Cinematic shots of late night Chicago in the '60s

Cinematic shots of late night Chicago in the '60s

A new exhibition brings together an evocative selection of prints from photographer Wayne Sorce for the first time in 45 years.

During the 1960s, Chicago became a battleground between the left and the right. Riots erupted in April of 1968, sparked in part by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, while counter-cultural protests came to a head when unarmed anti-Vietnam War demonstrators were beaten and arrested by police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Footage from the night was broadcast on live television as protesters chanted: "The whole world is watching." 

A year later, the city made national headlines again when the Chicago Eight – a group of activists involved in the DNC protests – went to trial on trumped up conspiracy charges. From the outside looking in, it seemed the city was under siege.

For Chicago native Wayne Sorce (1946–2015), the city was a complex landscape of time and place filled with a sense of mystery and majesty that spoke to him. While pursuing his BFA and MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Sorce began walking the streets of his hometown at night, creating hypnotic scenes of city life that dazzle the eye.

Armed with just a Rolleiflex twin ­lens reflex camera and various 4x5 inch view cameras, Sorce crafted high contrast black and white cityscapes that are at once moody and cinematic, evoking the quiet melancholy of an Edward Hopper painting. Working only with available light, Sorce created hypnotic scenes of Chicago that have gone largely unseen until now.

A new exhibition, Wayne Sorce: At Night, 1966-1971, brings together a selection of vintage prints of Sorce's hometown under a velvety black sky for the first time since they were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.

Like his brother, who was an architect, Sorce was drawn to the topography of his hometown, charting the city streets as a patchwork of storefronts, signage and lights. With the eye of a realist and the heart of a romantic, he creates intimate scenes of the world he knows best.

Gallerist Joseph Bellows, who previously exhibited Sorce’s colour street photography, remembers asking about the black and white silver prints. “After some convincing he show me the early vintage prints, which was quite a discovery,” he remembers.

“Once I saw the quality of the printing and compositions I quickly realised that Wayne was one of the finest photographers to come out of the Art Institute of Chicago, technically and artistically. Beyond the masterful compositions and understanding of nighttime exposures, what most impressed me was the technical virtuosity of the small prints, as the darkroom process has all but disappeared in contemporary work.”

Throughout his career, Sorce stood by his belief that the photograph speaks for itself. “For me, photography is very important in that it exists because of everything else,” he told Camera magazine in 1973. “I hope this explanation is enough, because I think it would be a mistake to write words to be read about that which I only intended to be viewed. Words only confuse and complicate what I prefer to bear witness to my feelings by visual means.”

Wayne Sorce: At Night, 1966-1971 is on view through May 26, 2023, at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California.

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