photo by Charles Chamblis: Lake Calhoun, 1985
There’s so much more to see at the Minnesota History Center's new Charles Chamblis photo exhibit, Sights, Sounds and Soul: Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis, than the tiny boots Prince wore in Purple Rain.
Though those are definitely super rad.
Chamblis, a prolific documenter of Minneapolis in the 1970s and 1980s, was present at an amazing array of events in the African-American community at the time—large and small, public and private, from the first rap concert (Kurtis Blow at the Northgate Roll Arena on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis, in 1981) to seemingly everyone’s wedding to women playing cards in someone’s backyard.
Says exhibit developer Ben Petry, “It was like this: ‘You guys getting together? You calling Charles?’ If something was happening, he was there.”
Sometimes he was there when nothing was happening. The Chamblis photos of strangers just enjoying Lake Calhoun are candid, humane, and artful, sitting somewhere between portraiture and photojournalism. Chamblis’s love for people shines through all of them. From notes Petri gathered, that love was intentional. “If I understand what I’m looking at, I can take a better picture,” Chamblis wrote to himself in a journal. And he kept trying, every day, until he was too sick to do it anymore, his daughter told Petry. He died in 1991.
Chamblis’s Minneapolis is filled with music, fashion, family, and fun. For local music buffs, his intimate documenting of the African-American club scene during "The Time of Prince” will be particularly enlightening, or nostalgic, depending on your age. Prince—you learn from these photos—didn’t rise out of the snow whole. He came up in a vibrant and established ecosystem. The photos of musicians make you wish photos could play music—good thing the History Center had the good sense to pipe in Purple Snow and Secret Stash, and roll that disco ball around, too.
But it’s the portraits of everyday people that are the beating heart of this exhibit. In a city still segregated by race in some ways (like that achievement gap), a good time had by all on a warm Minneapolis day is a heartfelt touchstone, especially one from a past we can still remember: A man and a woman on a motorcycle, a dad and his son goofing around with a football, three friends laughing, the ladies wearing some damn fine belts we wish we still had.
It was a time (unlike now) when having your photo taken was special. That is something Chamblis definitely understood.
The exhibit runs at the Minnesota History Center until January 4, 2015.
The line for the first rap concert in Minneapolis: Kurtis Blow at the Northgate Roll Arena on Plymouth Avenue.
Musicians Lori Anderson (second from left) and Paul Johnson (center, on bass).
Minnesota Viking running back Chuck Foreman and his son, Jay Foreman, at Lake Calhoun.
Three friends at Lake Calhoun. Their identities are unknown, as are the identies of many Chamblis subjects. Maybe you can help.