There’s as much Proust as Nelson Algren in Tom Palazzolo’s “Clark Street,” his bittersweet photo book on the Near North Side skid row in the 1960s. That was when Palazzolo—better known now as a documentary filmmaker, whose 2000 short film “Down Clark Street” sparked this book project—lived at Clark and Hubbard while attending the School of the Art Institute. His sharp and unsparing black-and-white photographs of a neighborhood in decline are also images of his youth and artistic apprenticeship, as well as his introduction to what Nelson Algren would call the “great gray sub-civilization” of Chicago’s marginalized populace.
For Chicagoans of a certain age, “Clark Street” will produce a frisson of nostalgia for a long-gone city of human-scale buildings, ma-and-pop diners and small businesses, dive bars without TVs, grimy movie theaters and burlesque houses, and a vibrant if tawdry street life. There’s not a franchise in sight, let alone a smartphone, and the people seem, if not always clean and sober, at least present and real and connected. The dingy street with its taverns, poolrooms and flophouses, inhabited mainly but not entirely by down-and-outers whose faces are as worn as the buildings’ pitted Victorian facades, feels like a tight-knit small town. As a neighbor, rather than a slumming interloper, Palazzolo came to know these people, who reveal themselves to his used 35mm Pentax and a twin-lens reflex Rollei.
Inspired to some extent by the early documentary work of reformers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, Palozzolo’s photos are more directly influenced by Swiss photographer Robert Frank, whose 1958 book “The Americans” showed how a seemingly straightforward picture could contain an essay’s worth of subtle, insinuating commentary.
That commentary must be supplied by the viewer, as Palozzolo provides few captions. The book’s handsomely reproduced street scenes and indoor shots tell their own stories, capturing moments of warmth and interaction as well as isolation and degradation. The middle class is mostly absent from this collection, save for a picture of Palazzolo’s landlord in his cluttered office, looking a touch anxious and suspicious around the eyes. He’s the only subject who appears at all self-conscious; the rest, beyond the point of caring how others see them, neither pose nor conceal.
Three brief, well-done essays—by Don Di Sante, who conceived of and assembled the book; James Iska, who provides historical context; and Warren Leming, who offers a literary and sociological framework and relates the gritty pictorials to the visions of Nelson Algren and Bertolt Brecht, as well as to a song called “Clark Street” featured in the film version of Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm.” It includes the lyrics, “Just because I came from Clark Street/Don’t think you’re too good for me./Honey, I remember when/You were eatin’ now and then./Now don’t try to Clark Street me.”
The most memorable photos in “Clark Street” have a tinge of mystery. There’s the manager of Moler’s Barber College, who strokes his chin as he gazes at the camera, a thoughtfully neutral expression in his eyes; the semi-hidden figure of the proprietor of a plumbing supply store, smiling broadly from between the mops and toilet seats like a benevolent ghost; the painted-metal parking-lot attendant who appears to tower over a man at a bus stop thanks to a clever camera placement and deep-focus lens; and the dignified, well-groomed man who sits composedly in a decrepit doorway, radiating serenity from within the purgatorial surroundings.
The book ends on a note of sadness and deeper involvement, documenting a neighborhood woman named Carol Ann who is stricken with an incurable disease. With her gaunt form and staring eyes, she seems already half crossed over, and the book’s most haunting image is her dim reflection in a dirty mirror. Living on coffee and Camel cigarettes supplied by Palazzolo, Carol Ann was attended in her final years by a good samaritan, a working man who spent his nights and weekends taking care of her basic needs and easing her loneliness. Palazzolo captures their life together, spent in diners like Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and her stark, tiny room. Life is reduced to its essence in these final photographs. A still life of a flyswatter next to an empty cracker box and teacup conveys a great deal about both poverty and mortality.
These are left-behind people in a left-behind part of town, but Palazzolo manages to locate their humanity and, like an alchemist, transmutes the very real blight and decay of their environment into a reflective, melancholic beauty.
“Clark Street” is not available online, copies are available at the Book Table in Oak Park and at the Book Cellar and Unabridged Books in Chicago.
By Tom Palazzolo
Self-published, 114 pages