A Young Stanley Kubrick’s Stunning Black and White Photos of 1940s Chicago

Nikola Budanovic
Featured image
Photo by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick falls into the category of one of the most renowned filmmakers ever. His movies were both groundbreaking and controversial. They spawned an army of followers and raised several generations of screenwriters and directors who deem his work as their primary influence.

However, in the 1940s, the future director well-known for his perfectionism and radical approach was just a teenager with big dreams and a small camera.

A man and a woman walking with a porter on the platform next to a railroad passenger car at a train station

 

A wrestler strides toward Gorgeous George who stands near a corner of the ring with his hands on his chest where he had received a blow in the previous maneuver in the wrestling match. Photography by S. Kubrick.

 

African American mother and her four children in their tenement apartment, 1949. Photography by S. Kubrick.

 

Butcher holding slab of beef in a meat locker, 1949. Image from Look photographic assignment ‘Chicago City of Contrasts’ by S. Kubrick.

 

Gorgeous George, American professional wrestler, 1949. Image from Look photographic assignment ‘Chicago City of Contrasts’ by S. Kubrick.

 

Kubrick, age 21, 1949

Stanley Kubrick started out as a 17-year-old photographer’s apprentice at the New York-based Look Magazine, where he soon got the chance to become a full-fledged contributor. He was known for his “slice-of-life” photos which both reflected the squalor and splendor of huge American cities like New York and Chicago.

In 1949, Kubrick was 21 and eager to take on an assignment of creating a photo essay for Look, titled “Chicago – City of Extremes”. The collection of photographs included snapshots of workers, commuters, and butchers, juxtaposed to those of models, professional wrestlers as well as schoolchildren and entire families. The basic concept was to show the citizens of Chicago during their daily work routine, as well as how they spend their nights out.

A large portion of his Chicago photo shoot relied on capturing the frenzy which was going on in and around a wrestling match which featured the legendary Gorgeous George, whose extravagant persona influenced the likes of Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) and James Brown.

Men working the floor at the Chicago Board of Trade. Photography by S. Kubrick.

 

People arriving at the Chicago Theatre for show starring, in person, Jack Carson, Marion Hutton, and Robert Alda, 1949. Image from Look photographic assignment ‘Chicago City of Contrasts’ by S. Kubrick.

 

Smelter in a steel mill, Chicago, Illinois. Photography by S. Kubrick.

 

Stanley Kubrick was a Look magazine photographer when he caught himself in the mirror of Rosemary Williams, a showgirl, in 1949.

 

Steel worker in mill as molten steel spills from vat, in Chicago, Illinois, 1949. Image from Look photographic assignment ‘Chicago City of Contrasts’ by S. Kubrick.

 

Steel worker standing in mill with smelter in the background, in Chicago, Illinois, 1949. Image from Look photographic assignment ‘Chicago City of Contrasts’ by S. Kubrick.

Despite his young age, Kubrick managed to capture the unique atmosphere of the huge hall and the audience which eagerly awaited the trademark dramatic entrance of the wrestler, which included music, spotlights, and a sequined cloak.

Apart from the wrestling night, the future filmmaker extensively documented the daily life of an African-American family of four, living on Chicago’s South Side.

Even though Illinois had some of the most progressive anti-racism laws in the United States, discrimination was still very present. Most of the African-Americans who came to Chicago during what was called the Great Migration settled in the slums, living in crippling poverty and horrible conditions.

Unidentified man standing in front of a ‘Trade’ board on which he records a ‘Market Score’ at the Chicago Board of Trade. Photography by S. Kubrick.

 

Young girl seated at desk in classroom in Chicago, Illinois. Photography by S. Kubrick.

 

Young girl, half-length portrait, standing against wall displaying art work, in classroom in Chicago, Illinois. Photography by S. Kubrick.

This very environment, paired with racially restrictive practices, would turn Martin Luther King to activism just a decade later.

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Kubrick, on the other hand, had no illusions when it came to the poor and their lives. His camera captures the unforgiving face of poverty and the humanity behind it.