Photographer Jon Lowenstein has lived in Chicago’s South Side for so long, he has become “the guy with the camera.” This fly-on-the-wall quality has allowed him intimate access to subjects and subject matter other photographers would find challenging to document. Fond of his adopted part of the city and concerned about its inhabitants, Lowenstein has spent the last decade engaging with the people of the South Side through the lens of his Hasselblad.
He has been documenting how folks in underserved neighborhoods like the South Side struggle to experience the little bursts of joy in quotidian life, things like a birthday party, a prom, or an afternoon in the park. Lowenstein has also seen considerable sorrow in this community, such as blighted blocks of abandoned homes and funerals for people who have died before they have even lived a quarter-century.
“I know a lot of people there, and it’s just home to me,” Lowenstein says, speaking from his studio in Chicago. “It has its ups and downs like any place, and I cover both the ups and the downs. (Through this and my other works) I like to show where we’re at as a country, and we’re at a very crucial time in the United States of America.”
“It’s an important time to show how we deal with a place like the South Side,” he continues. “Do we incorporate a place like this into the American way of life, or do we segregate? That’s really a question that needs to be answered, and it plays out on the South Side and in Chicago.”
Capturing innocence, hope, and beauty amid scarcity, violence, and social isolation, Lowenstein’s photographic visions of the South Side are haunting and invite the viewer to look, linger, and reflect.
Works from this series are on view in the exhibition “South Side” at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs’ Bernstein Gallery through Thursday, December 4. The exhibit also features Lowenstein’s experiential writing, personal testimonies, and short experimental films, all of which brilliantly bring to light life on Chicago’s South Side.
On Monday, November 24, at 4:30 p.m. there will be a panel discussion in Bowl 016, at the Wilson School’s Robertson Hall. Participants include Lowenstein, who will show a short film on Chicago’s South Side; Mitchell Duneier, Princeton University professor of sociology, author, and a University of Chicago graduate who explores traditions in urban ethnography; Alison Isenberg, professor of history, Woodrow Wilson School faculty associate, and author of the book “Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It”; and moderator Stanley Katz, director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and Wilson School professor. Topics considered include problems of poverty and violence, the impact of vast wealth inequality, and how de-industrialization and globalization play out in our cities, issues that are illustrated through Lowenstein’s photography. A reception in the Bernstein Gallery will follow the discussion.
Throughout his career, Lowenstein has covered international news events, including the elections in Afghanistan, and catastrophes like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti for a variety publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Audubon Magazine, and Photo District News.
However, significant events here in the United States have kept him close to home; for example, he spent considerable time documenting the recent civil unrest over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri.
“With the Michael Brown case, the same questions (of segregation) came up,” Lowenstein says. “It’s true for Ferguson, and it’s true for Chicago, but in Ferguson, the people said, ‘enough is enough,’ and they have been protesting ever since.”
“On a daily basis, I see people stopped by the police, and in Chicago we have ‘contact cards,’ where young men are stopped and then their personal information is put in a data base,” he says. “It can happen to anyone, but it often happens to young black men. It’s a way for the police to keep track of people, to keep tabs on them. It’s like ‘stop and frisk’ in New York City.”
Lowenstein reflects on the history of racism in the United States, that it has seemingly been going on since our nation’s birth.
“But what’s new is the increasing militarization of the police,” he says. “It had been happening after the September 11, 2001, attacks, but it’s been increasing in speed. I first saw it on the United States-Mexico border, when I was working on the immigration project, and I saw it at the 2012 Republican National Convention. We hear more and more about surplus military equipment being given to the police in communities all over the country.”
“How do we have a more equal society, how do we bear witness to who we are?” Lowenstein asks. “Through my work, I try to show a bit of our collective journey through this (urban) part of America. It’s a place I’ve delved into very deeply.”
