The maverick behind the camera | Feature | Chicago Reader

The maverick behind the camera 

African-American photojournalist Dorrell Creightney and his work have faded into memory—until now.

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Diana Ross - DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Diana Ross
  • Dorrell Creightney

Between the 1960s and the mid-1980s photojournalist Dorrell Creightney made pictures of Chicago street scenes, products for ads, beautiful models, everyday people, and musicians including jazz legends John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie.

One of the few things known about the man is that in 1969 he opened the first black-owned commercial photography studio in Chicago.

Dorrell Creightney Photography was at 29 W. Hubbard, in the gritty shadow of the old Sun-Times building. He once took a picture of the bargelike structure, now replaced by Trump Tower, from the roof of his studio.

Creightney was a native of Kingston, Jamaica, who came to the city in 1954 with his family when he was 18 years old. He died in January 2011 after a short battle with cancer.

He left behind between 300,000 and 500,000 images of his work.

Aretha Franklin - DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Dorrell Creightney

Over the past several years, his daughters, Vanessa Stokes and Samantha Creightney, have pored over boxes and boxes of their father's photos. There are countless large-format and midsize black-and-white prints, color 35-mm negatives, 120-mm negatives, and color slides. The collection has been stored in the basement of the Austin home Samantha shares with her mother, Maxine. But the family is hopeful that their efforts will now raise his profile.

"In the world of black photography in Chicago at the time, my dad was pretty well-known," says Stokes, who lives in Garfield Park. "But outside of that, not many people knew who he was."

Samantha Creightney recalls that her father used to hang out at Central Camera, a family-owned shop that's still extant at 230 S. Wabash. And both daughters say their father also owned a photography studio at 429 W. Superior at some point, though they haven't uncovered much more about that. But Stokes says that Floyd Webb, the founder of Chicago's Blacklight International Film Festival, "told us about all the black photographers who apprenticed under [Creightney] because of his studio. He said, 'My uncle was inspired to become a photographer [by him], because he'd never seen a black man own his own business.'"

Howard Simmons, an Ebony photographer from 1968 to 1976 who also became the second African-American photographer to work at the Sun-Times, says, "I'd go to Dorrell's studio because there weren't a lot of black commercial studios at that time. But I never got to know him well. He was kind of a maverick."

Even Creightney's daughter Vanessa says, "He was kind of a recluse."

Longtime Chicago commercial photographer Tom Zamiar begs to differ. He says he met Creightney on Hubbard Street one winter day in 1969 and that they remained friends until his death. "Recluse?" Zamiar asked. "He wasn't a recluse. Dorrell was everywhere. You're in photography, you have to be a recluse in some aspect. But you gotta run with the pack to get the jobs. Art directors weren't looking for recluses."

John Coltrane - DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • John Coltrane
  • Dorrell Creightney
Jimi Hendrix - DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Dorrell Creightney

Zamiar is white, Creightney was black, but "we weren't worried about each other like that," Zamiar says. Creightney even let him move into his studio when Zamiar's own burned down. "He was always there to console and lift me up," says Zamiar. "I loved him like a brother. It broke my heart when he died."

Creightney retired from photography in 1983 and put his work into hundreds of plain boxes. Some images went to the basement of the family's Lakeview home, while others went into storage. "I was in my early 20s and we went to the basement," Stokes recalls. "Dad said, 'I got pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Supremes.' He pulled all this stuff out and I was like, 'Wow!' He said, 'What am I supposed to do with it?' He just blew it off."

Some of the pictures have historical significance. Creightney shot Hendrix playing a white Gibson guitar in Stockholm during the guitarist's final European tour before his death in 1970. "Hendrix aficionados have never seen a picture of him with a Gibson," Stokes says—Hendrix was known for playing a Fender Stratocaster.

