It’s hard not to read John H. White’s DOCUMERICA series as a love letter to Black Chicago. Whether capturing protesters or checkers players, concerts or chores, White’s work feels animated by a wonder and curiosity for the great breadth of stories and characters he encountered while exploring his adopted home city — “life”, as he put it in the captions to several of his images, “in all its seasons”.
While still in his twenties, White (b. 1945) was contracted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of DOCUMERICA, a project that sought to produce a visual record of the nation and its people with a particular — but not an exclusive — focus on ecology. The program made use of local photographers around the country and generally provided little in the way of guidelines or restrictions on subject matter; collectively, White and the rest of the DOCUMERICA cohort produced over 20,000 images, often using the openness of their assignment to create a body of work that shines not just with environmental urgency but with artistic vision too.
In its ambition to present as capacious an account of contemporary American life as possible, DOCUMERICA was a spiritual successor to the Farm Security Administration’s Great Depression-era photography, which project director Gifford Hampshire cited as a major source of inspiration. Indeed, White is often spoken of alongside Gordon Parks, whose photographs for the FSA and the Office of War Information constitute crucial documents of Black American life in the mid-twentieth century.
Originally from Lexington, North Carolina, White was interested in photography from a young age. In an interview with NPR, he recounted buying his first camera at the age of thirteen with ten Bazooka bubble gum wrappers and fifty cents from his grandmother; his father later gave him his first “assignment”, that of documenting the ruins of their church in the wake of a fire. The numerous accolades White has received over the course of his career include the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1982, making him one of only a few Black photographers to have been so recognized. Extraordinarily, the committee awarded him the prize not for a single photograph or series, as is typical, but for “consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects”. Clarence Williams, who studied photography under White before also winning the Pulitzer, characterized his former mentor’s photographs of Chicago as “an earnest visual stream of consciousness that is tightly edited and that explores a city and its people through various moods that span what it means to be alive.”
It is notable that even White’s snapshots of joy and play are often paired with captions (composed by the photographer himself) that frame the scene within larger economic realities: elevated unemployment rates, wage discrimination, and the difficulties Black business owners faced opening and keeping afloat their stores amid racial prejudice from white clientele. In several of his photographs, children in the foreground are dwarfed by the looming husks of abandoned housing blocks behind them — largely salvageable buildings that White notes “have been systematically vacated as a result of fires, vandalism or failure by the owners to provide basic tenant services” before being “razed and replaced with highrise apartments which appeal to few members of the Black community”. By placing these subjects within the framing of an EPA-funded project, White and the directors of DOCUMERICA drew an implicit connection between suburbanization and divestment from cities, on the one hand, and environmental racism on the other — analysis that rings with enduring resonance today.
But by far the dominant impression that White’s portraits of Black Chicago exude is of life and liveliness. Genuine care for his subjects comes through in the way his experimentation with angles monumentalizes the workers he photographed. White’s DOCUMERICA work exhibits a talent for picking out moments of individual emotion amid crowds — whether the tears of a woman listening to a speech by Elijah Muhammad or the rapt concentration of a little boy executing drill team moves at a talent show. Yet in interviews White generally frames himself as a humble conduit, someone who captures more than he composes. “I don't really take pictures”, he said at one point. “Moments come when pictures take themselves.”