Among the first photos in “Jun Fujita: American Visionary” are images of firemen, quarry laborers and construction workers building highways and steel bridges over the Chicago River. “The masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart,” Nelson Algren wrote of Chicago. Jun Fujita, a Japanese-American photojournalist who was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to document infrastructure building projects, produced many portraits of those who keep the great city’s troubled heart.
Fujita, who was born in Japan in 1888 and emigrated to Chicago at the age of twenty, was on the scene to document infamous historical episodes in Chicago, including the Eastland disaster of 1915, the violent race riots during the Red Summer of 1919 and the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. What is most striking about his images is the embodied presence of the photographer as a witness to these events. One image from the Eastland disaster—the worst maritime disaster in the city’s history, in which 844 people perished when the SS Eastland capsized while still tied to its moorings at the Chicago River—shows several male rescue workers attempting to resuscitate the limp body of a woman who is lying on her back, her chest exposed. Elsewhere, another image shows a crowd of black men gathering outside a storefront during the 1919 race riots, among the most violent in the nation’s Red Summer, in which hundreds of black people were killed or displaced. The men in the crowd are dressed up in finery as though for church or another fancy occasion. What these pictures have in common are those men, white and black, respectively, who look straight at the photographer and catch the unflinching gaze of his lens. Their expressions are ambiguous and may register anything from defiance and pride to anxiety and resentment. In these flashes of self-consciousness, they watch themselves as they are recorded in history. We see, even if they didn’t, how shrouded they are in violence, how caught up in forces much larger than their individual existences. Their gaze toward Fujita registers multiple kinds of difference between themselves and the photographer who would capture their image.
As the exhibition illustrates through ephemera and contemporary publications, Fujita was also a poet and an active participant in the rich Chicago literary scene of the 1920s, which included Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht. Fujita published poems in English starting in the late 1910s. We see examples of his poems in literary journals alongside woodcut prints by Steen Hinrichsen and Emil Armin (the latter was Fujita’s roommate on Harper Avenue). A collection of Fujita’s poems called “Tanka: Poems in Exile” was published in 1923 by Covici-McGee, an imprint specializing in artful limited editions with distinctively bold graphics. In a small amount of space, the exhibition is effective at conjuring this artistic renaissance in Chicago, leaving one wanting to know much more of that world. While the exhibition feels thin in its substantiation of the full-fledged American visionary that its title promises, it nevertheless gratifies by introducing us to a significant voice of the time. (Nancy Chen)
“Jun Fujita: American Visionary,” The Newberry, 60 West Walton, through March 31.