In the current exhibition at the Chicago Center for Photojournalism, images from the sixties and seventies take us back decades in our own city, as well as New York and New Orleans. The late Hans Schaal (February 22, 1934-November 3, 2023), who was to have been at the opening but sadly passed away on November 3, was a keen observer of urban life. Born in Germany in 1934, Schall said, “I lived a charmed life by growing up in the war-torn country of Germany. It gave me low expectations. At one point, I thought I wouldn’t live past ten.” Schaal made his way to Chicago, where he spent most of his adult life, earning a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and becoming an associate professor of film and photography at the University of Illinois Chicago, a position he held for thirty-four years.
Schaal’s work shows his penchant for reflection and observation—average people going about their average lives somehow take on a kind of glamour in his images, due in part to his talent for composition. He spoke of his photographs as “moments of life worth remembering,” and indeed, he has captured his subjects as if they are frozen in time. We recognize familiar landmarks, yet the images have a quality of retro films—most of the men wear suits and hats, and the women appear “dressed up to go downtown.”
Case in point is a wonderful image of a finely dressed gentleman, hands in pockets, walking by a newspaper kiosk in front of the vendor, hatless and somewhat rumpled, organizing his wares, including a full display of magazines and Marvel comics. An unlit neon Walgreens sign peeps over the roof of the kiosk. In an image from New Orleans, an elderly woman stands on an open porch, hands held high, while several men and boys gaze in the same direction as the woman. We wish we knew what they’re looking at—that’s the magic of Schaal’s work, it engages us in the dialogue of the action. Also from New Orleans, and showing the diagonal lines that so inspired Schaal, is an image of a destitute young woman sitting on a curb, while behind her we see only the shoes and trouser legs of passersby.
One of the strongest images is of a street in the evening. A smoking woman sits on a bus bench at the far left of the frame, clearly disconcerted by the approach of a man with a large dog on a leash. The harsh shadows cast by the streetlights make the dog almost appear to be two dark dogs, and the leash extends completely out of the frame on the right. There is such tension in this shot—it feels menacing, and one might wonder if the scene attracted Schaal because of experiences from his childhood.
Schaal carried a camera for most of his life. It’s such a shame he wasn’t able to see this show, a loving tribute to a gifted observer.
“Observations Worth Remembering: Hans Schaal” at the Chicago Center for Photojournalism, 1226 West Wilson, on view through January 19, 2024.