Born in 1970 in Boston, Lowenstein grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. His father, Edward Lowenstein, now 80, was a prominent anesthesiologist, and was rescued from Germany as a child through Kinder Transport. This is the historic rescue mission that took place just prior to the outbreak of World War II, transporting predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to Great Britain, where they were placed in foster homes, hostels, schools, and farms.
Lowenstein says his paternal grandfather knew it was time to get his children out of Germany when young Edward needed an appendectomy but was refused treatment at the hospital.
“They did the operation on my great-grandfather’s kitchen table, so yes, my grandfather then realized he had to get his family out of Germany,” Lowenstein says. “He got both of his children out and then he escaped later. My father and brothers went to England for about a year and a half, and then they came here.”
“It’s an amazing story, and it shows how the United States gave my family this opportunity,” he adds. “This is another reason why (through photography) I engage on the ground in the United States. I think the fact that they were saved by Kinder Transport has motivated me to do this kind of work, to tell the stories for people who can’t tell their own.”
“People still want to come to the United States to live,” he says. “It’s still seen as a land of opportunity, which is fascinating, and also heartening.”
His mother, Alice Lowenstein, is a poet and writer, and, thanks partly to her influence, Lowenstein at first wanted to tell stories through words, not images. He attended the University of Iowa, where his teachers included Gerald Stern, who later became New Jersey’s poet laureate as well as a Lambertville resident.
“My grandmother was an artist who painted and did collages, mom was a poet, dad was a scientist — in my family, there was a combination of all these things artistic and scientific,” he says.
Photography and filmmaking were also present in his childhood, he says.
“I took all kinds of pictures as a kid, and my grandfather shot home movies,” Lowenstein says. “As a very young kid, I saw work by James Van Der Zee in the Boston Globe, so it’s interesting that I ended up doing similar, community-based work. Van Der Zee was an amazing influence.”
“I started out at Iowa wanting to be a writer, but then I picked up the camera, and it was like, ‘wow,’” he continues. “I took off in that visual direction and for a while neglected the word side, but I am getting back into writing now.”
In Iowa Lowenstein’s aspirations to become a photographer were further kindled by a job in the local camera store, the owner of which recognized his passion and became a mentor.
Other photography mentors and influences include John Kimmich Javier, professor emeritus in the Department of Journalism at Iowa; Peter Feldstein, professor emeritus in the School of Art and Art History at Iowa; Aaron Siskind; and Harry Callahan.
“That’s the line I came from,” Lowenstein says. “I’ve always walked that line between documentary and art photography.”
In addition to the decade-long project documenting life in the South Side of Chicago, Lowenstein has spent the past 10 years recording the largest trans-national migration in our history, from Central America and Mexico to the United States and back. He is a member and owner of NOOR Images, a photography collective based in Amsterdam committed to producing independent visual reports to stimulate social change and impact views on issues of global concern. The name is Arabic for light.
Lowenstein has received many awards, grants, and fellowships from, among others, the Open Society Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, the National Press Photographers Association, World Press Photo, and Getty Images. This year the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University awarded him the 22nd Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize.
In Lowenstein’s online biography, he is described as having “a lighted love of people,” which enhances his relationships with the people he documents.
“I really like connecting to people, and I think that people respond to that, and it allows me to do the work I do,” he says. “I think when you have an honest interest, people will allow you into their space; it’s more intimate.”
In Chicago, as in other major American cities, Lowenstein has witnessed the best and worst of human behavior and circumstances. He notes, for example, that President Barack Obama came to the White House from Chicago, but also that Chicago leads the nation in homicides.
“Here I’ve seen things that are amazingly beautiful, and also tragic — and everything in between,” Lowenstein says. “That’s what this body of work (‘South Side’) explores, how we might reconcile these tensions in the United States and right here in the communities.”
South Side, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Through Thursday, December 4. Panel discussion Monday, November 24, 4:30 p.m. in Bowl 016. Free. wws.princeton.edu/ about-wws/bernstein-gallery. Jon Lowenstein on the web: www.jonlowenstein.com