Monday, July 26, 2010

Jack Jaffe

Twenty five years ago I was working on a self directed project photographing the "Region", the neighborhoods that surround the oil refineries and moribund steel industry of Northwest Indiana and the Southeast side of Chicago. I got a call from Ken Burkhart who at the time was the photography curator at the Chicago Cultural Center. He asked if I'd be interested in being a part of a project whose working title was the "Rust Belt Project" which was to be sponsored by the Focus/Infinity Fund of Chicago. The founder and director of the Fund was Jack Jaffe who grew up and continued to live at the time in the Region.

Being paid for something I was doing anyway was an offer too good to refuse. I met Ken and Jack at the Fund's office which was in one of the penthouses of the new Booth Hansen Building at 320 North Michigan Avenue. There was a muffin shop in the lobby back then and the smell of the baking treats permeated that building so much so that whenever I encounter that aroma, I think back to those days, and to Jack who passed away last week.

But I digress. Having never met Jack, the only thing I knew about him was that he was on the Photography Committee at the Art Institute, and that he was the owner and founder of Car-X Mufflers. He sold the business and used much of the proceeds to start the Fund. I was a little intimidated at first by the setting, an apartment with one of the most spectacular views of Michigan Avenue, and by meeting a guy whom I assumed to have had more money than God. But Jack was completely disarming. A magnificent (teddy) bear of a man, full beard, a deep, robust, gravelly voice and a warm, firm handshake, Jack, casually dressed as always, immediately treated me as if I had been an old friend. Other than the small Car-X plaque that hung from a wooden sea gull mobile, he never made reference to the car business in all the years I knew him. That's because Jack's passion first and foremost was photography.

The photography that Jack was interested in was documentary, the kind of work that spoke of people's lives and told their stories. He loved Lewis Hine, Dorthea Lange, the New York Photo League, Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson among others. That is to say, work that speaks to the heart and soul. Jack loved people and he loved pictures of people.

Ironically, Ken sent him two photographers, Bob Thall and me, who did not photograph people. We had both spent a considerable time photographing the Region and I can only assume that was why we were chosen. Our job from the outset was to take fifteen photographs apiece that would constitute a proposal for the Fund's first project. Bob was already an established photographer and Jack knew there was little point in trying to influence his work. But in conversation with the both of us he asked, "couldn't you just set up your tripods and click the shutter when a someone walks by?." I was perfectly happy to oblige. Jack's influence I must say opened up a whole new world to my work.

Ultimately the Rust Belt Project turned into a much different project. The title of the new project was borrowed from a body of work made by the great Berenice Abbott called "Changing New York". "Changing Chicago" was in part modeled after the Depression era Farm Securities Administration project that documented the Dust Belt in America in the Thirties. Jack was to be the Roy Stryker of the project.

Thirty three photographers of various styles and motives participated resulting in a city wide documentary project that explored various aspects of life in the city and its environs. The project was exhibited concurrently in the city's major museums, and a book was published with the same title. In his preface to the book Jack described what was essentially his raison d'ĂȘtre. He wrote:
"We are told that a whole generation of photographers - the so called me generation- want to create artistic pictures but have no interest in what photography does best: tell us about the human condition."
Jack sought to prove that assumption wrong.

Although Jack was the manager of the Changing Chicago Project I suspect he truly would have been happier as one of the photographers. He was a terrific photographer in his own right, he knew how to tell a story and how to relate to his subjects. I suppose, being the guy that held the purse strings, he felt it might have been a conflict of interest to participate as a photographer, or that people may have thought the project one of vanity. But in retrospect, it is a pity that he didn't participate.

During his years as "a businessman", Jack found time to be a working photojournalist as well. He once showed me an old Look magazine whose cover had a picture of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 waving to a crowd from an open car. He told me to look closely at the windshield of the car which reflected the press photographers in the car ahead. Sure enough, among those photographers, clear as day, there was Jack, shooting away on his old Nikon F1.

Jack also covered Richard Hatcher's successful campaign to become mayor of Gary, Indiana, among other significant events of the time.

The Focus/Infinity Fund that Jack founded supported many of our projects in the photographic community as well as those of film makers and other artists. Here you will find Jack's CV as both an artist and champion of the arts.

In his later years Jack withdrew from the Fund and put more energy into his own photography. He and his wife Naomi, who is also an artist, purchased a home in Montana where he could pursue his second passion, fly fishing. He bought a Widelux panorama camera and made his first landscape photographs, while Naomi worked on her ceramics.

At our Photography Committee meetings, we'd usually sit together while the curators and high rollers on the committee would congregate at the adult's table. We were kindred spirits of sorts, at least about art and photography, giving each other the raised eyebrow whenever some inscrutable work of art was presented by a curator who would take pains to try to explain it.

Jack was a tough guy. After one shake of his hand you knew immediately that he was not unaccustomed to hard work. He'd always greet me with a bear hug. He once pointed out to me the Cancer Survivor's Garden that was built across Randolph Street from his home. "That's me" he proudly said of it. During a trip to Brazil a few years back, Jack contracted malaria. One day when he was still running the Fund, he was attacked while parking his car in the alley behind the Michigan Avenue building, and was beaten up pretty badly.

All this happened during his so called "Golden Years."

But the compassion for his fellow man and the fire inside of him never diminished. He was generous, funny, and impassioned, a gentleman and a mensch. About a month ago I saw Jack at a meeting where he told me that he was undergoing treatment for his third bout with cancer. Yet he was filled with as much spirit as ever. In a strained but still strong voice he spoke to the committee about his relationship with the Japanese photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto. As we said goodbye, again with a huge bear hug, I was concerned for him but the thought that this might be the last time I would see him honestly never crossed my mind. He was a survivor and I was shocked when I heard the news that he was gone.

Jack was my friend, colleague, and mentor. I will forever be indebted to him for his support of my work, but also for his warmth, camaraderie and his insight.

He had so many proud moments in his life but I never saw him so happy as when he learned that my former boss David Travis hung one of his photographs right next to a picture by Cartier-Bresson in an exhibit at the Art Institute. During that exhibition, Jack became one of the regulars, always with one friend or other by his side, sharing a treasured moment of glory. Ironically Jack died on the eve of our current Cartier-Bresson retrospective. It's too bad, he would have loved the show.

Of all his accomplishments, he would have been enormously proud of the headline above his obituary in the Chicago Tribune that summed up what he felt was significant in his life. It read simply: "Photographer loved Chicago, sharing craft."

Jack leaves behind a strong legacy. Most important of course is his family, his children, and grandchildren as well as Naomi and her children. He leaves behind a marvelous body of work, and the work of others that he made possible. And he leaves behind all of us who are tremendously blessed in having known the man, his work and his passion.

Jack's was truly a wonderful life.

There will be a memorial for Jack on Saturday, August 21st. Details can be found here.

A note on the pictures:

The picture at the top is Jack posing as a somewhat upscale drifter in my sendup of Richard Avedon's "Portraits of the American West", c. 1986.

On the bottom is Naomi and Jack meeting our son Theo in 2001.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A fitting tribute to a great photographer and great man. Few have Jaffe's vision and back it up with commitment. He will be missed...