In the summer of 1987, funded by a city grant, Rose Blouin set out on a simple but intensive project: to document the people and activities in Washington Park. A self-taught photographer who had picked up the discipline seven years earlier, Blouin visited the park each weekend, taking thousands of black-and-white pictures of everyday life: the Bud Billiken Parade, weddings, children clambering around a futuristic playlot on Bynum Island.
Blouin found the time to process the film and make contact sheets, the miniature prints of the negatives that photographers use to help decide which photos they’ll actually enlarge. But as a single parent with a job teaching English at Columbia College, she never got around to fully exploring the photos, let alone exhibiting them.
She stored the negatives and contact sheets in the basement of her Chatham home. Several years later, it flooded.
“I came home and all the binders, the negatives, the contact sheets all were soaked, they were underwater,” she remembered. “I had to go buy a hair dryer because I didn’t own one. I spent all night trying to dry out the contact sheets, and then I spent six weeks trying to clean and dry out the negatives.”
Blouin learned that she could put the negatives in the microwave for exactly 20 seconds — “not more, not less” — and they would come out clean and dry. With no real damage done, the binders with the negatives and sheets returned to the basement.
They remained there until 2019, when, armed with another city grant and post-retirement free time, Blouin was able to scan the 3,000 negatives and begin labeling and categorizing them. A year or so later, she saw a call for submissions from the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative, which was looking for banner images to decorate the temporary construction fencing for its Arts Lawn, a new outdoor arts venue slated to open this summer.
Blouin’s photos were picked and are currently on display on the fencing along Garfield Boulevard. But the contest also led to “To Washington Park, With Love,” an exhibition of her photographs at the Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield Boulevard, that opened last week.
“I was talking to some of the (Arts + Public Life) staff and said, ‘You know, I have an entire exhibition of this work that’s never been shown,’” she said. “They eventually asked me if they could host an exhibition of this work. I said, ‘Yay, dream achieved.’ So it took a really long time, but here this work is out and it’s being seen, and I think people are really enjoying it.”
The wide-ranging subject matter of Blouin’s photographs reflects her open-spirited approach to the project. “I often didn’t know what would be going on in Washington Park. I would just go there every weekend, take my camera, take my film, take my kids, and I would just shoot whatever was happening,” she said.
In one instance, she photographed a wedding in front of the DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Place. Years later, she unwittingly bumped into the groom.
“I think I may have mentioned I did a project in Washington Park and he said, ‘Yeah, I got married in Washington Park.’ ‘In 1987?’ ‘Yeah.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that was your wedding.’ So that, you know, that was just precious.”
The decision to use black and white photographs came partly because, as a self-taught photographer, Blouin didn’t know how to process color film. But it was also aesthetic. “Even today, you see a lot of people moving back to black and white imagery,” she noted.
Blouin first became interested in photography after taking a cross-country trip to California in the 1970s. In 1980, a friend who worked as a manager at Helix Camera & Video, the long-time photography supply store, sold Blouin her first camera: a Nikon FE 35 millimeter.
Blouin took a couple of classes on photography at Chicago State University, including one on experimental photography that she says had an influence on her work. She also read voraciously.
“I bought books on black and white photography and documentary photography. I just really learned a lot between the process of doing actual shooting and processing, and reading and getting ideas and instruction,” she said. Her influences include famous Black photographers like Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee, as well as the landscape photographer Ansel Adams and, more recently, Vivian Maier.
“To Washington Park, With Love” will run through March 19 at the Arts Incubator. There will be a closing reception, though Blouin isn’t sure what form it will take. “I’ll be doing either an artist talk or a discussion with someone — they haven’t quite decided yet what they want to do. But for sure, I’ll be talking about my art!”
Correction: This story has been edited to correct Blouin's initial funding source and the timeline of her basement flooding.