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