The Street Photography Of Robert Rehak

By Shannon Gallagher

In the early 1970s, Bob Rehak was a recent graduate from Northwestern University, working as a copywriter for Leo Burnett. On his daily commute on Chicago’s elevated train system, he passed through the poverty-stricken Uptown neighborhood. The area fascinated him and simultaneously made him uncomfortable. Burned out buildings, graffiti, and bars characterized the neighborhood, and the area was populated with drunks passed out on the street and people looking for work, clustered outside of day labor agencies. “It was one of those places where if you were driving through, you’d lock your car doors and maybe run a stop sign or two,” Rehak explained. After the OPEC oil embargo in October of 1973, the American economy took a nosedive. The price of gas quadrupled and the times were defined by high unemployment (well over 9%) and high inflation (which eventually rose to around 12%). “The recession brought America to its knees. Before, we felt dominant, we were optimistic, and we could do anything we wanted. America was a ‘make it happen’ kind of country. The OPEC oil embargo proved that we were no longer in control. It was an emotional blow on top of everything else,” he said.

 

Rehak decided to start photographing the neighborhood and its inhabitants in order to document how the recession was affecting Chicago’s working poor. He came to the conclusion that he would get off at the Wilson el stop and ask the first person he saw if he could take their photo. Rehak stepped off the train and spotted a man at Wilson and Broadway, shouting and waving his arms wildly. The man was pacing nervously and having a very animated conversation with himself. This made Rehak even more scared than he already had been, but he knew that unless he kept his word to himself, he would never be able to capture the kind of images necessary to properly tell Uptown’s story. “I said to myself, ‘Oh no! Why did he have to be the first person?’ But a promise is a promise.” He approached the man with trepidation, and much to his surprise, the man grinned, looked at Rehak as if he was another planet, and said, “Sure, why not?!” He dropped to his knees, folded his hands in prayer, and introduced himself as Jehovah. Over the course of the next several years, Rehak discovered that most people in Uptown were the opposite of what he had originally expected to encounter. He insisted that during the four years he spent frequenting the neighborhood, he never once felt threatened. “These were some of the most wonderful, kind, giving, caring people you could ever meet. They were largely ignored by society, so the mere fact that I was there with a camera, willing to listen to their stories and document them was somehow giving voice to their lives and validating their trials and tribulations. They wanted me to be there.”

In the mid 1970s, photography was not as ubiquitous as it is today.  Many people could not afford cameras or film processing. This made Rehak stand out on the streets of Uptown, but it also made him fascinating to others. Although he was a bit nervous the first time he did it, eventually, approaching strangers became second nature. If he saw someone interesting, he would go up to them and engage in conversation. After five or ten minutes, he would usually “figure out what they were about” and then ask for their photo. A lot of people didn’t want to have their photo taken, perhaps because they were running from the law or an ex-spouse and did not wish to be found. Rehak quickly learned not to sneak photos the way that many street photographers do. “That’s a good way to get beaten or have your camera stolen,” he said. “Besides, I have this feeling about photographing portraits- they work best when you capture the essence of the person. Everyone has something they’re trying to express with their lives. When you don’t take the time to talk to people and figure that out, it’s almost impossible to capture.”

 

Not only did Rehak get a genuine glimpse into the lives of Uptown residents, he also got to know a lot of them on a personal level. He found that gang members were particularly eager to have their photograph taken. “Frankly, I think it made them feel important. A lot of these kids would join gangs because they were bullied or lonely. Whether they were looking for friendship, camaraderie, or respect, the mere fact that I was there photographing them gave them all of that.” Rehak recalls developing a good friendship with many of them, “almost too friendly,” he said. “They started to trust me, allowed me to photograph them with their guns and knives, and share things with me that, frankly, I didn’t want to know.” This made him feel that he was becoming more of a participant than an observer, which he didn’t want to be, especially when it came to criminal activities. He began to know many of the Latin Kings quite well, and one day, they showed him a cache of weapons in the trunk of a car. When the group began hinting at their plans for the arsenal, “I said, ‘No more.’ That was the last time I went to Uptown to take photos.”

