Michael Abramson, a photographer who spent much of his career in exotic climes and photographing well-known people but who gained his greatest fame and personal satisfaction from photos he shot of nightlife on Chicago’s South Side during the 1970s, has died. He was 62.
Abramson died March 21 at his Chicago home of kidney cancer.
“Michael had an insatiable curiosity about people,” said his longtime companion, Midge Wilson, an associate dean at Chicago’s DePaul University. “He exhibited a sincere interest in individuals — their histories, their passions, what makes them tick. His insightful portraits, whether of celebrities or everyday people, bring them alive.”
A commercial portrait photographer and photojournalist, Abramson followed his work to Indonesia, France, Cuba, Argentina, Greece, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico. His subjects included Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan. His photographs were featured in a variety of publications.
Abramson was born Oct. 11, 1948, in Newark, N.J. He grew up in South Orange, N.J., and graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970.
While working in the financial industry in Boston, Abramson took a photography class and decided, as he said, “to throw the dice.” He moved to Chicago in 1974 to study photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he received a master’s in design in 1977.
During that time he began to wander the city’s South Side.
“The camera gave me a tool to justify my going anywhere,” he told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 2008. Abramson hit all the hot clubs such as Pepper’s Hide Out. He focused not on the performers but instead on the exuberance of the scene and the flashy attire of the crowds.
As a white man in a predominantly African American scene, he never felt apart.
“I was never fearful,” he said. “I did not give the race thing much thought. I didn’t have to.” He made what would prove to be lasting friendships. Blues great Lonnie Brooks dubbed him “The Picture Man.”
Photos from that time became the basis of a Chicago Tribune magazine cover story in 2008, which led to the 2009 book “Light: On the South Side.”
The book has nearly 100 of the thousands of photos Abramson shot, and it is accompanied by two albums of music of the era. “Like a good novelist, Abramson is particularly attuned to relationships and how to frame them,” British writer Nick Hornby wrote in an introductory essay.
“Getting the book out and having his photos of that time published meant more to him than words could ever express,” Wilson said. “He knew he had kidney cancer and that the clock was ticking on his time left here on Earth.”
Abramson said in 2008: “I realize I have been to every part of the planet.... But I have never been as far away as I was when I was on the South Side of Chicago. Not because it was exotic, in the misused sense of that word, but because it was so exhilarating.”
In addition to Wilson, Abramson is survived by his mother, Ethel; a sister, Leslie; and a brother, Richard.