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New Charles Chamblis photo exhibit at the MNHS time travels back to another era

by Andrea Swensson

April 25, 2014

To many he was known simply as “the Pictureman,” an avid showgoer, observer, and photographer who never left the house without a camera in hand. Charles Chamblis spent much of his life documenting the simple moments—kids gathering at Lake Calhoun on a hot summer day, a woman and her child pausing for a quiet moment of reflection while out on a walk—but he also had an obvious passion for music and a talent for being in the right place at the right time.

In one of Chamblis’s most unintentionally iconic photographs, a well-coiffed couple strides down the runway at a fashion show—but if you look closer at the background of the photo, you can spot Prince and some of his high school pals playing one of their first ever gigs.

“That’s so like Charles,” says Minnesota Historical Society exhibit developer Ben Petry. “He was everywhere.”

Collection I.368.127

Other photos capture influential early funk and soul bands like the Valdons, Haze, Maurice McKinnies, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s first group Flyte Time. In some of the photos the musicians look straight into the camera, smiling knowingly at Chamblis as he shoots away.

Born in 1927, “[Chamblis] moved here in the ‘50s and got married to [his wife], Jeannette," Petry says. "And he decided when he got that first Polaroid camera that he was going to be a photographer. And he was an artist, too, he liked to draw pictures. He was a collector; he collected not only cameras but other things. And he loved people. He was a people person.”

Chamblis kept meeting new people and kept photographing the African-American community for decades—all the way up until 1988, just three years before he passed away of a rare blood disorder. In 2001 his daughter, Reva, donated his entire body of work to the MNHS, and Ben Petry had the daunting task of whittling over 2,200 of Chamblis’s images down to the 60-odd photos for the exhibit that’s opening this weekend.

“That was a challenge,” Petry says, laughing. “It’s just an amazing collection, like a snapshot of time from the ‘60s to ‘80s.” And although the entire exhibit only takes up one small room of the museum, each wall has been painstakingly laid out to maximize each photo’s story and each era’s most memorable moments.

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Larry "Spider" J. Hamilton at the Fox Trap in Minneapolis (Photo courtesy MNHS)

Petry says that many of the photos in collection were unlabeled, so a large part of his job as curator was tracking down the people in the photos, figuring out which bands were in which shots, and interviewing the photo subjects to get detailed backstories on where and when the photos were taken. Because of Petry’s extraordinary research, nearly every photo is accompanied by an in-depth story or bio; if you go, be sure to carve out enough time to read each placard and study each photo.

In addition to an impressive array of music photos, the exhibit also includes a jacket that Prince wore as a teenager and his iconic purple suit from Purple Rain, plus posters and other memorabilia from the era. And other walls in the exhibit feature everything from candid shots of kids playing at the lake to television personalities, football players, and other recognizable faces from the black community.

“People just called him the Pictureman,” Petry says, smiling. “I don’t know if there was a whole lot of competition, but people really loved him. David Eiland from Flyte Time said it best. He said, ‘You know, Charles was always all up in our face, and I couldn’t stand him! But now I think he’s the greatest guy that ever lived. He was documenting our time.’”

Sights, Sounds and Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis opens this Saturday, April 26, and runs through January 4, 2015. More info is on the MNHS site.


Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.