Books of photographic images are nothing new, but the best of these books contain images showing varying degrees of emotional power and insight that engage the viewer.
Noted Chicago photographer Jeffery Johnson has compiled, written, and edited such a book about his grandfather, Elmer C. Johnson, who, during his lifetime, took to photography like ink takes to paper. The title of the book is Scoop: Chasing Chicago for the Front Page.
Local residents may remember Elmer Johnson as the editor, publisher, and owner of the Brookfield Enterprise and Times newspapers. The Enterprise became the Times, last published in 1985.
While the book’s title may cause readers to think it is completely Chicago-oriented, that is not so. However, Elmer Johnson’s lifelong passion for photography certainly did begin here, when he lived in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood.
His first camera was a simple Kodak Brownie, purchased when he was a teenager, from the Bass Camera shop in Chicago. He took photos of his family, friends and the world around him. Some of these photos are in this book.
His interest in photography may have been forever imprinted in 1927, when he found himself in a crowd, walking with the famous Charles Lindbergh at Chicago Municipal Airport (later Midway). That day, he forgot his camera – and he regretted that mistake for the rest of his life. From then on, he determined to always carry a camera with him.
In 1930, at age 18 and fresh out of high school, he obtained work as a “Printer’s Devil” (apprentice) at the Chicago Daily News.
After a while, he learned he could make extra money shooting photos for the city newspapers. He bought a Rolleiflex camera, set up a darkroom at home and cashed in on doing what he liked best. Sometimes he even scooped the Daily News’ own photographers.
Readers of this book will be able to view some of these photos, as well as others that haven’t been seen in many decades. It also features the first big photo sale Elmer Johnson made, in 1936, when a TWA DC-3 airliner crashed near Midway Airport in a large vacant lot at 61st and Kilbourn. Pilot Wesley L. Smith brought the plane down safely enough, so Johnson snapped the flash photo of the pilot standing in front of his wrecked plane.
In 1949, Johnson bought the Brookfield Enterprise newspaper, and in a few years the Enterprise promoted itself as “Brookfield’s Picture Newspaper” and “A Picture News Weekly.” The accent was clearly on the wealth of photos appearing in the paper.
Johnson was shooting everything, from supermarket openings to blood-and-guts murders, from club dinners to political events, from ordinary citizens to famous celebrities. All people, whether humble or important, were suitable subjects for his camera lens.
Naturally, Brookfield is covered in this book. Look at that crowd on the village’s Grand Boulevard in the 1960s. See the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. There’s a dandy photo of a dead man whose car was hit at the Hollywood train stop. And don’t forget to see “King Bub.”
Remember Mangam’s Chateau in Lyons before fire destroyed it? It’s in here. So are car crashes, fires, parades and train wrecks.
Jeffery Johnson noted that finding the right photos for this collection “was not a quick and easy job.” Years ago, Elmer Johnson’s son Dennis (Jeffery’s father) passed down to him “a large box full of many boxes of varying sizes, containing photo negatives of over 70 years of the elder Johnson’s work. Most negatives were not marked, but I knew that each one had a story behind it.”
As a youth, he’d been much impressed by the collection of curly-edged photos loosely tacked onto the wall of his grandfather’s newspaper office, some of which were really horrific. Now was his chance to pay tribute to his grandfather’s professional passion.
“Getting the information and stories about the photos has been the most painstaking part of assembling the book. I used any and all reliable sources I could find [which] helped to make the book much more three-dimensional and interesting.
“It was clear to me from the start that self-publishing the book online at Blurb.com was really the only and best way to go. The quality of online publishing has really improved. I decided to just sell it myself, online, and make sure the book was done the way I wanted.”
Praise for the book was instantaneous.
“What an extraordinary set of photographic landmarks in Chicago’s history,” said a worker at the Central Camera store on Wabash, in business since 1899. “It is remarkable where he was when things were happening. Nice [photo] composition, too.”
A preview of the 138-page book is available online at http://www.blurb.com/books/2513082. Just look for the cover showing Elmer Johnson’s famous photo of the 1967 Oak Lawn tornado, titled “Portrait of a Killer.”