--is overlaid by a clear plastic cover page, a touch to warm the hearts of photographers everywhere. The calendar is being sold for $9.95 at area stores and through the camera club: 33 E. Congress, 922-0770.
An exhibit of 24 color prints representing the best of the calendar is on display through December 2 at the State of Illinois Center at LaSalle and Randolph. The building is open 8 to 6 Monday through Friday; there's no admission charge.