Jon Lowenstein has been documenting life on the South Side for 15 years, many times through the lens of a Polaroid camera. The only thing that’s changed is the number of people who see his work.
The 44-year-old South Shore photographer has built a hefty following on Instagram, which he has used since 2011 and equates to a modern version of the instant film he once preferred for capturing everyday life in his neighborhood.
“I’ve been trying to find the space between the post-industrial meltdown and the gentrification -- when the Starbucks comes in,” he said. “What’s happening on the South Side is a lot of what’s happening in different parts of the country, and even the world recently. There’s a concerted interest in that land by people who have more money and power.”
One photo at a time, Lowenstein tells the story of South Shore and beyond to his more than 37,000 followers, and says he hopes to spark a global conversation about a part of the city that goes largely overlooked. While documenting violence -- as seen in haunting black-and-white stills of handguns used in shootings -- he also captures everyday life on the sidewalks and the abandoned properties that line them.
“I hate this idea that the South Side is a space of unending violence,” Lowenstein said. “I want to show more of the space. There’s such street life on the South Side, that’s where a lot of things play out.”
He’s particularly fascinated by the destruction and demolition of historic buildings in the neighborhood, he said. He spent time in the past month documenting the piece-by-piece deconstruction of the abandoned St. Laurence Church, a process that “breaks my heart.”
In many ways, Lowenstein said, Instagram has made it even easier to connect with his subjects. Large cameras and lenses tend to intimidate when he’s out shooting, but, as he found with the Polaroid format, there is a familiarity that make his images more natural.
“I think its almost easier to photograph than it used to be,” he said. “When I first started in the neighborhood, a camera is something a lot of people didn’t have. Maybe their parents or the grandparents had one. But now everybody has a camera in their hand. Everyone is telling their own neighborhood stories. It’s part of communicating with the world.”
Lowenstein began photographing the area in large part because of CITY 2000, a collaboration with UIC. The exhibition sent 200 photographers around the city to create a lasting record of Chicago at the turn of the millennium. Since, much of Lowenstein’s work has focused on the South Side, where he also has taught photography to elementary-school students and contributed to a variety of special projects. The process is the same as the days he carried a Polaroid, but the conversation is broader.
“I’ve been able to amplify what I have done,” he said, “take a whole new tack on a project that was pretty much analog. I get people from all over the world looking at the feed and interacting with the space.”
This summer, Lowenstein plans to continue capturing his neighborhood as he joins 15 other photographers in See Potential Chicago, a project that aims to create large-scale photo installations in the area that document grassroots efforts.
“What I don’t see in Chicago is a will to build multi-class communities that can live side-by-side,” he said, adding he senses fear on the South Side of change that will force residents out. “I don’t know what the answer is, but with Instagram, I want to have a conversation on a local, national and global level. It’s one of the places you can do that and curate it yourself."
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