Rehak described Uptown in the 1970s as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city at that time. “I don’t know if people fully appreciated that- the area had a population of all races, religions, and ethnicities. People from all over the world settled in Uptown.” One particular high school in southern Edgewater had only 1500 students, but the group was comprised of more than 60 nationalities. “Uptown was like the United Nations of Chicago,” Rehak suggested. There were many Native Americans in the area at that time, members of virtually every tribe in America. It was rumored that Uptown had the nation’s single largest concentration of Native Americans at that time, although, according to Rehak, they have now largely dispersed, many going back to the reservations they came from. Other groups that flocked to Uptown were Hispanics and poor southern whites from Appalachia. They were attracted to Chicago because there were opportunities for work, and they were particularly drawn to Uptown because of the low cost of rent in the area. There were also Eastern Europeans, Indians, Koreans, and Vietnamese people in Uptown. “The takeaway point is that unlike most Chicago neighborhoods, which were dominated by a single ethnic group, Uptown was multicultural. There were no racists in Uptown- I never heard racial epithets. The people got along well. They were thrown into poverty together, and most of them were just trying to help each other survive. It was refreshing,” Rehak said.
In addition to a diverse population, the photographer described the people of Uptown as tenacious.  “I think that sometimes, people view the poor as folks who have made bad choices, or those who are lazy. That’s far from what I found,” Rehak recalled. “There were certainly some people that were content to live off of welfare, but for the most part, these people wanted opportunity and were willing to work hard. The opportunities, however, were few and far between. This recession lasted more than a decade, and it was probably 13 years or so before inflation calmed down.” The photographer relayed a story about a man he met who came to Chicago from a log cabin in the Ozarks, where he had no running water or electricity. “He came with ten dollars in his pocket. When he arrived, he hadn’t eaten in three days and had nowhere to live. The morning after his arrival, he went to a day agency, and waited all morning and most of the afternoon in hopes of finding work. At about 3pm, the agency gave him a job that no one else was willing to take, doing demolition work in a Greek restaurant. This was backbreaking physical labor. He made ten dollars that day and bought a $2 steak from a steakhouse that is still in business. Starting out in the Wilson Club Men’s Hotel, he eventually moved up to a $3 per night room, and continued the cycle until he had saved enough money for an apartment on Buena, where the Uptown library is now located. The man worked day labor jobs until he found full time work as a machinist on the northwest side of the city, eventually buying a home and becoming a regular taxpayer. According to Rehak, hardworking people like this man were everywhere in Uptown. Witnessing this firsthand made the photographer a more understanding and compassionate person. He said that it also helped him to overcome fears, as he was fairly introverted at the beginning of the project. “I wouldn’t say that it turned me into an extrovert,” he said, “but it taught me that I had nothing to fear by walking up to strangers and asking to take their photos. I do that on a regular basis now. This project helped me come out of my shell.”

The response to this series of photographs has been extremely positive. After many of the images were published in breakout articles in the Chicago Tribune in the late 1970s, Rehak thought that the project had come to an end, and archived all of his negatives. Last July, he started a photo blog and asked one of his colleagues whether or not he should add some of the Uptown images to it. “I thought maybe some of our clients would be interested in gritty portraiture, so I pulled out some of the negatives and scanned them. Almost immediately, the images went viral. I’ve had close to 6 million hits, and eventually a publisher noticed them and contacted me. The book came as a complete surprise to me, but it has been great.”

Rehak frequently receives e-mails from people who recognize themselves or people they knew in the photographs. It has allowed him to reconnect with people from his past that he shares fond memories with. He has even become good friends with some individuals, e-mailing back and forth on a regular basis. He has enjoyed seeing and hearing from some who have pulled themselves out of poverty and are now enjoying happy and successful lives. He also said that it has been amazing to see an overwhelmingly positive response to the images. Rehak has received over 1000 emails from Chicagoans and those that have scattered to Florida, Ohio, California, Texas, and many Appalachian states. “People have said to me, ‘Boy, you really nailed it, you captured what the neighborhood was all about, some of the trials we were facing.’ All I really saw it as at the time was wandering around, trying to capture photos of things that caught my eye,” he said.

The photographer has also started a follow up project. As previously mentioned, Uptown was home to large numbers of people from Appalachia, so many that the area was nicknamed “Hillbilly Heaven” in the 1970s. Rehak took notice, and thought to himself, “There’s something going on here- what would cause people to leave their families and social networks and move to a strange city hundreds of miles away? They had no friends or family in Chicago.” He wanted to find out what that was all about, so he took many trips to the whole area, from southwest Pennsylvania to West Virginia to Tennessee, back up into Kentucky and Arkansas. “This was eye opening,” he said. “There were so many people living in poverty, in log cabins with no running water or electricity. I thought, ‘Holy cow, how could that be?’ That will be the next related project, I am going to begin publishing some of those pictures on my blog.”

Rehak, who moved to Texas 34 years ago and has been living in Houston for the majority of that time, says that what he misses most about Chicago is “the energy, the people- when I flew into Chicago last November, I rented a car and had lunch with old friends near O’Hare Airport. Afterwards, as I was driving into the city, I felt my Chicago accent return. It felt great. The energy of the city is incredible. I don’t know if Chicagoans fully appreciate that. When you live somewhere else and you come back, you really notice it.” He describes Chicago as a 24/7 kind of city, a place where one can walk out at any time of the day or night and there’s something going on. “There’s something about the people too,” he said. “They might be in a hurry, going somewhere with something to do, but they’re kind. There’s an essential kindness to the people in Chicago. They really want to help others, and I love that about them. Meeting a stranger and chatting with them for an hour… that doesn’t happen in most cities. I miss that about Chicago.”

All images © 2013 Robert Rehak. All rights reserved.