Dorrell Creightney - DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Dorrell Creightney
  • Dorrell Creightney

Among the stockpiles are photos of Aretha Franklin in concert in Stockholm and negatives of the English model Twiggy. There are pictures of Oscar Brown Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Bob Marley at the Uptown Theatre. The daughters have been told there are pictures of Muddy Waters, but they have yet to discover those.

Creightney also shot ads for Tom Burrell, who ran Burrell Communications, the niche agency for African-American advertising. Creightney's photos ran in Ebony and Jet, and included pictures of products made by the magazines' owner, John H. Johnson.

"We had all the black hair products in the house," says Stokes. "He'd bring [the magazine] home and we'd see it—'Dad took that picture!' "

In his earlier years Creightney was a friend of Chester Sheard, a Milwaukee-based photographer for the Chicago Defender, Ebony, and Downbeat who also took the photo on the cover of the iconic album B.B. King Live at the Cook County Jail. Sheard even served as the Creightneys' wedding photographer. Stokes says that he and her father used to go together to take photographs at Chicago clubs like the Plugged Nickel in Old Town: "Chester said how they took pictures of Miles Davis but that Miles wouldn't let them get near him. They got close enough."

DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Dorrell Creightney

Creightney's friend Floyd Webb recalls, "I met Dorrell in 1972. I was working for a commercial studio that did catalogs. There was an increase in black agencies after the riots of 1967 and 1968. Those long, hot summers generated the desire to put advertising in these people's hands. And John Johnson's Ebony was the biggest black magazine in the country. They handled more advertising than any other black magazine."

At the time Webb was shooting for the agency Photography Unlimited, owned by former Chicago Bears running back Don Shy. "Suddenly the place turned into a party joint," Webb says. "The Bulls on Thursday night, the Bears on Friday night." So he quit Photography Unlimited and went to work for Dorrell, who ran a more professional operation.

"My best time in photography was working for Dorrell," Webb says.

Dorrell Creightney's father, Vivian Creightney, was a butler and his mother, Victoria Lee, was a maid for a family in south-suburban Harvey. Growing up, Stokes says, her father did "odd jobs like cleaning out churches and synagogues. Then he got a job as a window dresser at a department store. He was inspired by the photography in fashion magazines."

In fact, in 1964 Creightney had moved to Stockholm to learn about photography. That's where, armed with Hasselblad and Leica cameras, he took shots of some of his most recognizable subjects, like Janis Joplin and Diana Ross and the Supremes. When he returned to the States he met his future wife, Maxine, in a south-side lounge. The couple married in 1967 and moved back to Europe, but Maxine missed home and convinced Dorrell to return. "He would say, 'Why did we even come back?,'" says Stokes. "He didn't want to."

DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Dorrell Creightney
DORRELL CREIGHTNEY
  • Dorrell Creightney

Dorrell and Maxine Creightney settled in the Austin neighborhood around 2003. "At that point, I think he was just done," Stokes says. Her father was diagnosed with cancer in autumn 2009, after a trip to Peru. "One of his friends started an eco village" there, Stokes says. "He went there twice," she smiles at her sister Samantha. "You know he did ayahuasca"—a hallucinogen—"while he was there?"

Now Creightney's daughters are slowly returning their father's work to Chicago's streets. Seventeen of their father's pictures of African-American life in Chicago were installed late last year at the Austin and Central stops on the CTA Green Line and at the Kinzie/Laramie stop on the Union Pacific West Metra Line viaduct. Local artist and designer Keith Brownlee custom-framed the eight-feet-by-five-feet images and designed the layout. And in conjunction with the Chicago Park District, neighborhood youth will be curating a show of Creightney's work for an exhibit slated to go up in October at the Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake.

When Creightney "was on his deathbed in the hospital hooked up to everything, one of the last things he said was, 'Make sure you give those negatives to your mother,' " says Stokes. "He knew what he had."   v

Correction: This text has been amended to correctly reflect the name of the artist and designer behind last year's installations of Creightney's photos. It is Keith, not Kevin, Brownlee. We regret the error.

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