R.I.P.: "Light: on the South Side" photographer Michael Abramson

Photograph: Michael L. Abramson

Yesterday, photographer Michael Abramson, 63, died after battling kidney cancer. Born in New Jersey, Abramson moved to Chicago in 1974 and became best known for capturing the vibrant nightclub scene on the South Side. A stunning coffeetable collection of his work, Light: on the South Side, was released in 2009 by local label the Numero Group.

Rather than focus on live musicians, he shot mostly self-styled characters who hung out at hot spots including Perv's House, Pepper's Hideout, the High Chaparral, the Patio Lounge and the Showcase Lounge. Abramson and his former business partner, Kathleen Aguilar, published another volume The Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984.

Here is the official obit released by his family:

Acclaimed photographer Michael L. Abramson died Monday, March 21, 2011.

Michael Abramson was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 11, 1948. He grew up in South Orange, NJ, and graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. Soon thereafter, he discovered that his true calling was photography, a realization he attributed to the free spirit of the times. He moved to Chicago in 1974 and studied photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology, earned his Master of Design degree in 1977 under the tutelage of the legendary Arthur Siegal. For a brief period, Abramson was a photography instructor himself at IIT and then later at Columbia College, where he inspired others to take up the camera, whether as a profession or hobby.

Abramson rarely followed a plan of what to do next but instead trusted his instincts. A friend’s casual remark about the nightclub scene on the city’s South Side led Michael to visit, enjoy, and then photograph the people and nightlife. This decision established him as a serious artist, one who was compared by more than one critic to Brassai who photographed nocturnal Paris in the 1930s. At his first stop, Pepper’s Hideout, Abramson found himself the lone white guy in the club. Worried that he might make the other club visitors uncomfortable, he soon made for the door. As he left, a man yelled, “Hey, where ya’ going? Get back in here!” For the next two and half years Michael made frequent trips to Pepper’s and other South Side nightclubs.

He spent his evenings snapping photograph after photograph – not of the musicians, but of patrons, many of them dressed to the nines, enjoying a night out on the town – and spent his days developing and printing the images. His unique perspective and artistry led to the awarding of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Today his photographs are included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the California Museum of Photography, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

More recently, close to a hundred of the thousands of photographs taken during that period were published as a book accompanied by two albums of music which played in the nightclubs of the south side of Chicago during that era. Light on the South Side was released in late 2009 to rave reviews.

Among other honors and awards, it was nominated for a Grammy Award, and its British counterpart, a Mojo. Light on the South Side was not Michael’s first publication. He and his former business partner, Kathleen Aguilar, published The Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984; a second edition was released in 2005.

Abramson was also a highly sought-after commercial portrait photographer and photojournalist, whose subjects included such notables as Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Donald Rumsfeld, Louis Farrakhan, Ron Howard, Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan. His photographs have been featured on magazine covers and in national news outlets, including the New York Times, Fortune, People, Time, Business Week, Forbes, and Sports Illustrated.

As a portrait photographer, he had the special ability to simultaneously serve as a silent observer and an active participant, gaining the confidence of his subjects, allowing for insightful and often spirited portraits. He even cajoled some of corporate America’s most esteemed CEOs to pose in highly unusual places – seated atop 30-foot stacks of shipping crates, ensnared by coils in a server room, or up in a tree in professional business attire.

Abramson loved to travel, and used his camera as a vehicle for learning about other cultures. He was intrigued by cross-cultural juxtapositions. In one series of photographs, Abramson “posed” a photograph of Michael Jordan (that he had taken recently before, on the occasion of Jordan’s 30th birthday) in various contexts during his travels throughout Indonesia, France, Cuba, Argentina, Greece, Amsterdam, and Puerto Rico. The photograph of Michael Jordan appeared, for example, against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, in front of the Acropolis, and in an aboriginal wedding party on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. For other photographs, Abramson would often ask locals to hold up a Jordan photo along with their daily burdens: dead chickens, flower baskets, or whatever else someone was carrying that caught his eye. Foremost, Michael Abramson had an insatiable curiosity about people. He exhibited a sincere interest in individuals –their histories, their passions, what makes them tick. He was a quintessential story-teller who’s fresh and insightful portraits – whether of celebrities or everyday people – bring them alive and give us a window into their souls.

In the words of writer Nick Hornby, in his introduction to Light on the South Side, “like a good novelist, Abramson is particularly attuned to relationships and how to frame them.” Perceiving his heartfelt interest in them, people around the world opened up to Abramson, allowing him to create powerful portraits of them, and producing many lasting friendships. In addition to his impressive body of work, Michael is survived by his longtime partner, Midge Wilson; his mother, Ethel Abramson; his sister, Leslie Abramson; his brother, Richard Abramson; his nieces, Hannah Rossman and Lauren Abramson; his nephews, Matthew Rossman and Jack Abramson; his beloved dog, Hazel; several cousins; and countless friends. One of Michael’s last wishes was to establish a foundation that would support others studying and pursuing careers in the creative and performing arts. How donations can be made will be formally announced at Michael’s Celebration of Life event scheduled for later this Spring.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)