Roundhouse worker William London is a sight: raccoon eyes, thanks to the goggles he had been wearing; soot on his face, thanks to his job amid coal-burning trains; and a freshly lit cigarette burning in his mouth.
London's is one of the striking portraits of working men — and a few women — that are among the standout images of the new Chicago History Museum exhibition "Railroaders: Jack Delano's Homefront Photography."
The photos were commissioned by Delano's bosses at the federal Office of War Information who wanted a study of the domestic railroad industry during World War II. From late 1942 to early 1943, the Ukrainian-born photographer, raised in Philadelphia, shot 3,000 images, two-thirds of them in Chicago, the nation's railroad hub.
There is a documentary quality to these photos, to be sure. The gritty Illinois Central downtown freight yard, hard by Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building, speaks of a Chicago before Michigan Avenue was prettified and made over into an open-air shopping mall. Delano's Union Station concourse pulses with life and with patriotic fervor. And the photographer's scenes of a railroad man's family life involving train conductor Daniel Sinise, the grandfather of actor Gary Sinise, offer "Leave It to Beaver" images of the actor's father, Bob — as a boy off on his newspaper route or slipping scraps to the family dog.
But as much as it conveys what things were like, what really comes through in this show are more timeless qualities. The dignity of hard labor and the human capacity to endure difficult conditions for a paycheck, or for a greater purpose, are cliches, perhaps, but not in this telling.
"They really speak to this notion of Chicago as being a working person's town, and they do so very poignantly," said Joy Bivins, curator of the show for the museum, presenting it in partnership with the Madison, Wis.-based Center for Railroad Photography and Art.
The museum added some nice touches. A railroad car setting with sound effects shows passing scenery in the "window." A wooden train set is for kids, yes, but it is clearly labeled to demonstrate the principles of a rail yard.
None of the added material — which includes photos of some of the workers' descendants shot by the photographer's son Pablo Delano — takes the focus from the original photos, however.
Delano has some stunning landscapes. An overview of the massive Proviso Yard of the Chicago & North Western Railway, between Melrose Park and Elmhurst, could be an impressionist canvas. His color photos — relatively early for the medium — are all the more vivid for their well-placed daubs of brightness in a largely uncolorful environment.
He shot some of the railroad executives, contented men behind their desks, but these photos feel pro forma. It's the portraits of the men working on the railroad cars or in the yards that really seem to inspire the photographer, and it is these shots, at once intimate and iconic, formal portraits snapped during a casual few minutes off, that stick in the mind.
A cigarette dangling from a face that looks charred. A pair of goggles on the forehead of a man who might as well be posing for a statue about resilience. The near-smirk on the female worker as she stares directly at the camera, daring you to say something other than a thank you for keeping the trains rolling.
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'Railroaders: Jack Delano's Homefront Photography'
When: April 5 to Aug. 10, 2015
Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark Street.
Tickets: Included in general admission, $12-$14; free ages 12 and under.