Through its more than half a million items, the IDHH provides invaluable glimpses into the history of the state of Illinois and the people that have lived here. However, all too often we do not know the viewpoint from behind the camera, the eye behind the lens. To better appreciate those capturing history with the snap of a camera shutter, the IDHH is featuring the Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection at the Illinois State Archives. Born in Mount Vernon, Illinois in 1911, Eddie Winfred Helm showed an interest in photography while still young, earning the nickname of “Doc” due to an early job delivering prescriptions for a local pharmacy. In 1934, Helm moved to Springfield to begin working with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. One of a few African-Americans working in the Capitol complex at that time, he initially performed a variety of duties for the Office, including that of putting the state flag on top of the Capitol Building each day without a harness or other protective gear.
During his first decade in Springfield, Helm held various positions within the Capitol Building, coming in time to microfilm documents for the Illinois State Library in the early 1940s. The Library contained a photo lab, where Helm began to develop personal film there on his lunch breaks, and Helm’s photographic talents caught the notice of the Head Librarian in 1944. This attention resulted in Helm’s appointment as the Official State Photographer in February 1944. Until his retirement in 1992, Helm photographed all manner of state events featuring dignitaries, celebrities, and everyday citizens alike. In his capacity as Official State Photographer, Helm possessed a proximity to the workings of government that few people of color had in the mid-20th century. As a Black American in a largely white space, Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm captured not only the official history of the state of Illinois but of Springfield as well as he bore witness to the integration of the city and the Civil Rights struggles of the era.
Below are a few of our favorite Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm photographs taken at Illinois State Fairs over the years:
The IDHH is thrilled to once more partner with Analú María López, the Newberry’s Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian, for our first post this December. Analú’s work focuses on underrepresented Indigenous narratives dealing with identity, language, and decolonization, and we are pleased to feature her writing for a second time as she sheds light on the Seeing Indian in Chicago exhibition, an outgrowth of the American Indian Oral History projecthighlighted in last month’s blog post.
The Chicago American Indian Photography project by Analú María López
For a long time, photography has reinforced negative stereotypes of Indigenous people, oftentimes placing them in the past. When we think of “Native American” or “Indigenous photography”, we think of the cliché photographs by white photographers like Edward Curtis1, we don’t usually think of Native American or Indigenous photographers. Despite the fact that Indigenous People have long taken images of their communities, we rarely see these images uplifted or reflected in history texts, let alone in the history of photography. In fact, Indigenous Peoples embraced photography early in the nineteenth century. Some even owned and operated their own photography studios, such as the Purépecha photographer Antonio Calderón Sandoval and Tsimshian photographer Benjamin Haldane. As the photographer and educator, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole-Muscogee-Diné) once wrote, “No longer is the camera held by an outsider looking in, the camera is held with brown hands opening familiar worlds. We document ourselves with a humanizing eye, we create new visions with ease, and we can turn the camera and show how we see you.”
A collection of photographs titled the Chicago American Indian Photography project and Seeing Indian in Chicago exhibition records, held at the Newberry Library in Chicago, an independent research library with a focus on rare books, manuscripts, and other archival materials, highlights the Native American community in Chicago through a series of photographs created by Native and some non-Native community members. These photographs are part of the Indigenous Studies collection, which was founded on the donation from Edward E. Ayer’s Library in 1911. Ayer, a white settler, was one of the Library’s original Trustees and one of the most active collectors of his time in the field of Indigenous Americana.
An outgrowth of the American Indian Oral History project which was highlighted in last month’s blog post, included the Chicago American Indian Photography project and the subsequent Seeing Indian in Chicago exhibition, held July 22-September 21, 1985 at the Newberry Library. These projects aimed to document the Native American community in Chicago by creating an archive of photographs taken by community members over a span of 20 years. The project’s selections were chosen by an advisory group, and while Indigenous women photographers made the final list, the advisory committee’s decisions may have been based on how long the photographers had been photographing in the community.
The final exhibition included six photographers of the Chicago Native American community: Dan Battise (Alabama-Coushatta), Ben Bearskin (Ho-Chunk), Orlando Cabanban (Filipino-American), Joe Kazumura (Japanese-American), F. Peter Weil, and Leroy Wesaw (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi).
At two community meetings and dinners, held at the American Indian center on May 22, 1985, audiences were shown the photographs taken by each of the photographers; three photographers were featured at each meeting. Many identifications of the individuals in the photographs were made during the viewing of the photographs. On July 26, 1985, an opening was planned to commemorate the start of the exhibition, and attempts were made to make it a community event. A neighborhood spiritual leader conducted a prayer, then dancers and singers performed. At least half of the 400 persons who attended the brief event were members of the Chicago Native American community.
Images of the photographers, Powwow celebrations, community events and clubs such as the Camera and Canoe Club are just a few images seen within this collection. The Camera Club, first founded in the 1960s, often met at the American Indian Center in Chicago twice a week on Thursdays and Saturdays. At one point, the Camera Club proposed building a traditional black and white darkroom where youth could learn how to print from negatives.
Despite some obstacles, such as timeline and prohibitive printing costs, the Chicago American Indian Photography project’s overall success, which led to the organization of the Seeing Indian in Chicago exhibition, reflects a growing consciousness among Chicago’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities that Indigenous histories must continue to be told and uplifted through the lens of the community.
1Edward Sheriff Curtis was an American photographer and ethnologist whose work focused on the American West and on Native American people. Curtis’ portraits reinforced the Vanishing Race myth: often, and problematically photographing Native people as ethnographic depictions of a “disappearing” people. The “Vanishing Race” myth derived its name from the caption of Edward Curtis’s photograph of Diné riders disappearing into the distance.
This month we welcomed DePaul University into the IDHH. DePaul University has shared the Deborah Bright Photographs collection, which includes 96 black and white photographs taken by the photographer, Deborah Bright, in 1985.
The images in the collection capture an eerily quiet side of Chicago in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, sparsely populated by people. Bright took these photographs as part of the Lincoln Park Study Group, which was a project directed by Dr. Charles Suchar, and involved many DePaul faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As part of this, a group was formed to conduct a historical and cultural study of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, where DePaul is located. Bright’s photographs document the neighborhood as it was at the time, in a process of gentrification.
The collection was donated to DePaul by Bright in 2015 as thirty-seven strips of negatives, with ninety-six exposures, and thirteen 8″x10″ contact sheets containing ninety-eight photos in total.
Here is a sneak peek from the collection.
Permission to display here is granted by DePaul University Special Collections and Archives.