“I think there was a sense that the American public supported the Labor movement, that there was a rapport between the two. It was part of the whole New Deal, better times, working class prosperity, take care of the lesser of our brothers and sisters, a general sense that there was someplace up to go.”
—Les Orear, labor historian
"This is the Southern Sugar Workers in Reserve, Louisiana. It was a long strike. It was the first strike that this company ever had—and the owners were rather astonished at that. The union president once had an opportunity to speak with the leadership of the company, and the owner said, ‘I don’t understand this. Haven’t we always been good masters?’ One of the demands at that strike was the abolition of separate pay lines. There was a Black line and there was a White line. This was a very big step that we were making."
—Les Orear, labor historian
“... Pallas looks at the photo and says fondly, ‘She was a very pretty little girl. She probably turned into a very pretty woman.’ ... Diane Arbus took pictures like this-—frontal, strobe-lighted scrutinies of impossible dreams—with something darker in mind. But that was later. Mickey Pallas’s pictures were taken before meaning turned back on itself”
—Joanne Trestrail, Chicago magazine
Mary Hartline, one of the stars Super Circus, was the Marilyn Monroe of children's television during the 1950s: a bleached blond knock-out who, quite literally, wore her heart for all to see. Before the production moved to New York, it was filmed in Chicago for several years. Shooting publicity and production photos was one of Mickey's many local bread-and-butter gigs.
— J. A. Ginsburg
Mickey Pallas was a Chicago-based photojournalist active during the 1940s, 50s and early 60s who managed to document an era while hustling to earn a living. For Mickey—everyone called him Mickey—photography was a business, but one particularly well-suited to his adventurous spirit.
Mickey's clients ran the gamut from labor unions to Standard Oil to the Harlem Globetrotters. He photographed burlesque clubs and jazz festivals, covered freak shows and political conventions, and made portraits of celebrities and amateur hour hopefuls. Photography was Mickey’s entrée to people he had never expected to meet and places he never expected to see, especially as a poor kid growing up in an orphanage on city's rough and tumble "Great Vest Side" (pronounced with a thick East European accent).
Mickey was rarely without a camera in hand. In the early days, it was a Graflex, the classic Front Page-style press camera that used sheet film measuring 4 x 5 inches. That was replaced by a twin lens reflex Rollei that used roll film measuring a little over 2 inches square. And finally, the revolutionary 35mm Leica, a camera he adored so much that he also collected them.
When he wasn’t taking pictures, Mickey was in the darkroom or booking his next job. From the late 1930s on, rarely a day went by that Mickey wasn’t making photographs. His professional work tapered off in the early 1960s, though, when he founded Gamma, one of Chicago’s first commercial photographic labs.
I was a college student when I met Mickey, determined to find a summer job as a photographer's assistant, though not having much luck. “Mickey Pallas always has something going on," someone said. Indeed...
I made thousands of contact sheets that summer, slowly organizing a vast archive of negatives that had been stashed in boxes stacked floor to ceiling in a back room of two story brownstone attached to the lab. Each day, through the alchemy of the darkroom, I traveled back in time and saw the world through Mickey's eyes.
Not long before we met, Mickey had suffered a stroke that shredded his short-term memory. Fortunately, for both of us, the glassine negative sleeves were meticulously labeled, providing invaluable clues for me and story-starters for him.
A few times a week, Mickey and I would have lunch together at Club Lago, a family-owned Italian place a couple of blocks from the lab known for serving spectacularly delicious "green noodles and meat sauce." It was a favorite among the photographers whose studios filled the neighborhood's old warehouse buildings. Everybody knew everybody. Mickey would flirt endlessly with the waitresses—one in particular who had been working there for many, many years. He made her feel like a teenager and she clearly adored him. "Didn't we go to different schools together?" he would ask. Over time, I heard many of Mickey’s stories and met many of his friends and colleagues. When he couldn't remember details, I could usually find people he had either worked with or photographed who not only would fill in the blanks, but also usually had a few Mickey stories of their own to share.
Mickey lit up when he talked about his photographic adventures. There was “Standardland,” a mythical place he invented with a writer for Torch, a glossy picture magazine loosely modeled on Life. Basically, it was as far as you could get in a car and a license for endless field trips across the US. Mickey made it to Europe with another client, the Harlem Globetrotters. He traveled for the unions as well, covering, among other things, a strike at sugar packing plant in Louisiana where desegregation of the pay line was among the issues. Mickey also photographed regularly for Ebony magazine, including a story on Eartha Kitt. Mickey loved to tell how people thought Eartha Kitt was his girlfriend, though he was always quick to say it wasn’t true. The mere possibility was a kind of star-kissed triumph.
Mickey's talent for engaging with people is what makes his photographs so compelling. Mickey’s subjects don’t just look at the camera, they are in conversation with the man behind it. The camera just happens to be in the middle.
A few years later, I co-curated a retrospective of Mickey's photographs with Ken Burkhart at the Chicago Cultural Center. Together, we sifted through the thousands of contact sheets that I had printed that summer, eventually whittling down the selection to 160 prints. The show went on to tour several museums and galleries around the country, including a small show at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York.
The Mickey Pallas archive is now at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona.
Time itself has affected what we see in these images: We know how things turned out. We know about the civil rights and women's movements. We know what happened to John and Robert Kennedy. And we know that gas guzzling American cars with fins, however sporty and seductive, faced a dim future, while rock n' roll was here to stay.
These pictures once served as Mickey’s passport. Now they are ours, allowing us to travel back in time to take a closer look at a world, for better and worse, gone by.
(page 2: burkhart essay / slideshows)