Noted Chicago photographer, Michael L. Abramson, passed away on Monday (March 21), succumbing to his long battle with kidney cancer.
He was just 62 years old.
He was a staple in Chicago, becoming a sought-after commercial portrait photographer, shooting the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Donald Rumsfeld, and many other high-profile personalities.
Abramson moved to Chicago in 1974 and became best known for capturing the vibrant nightclub scene on the South Side of the city. But instead of taking photos of the musicians, he mostly shot the people in the crowd who hung out at hot spots during the time period.
In 2009, a coffeetable collection of his work, titled Light: on the South Side, was released in 2009 by local label the Numero Group. You can purchase the book over at Amazon.com.
This is a brief rundown of his beginnings and career, released through his family:
Born in Newark, New Jersey on October 11, 1948, Abramson discovered his calling as a photographer shortly after graduating from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. He moved to Chicago in 1974 and studied photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology, earning his Master of Design degree in 1977 under the tutelage of the legendary Arthur Siegal. For a brief period, Abramson was a photography instructor himself at IIT and then later at Columbia College, where he inspired others to take up the camera, whether as a profession or hobby. Abramson contributed photography to numerous national and foreign magazines and his work has been exhibited at museums and galleries including The Art Institute of Chicago, The Milwaukee Art Museum, and The Philadelphia Art Museum.
Abramson rarely followed a plan of what to do next but instead trusted his instincts. A friend’s casual remark about the nightclub scene on the city’s South Side led Michael to visit, enjoy, and then photograph the people and nightlife. This decision established him as a serious artist, compared by more than one critic to Brassai, who photographed nocturnal Paris in the 1930s. At his first stop, Pepper’s Hideout, Abramson found himself the lone white guy in the club. Worried that he might make the other club visitors uncomfortable, he soon made for the door. As he left, a man yelled, “Hey, where ya’ going? Get back in here!” For the next two and half years Michael made frequent trips to Pepper’s and other South Side nightclubs. He spent his evenings snapping photograph after photograph – not of the musicians, but of patrons, many of them dressed to the nines, enjoying a night out on the town – and spent his days developing and printing the images. His unique perspective and artistry led to the awarding of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1978. Michael’s important photographs of Chicago nightlife in the mid-1970s were the centerpiece of Numero’s double album/book hybrid Light: On The South Side, which has received accolades globally-including a Grammy nomination-for this remarkable portrait of a rarely documented and lively Chicago scene.
Abramson was also a highly sought-after commercial portrait photographer and photojournalist, whose subjects included such notables as Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Donald Rumsfeld, Louis Farrakhan, Ron Howard, Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan. His photographs have been featured on magazine covers and in national news outlets, including the New York Times, Fortune, People, Time, Business Week, Forbes, and Sports Illustrated. As a portrait photographer, he had the special ability to simultaneously serve as a silent observer and an active participant, gaining the confidence of his subjects, allowing for insightful and often spirited portraits. He even cajoled some of corporate America’s most esteemed CEOs to pose in highly unusual places – seated atop 30-foot stacks of shipping crates, ensnared by coils in a server room, or up in a tree in professional business attire.
Of Michael’s work, the esteemed writer Nick Hornby says: “There is something extremely poignant about these pictures: there comes a point where the transience of the laughter and the music, the booze and the cigarettes and the drugs, pushes us into a contemplation of the mortality of the participants, and then on to our own. And life has always been shorter for the inhabitants of the South Side, too-at the time these pictures were taken, the average black male would just about see his sixtieth birthday, but not much beyond that. Carpe diem means that little bit more when the dies are in shorter supply. This is a special book, about one tiny corner of the world over a handful of evenings a long time ago; but that tiny corner of the world has, for decades now, meant a great deal to an awful lot of people scattered all over the world.”