Happy 91st, Lee Balterman

State St. Chicago (c) Lee Balterman

He photographed the world, but Chicago first and best and only on film. On a cool morning back in May, my good friend Jerry Pritikin invited me to meet photographer Lee Balterman. My hour spent in Balterman’s apartment, crammed with five-foot-tall wood file cabinets containing his life’s work, gave me a front row seat at great moments in 20th century history.

A city kid

Born in Chicago, Lee attended La Salle Grammar School and was a 1938 graduate of Lake View High School. His parents, Max and Ann Balterman, owned a tobacco shop/candy store/soda fountain at Montrose and Sacramento. After high school graduation, Lee enlisted and eventually became an army photographer. Later, he attended the Art Institute and worked for the Chicago Sun (formerly located at 400 West Madison). He freelanced for the major news periodicals of his day: Life, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune, and for the Globe, Rapho-Guillumette and Black Star agencies. His studio was located at Michigan and Walton–impossible to imagine a one-man shop at that conglomerate-owned corner today.

His profession

At Lee’s apartment I flipped through stacks of prints with images of war, rocket launches, political conventions, ’68 riots, past presidents and Chicago mayors, sports figures, movie stars and artists, poets and other photographers. I was in awe of being in the presence of a witness to these memorable events and people, but I was even more moved by photographs of anonymous Chicagoans going about their daily routines in a city that has largely disappeared.

His passion

Dating back to the late forties, these photographs capture the Chicago I first knew and loved and feared. They tell a story of a place that’s mostly rough around the edges but not lacking in charm or joy. They also reveal an independent point of view, an individual who has made his own way through life, knowing exactly what he was looking for. Lee’s photographs of the famous and important are flawless; his Chicago street scenes are one-of-a-kind, the best kind.

Lee Balterman

(c) Lee Balterman

Can anyone identify this intersection? It looks like Six Corners, or perhaps one of the Lincoln Ave. intersections, Belmont or Irving Park.

Lee Balterman

(c) Jerry Pritikin


Lee celebrated his 91st birthday on July 6 in his Chicago apartment.  Best wishes to you!

Photo credits: Lee graciously gave me permission to post a couple photographs. I’m grateful for that honor as well as the great pleasure of meeting him and seeing his work. Thanks to Jerry Pritikin for use of his photograph of Lee and me, and for arranging the meeting.

Resources: For more information on Lee Balterman, check out the website of Stephen Daiter Gallery. Also, I used the gallery’s publication, Lee Balterman’s Chicago as a reference.  Jerry Pritikin also has written several blogposts about Lee, here and more recently, here. Here’s more of Lee’s photographs, including one of poet Carl Sandburg, on Patrick Zimmerman’s 2006 blogpost.


8 Responses to Happy 91st, Lee Balterman

  1. Jennifer July 8, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    “Morrie Mages is the store for sports!” – remember that jingle? They were on LaSalle street then. This is clearly an earlier location in the days before…..hmmm…all those crazy 6 corner intersections…

    Great post!

  2. Frances Archer July 8, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Thanks, Jennifer. Of course, I recall the LaSalle location. Morrie Mages is another Chicago legend.

  3. Jerry Pritikin July 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks Frances, Lee is a great friend, and I enjoy talking about the 40s and 50s with him.
    I wished he would like to try digital… he does not develop his own anymore. Cheers,

  4. John Erickson July 11, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    My guess would be the old Klee Brothers Store at lincoln and Irving Park

  5. William Fagiano August 5, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    The intersection is Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland, looking southwest. Morrie Mages Sports was on Ashland south of Belmont…it burned down in the mid-to-late ’60s.
    I Love this site! Say hello to Jerry (Bleacher Preacher) Pritikin for me!

  6. Frances Archer August 5, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    Thank you! So glad to solve that mystery. Will send regards to Jerry.

  7. Robert Zamora October 23, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    I work at Mr. Baltermans’ apt. building and had many occasions to see his collection of photos and political pins. His stories accompanying his works were amazing and occasionally juicy! His unpublished work was as captivating and really dramatized his knack for getting “behind the scenes”. Many of his pictures were haunting, touching, and I agree with you, an insight into the everyday life of ordinary people with souls,
    We tried somewhat unsuccessfully to identify one his oldest cameras, a bronze Italian model, which he considered one of his crown jewels. He sure loved old cameras! When I showed him my iPhone camera capabilities, he gave me his trademark laugh, along with a lecture on the shortcomings of digital photography. We would also amicably argue about the cubs, as well as him not doing weddings and portrait shots.
    Incidentally, I loved that old desk of his! It had history and was a REAL working desk! I would see him working on it and it had a nook for every thing that he needed. That old desk, it may not be pretty, a bit rough, but it had grit and soul, like our friend, Mr. Balterman.
    Thank you for doing this story! I enjoyed revisiting our talented, Mr. Balterman. I’m sure he’s ruffling angel wings up there with his surprise photo shots!

  8. Frances Archer October 23, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    He told me never shot with a digital camera! Thanks for stopping by.

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