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John H. White a forgotten legend

Image: Source UNK

“Take pictures with the camera of your heart.”

“I’m faithful to my purpose, my mission, my assignment, my work, my dreams. I stay focused on what I’m doing and what’s important. And I keep in flight—I spread my wings and do it.”

Chicago is a city of hard work and hard-working people, blue and white collar, past and present. Time is money. Money is time. Chicago artists are known for their hard work, prolific output, and search for excellence. The list of legendary artists is long. Some are still producing prodigious output.

I am working on a future photo project. While doing some research, I came across the great Chicago photographer, John H. White.

John H. White is a Chicago journalism legend. He was a United States Marine Corps photographer, receiving many awards for his work, and reaching the rank of sergeant. He started work at the former Chicago Daily News and moved to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978. In 1973-74, the Environmental Protection Agency asked Mr. White to photograph Chicago’s African American life for its DOCUMERICA project.

Mr. White was selected as one of fifty African American photographers for the book, “Songs of My People,” documenting African American life. Mr. White taught at Northwestern and Columbia College. John H. White received over 300 awards during his long career, including the Pulitzer Prize for Photojournalism in 1982 for consistent excellence in a wide range of topics.

He won three National Headliner Awards, was awarded the Chicago Press Photographer Association Photographer of the Year five times and was the first photographer inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. Mr. White also received the Chicago Medal of Merit.

Photography for me is a daily love affair with life; it puts me in touch with the heartbeat of humanity. Through my photographs, I’m able to speak a universal language every human understands, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. My work in photography is like the sun, moon, air, or water—I’m part of everything, and I strive to keep my photography not only on the same page in the lives of others, but also on the same line.” (John H. White/Adorama 42 West)

Mr. White is an artist, teacher, mentor, deeply spiritual man, and one of the nicest people in the news business you will ever meet. I met Mr. White at a photography seminar some years back. We discussed the reportage of violence in Chicago. His lecture was informative, but you could feel there was an element of love in what he was saying. He is a man who truly loves his craft.

After 35 years, the Chicago Sun-Times saw fit to reward John H. White’s career by laying him off with all their other photographers. Chicago journalism started its death knell that day. It is now almost dead as a profession. There are few true journalists and photojournalists left in this city that is starved for true honest and accurate news.

“It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photojournalism,” White says. “I never heard the two words, ‘thank you,’ that day. I never heard that. I didn’t need to hear it, but… it saddens me.”

Mr. White has something missing in too many people, artists, and non-artists alike. Mr. White has a work ethic, faith, and class. They are part and parcel of his moral code.

Another famous photographer, Gordon Parks, described freedom as, “Not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination, and then making the new horizons.” 

John H. White had no boundaries and always made new horizons. After a few exhibitions, Mr. White disappeared and is forgotten except by those who know him or remember his work. That is also the Chicago Way. Once you are gone from the picture, you are gone forever. John H. White should not be forgotten.

“I like to think that all of creation had a role in designing this life path for me. I think God had a moment of concern about our hearts and made all these wonderful things. He must have said, ‘How can I get a child in Chicago or Cambodia to see Saratoga Falls,’ so he created photography and gave me the assignment to be a picture taking man… I feel like I’m fulfilling my destiny when I’m out there in the midst of life, the fleeting moments of life, and I see and feel all the elements like light working toward something transcendent.” (John H. White/Adorama 42 West)

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