Davu Seru, Minneapolis jazz musician and scholar of African-American culture, didn’t know photographer Charles Chamblis personally, but he does know some of the people he pictured. In fact, one shot used to hang in his family’s home.
“It’s a bugle corps at an Elks Club on Plymouth Avenue, and it features Mom, Dad, cousins and great-aunt,” said Seru, who now has the photo on his own wall. “Growing up, I got used to this shot in color. But going through the [Chamblis] archive, I found one where their heads were turned another way, and in black and white.”
Known to many as “The Pictureman,” Chamblis documented the Twin Cities black community in the 1970s and 1980s. A new book of his work, “Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis,” was just published by the Minnesota Historical Society, with an accompanying exhibit at the Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis that opened Wednesday.
“What Chamblis shows us is something different — the lower profile,” said Seru, a professor of English at Hamline University who wrote the book’s lengthy text. “Not the lynchings in Duluth and the redlining and riots and these moments in Minnesota black life that are hyper-visible in racism, and with white people being the central focus. Instead, these are ordinary people enjoying their life.”
More than 2,000 of his photos are now archived at the Minnesota History Center. They’re like a time capsule bringing memories to life — people dancing and jamming out at clubs, gathering in a park, enjoying sunny afternoons at the lake, working at the grocery store, hanging out at the beauty salon, gathering at activist meetings or celebrating weddings. There was no type of social gathering that Chamblis didn’t capture.
Chamblis, who died in 1991, grew up in Pittsburgh but settled in Minneapolis after serving in the Marines during World War II. His work eventually caught the eye of Al McFarlane, longtime editor of the Twin Cities African-American community journal Insight News, who hired the photographer in 1977 to document the black community. The freelance gig didn’t stick, but he kept taking pictures.
“McFarlane gave me the sense that Chamblis knew exactly what he was doing in documenting for posterity,” said Seru. “He had an agenda to document the best of black life.”
Interestingly, “the best” also meant just the everyday — not just people dressed up looking their absolute most spectacular.
There’s a particularly striking black-and-white photograph of a man named Leroy King pictured at King Supermarket, formerly located at 2005 Plymouth Av. N. in Minneapolis. He stands in front of a cookie display with the sign “Cookies: Best Buy 2 for $1.00.” His expression is somewhat blank, as if he’s been caught slightly off-guard, while gazing into Chamblis’ lens. Another photo shows Francis Henry, a barber, as he cuts Virgie Robinson’s hair at a shop at Plymouth and Queen avenues.
Chamblis captured the North Side when it was a thriving black business and residential district. Seru grew up there, and seeing the photographs jogged his memory of a time before that area got particularly rough.
“In terms of a personal motivation for the project, I was able to get reacquainted with my old neighborhood in this moment in time before this spectacle of black violence overwhelmed people’s view of north Minneapolis,” said Seru. “There are only two kinds of businesses remaining from that time — the private fraternal orders, and a funeral home.”
Photographs of nightspots and fashions from the 1970s feature prominently in the book. Groups gathered at the Flame Cafe, the Cozy Lounge, the Fox Trap, Dick’s Jet-A-Way Club, and many more. At the Taste Show Lounge in downtown Minneapolis (now Sneaky Pete’s), disc jockey Steve Holbrook is pictured inside his bright red booth, surrounded by records, wearing a blue cap. He’s got headphones around his neck, and is staring at the camera.
This was the Minneapolis scene that produced Prince. He appears in two images in the book. In one, Prince is 16 or 17 years old, playing in a band with Morris Day and André Cymone for a fashion show at the Riverview Supper Club. A second picture captures him a decade later, soon after “Purple Rain” made him famous, returning home to play a street festival at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.
Chamblis also captured black beauty, such as Miss Black Minnesota winner Angela Burkhalter in a pink, lacy dress, with a sash over her chest and a crown on her head. Apparently, Chamblis would instruct his subjects to “smile with their eyes.” Evidently, he got people grinning not just with their eyes, but from ear to ear.