About Robert Natkin
Bob Natkin was one of those rare individuals who felt at ease wherever he happened to be. As a photographer, this gave him the ability to create images from the comfortable perspective of an insider. Not only did his pictures convey a personal connection with his subjects, they also allowed viewers of his work a chance to share the intimacy.
As a perennial insider, Bob Natkin was the ideal guide to the post World War II era in which he lived and worked. It was especially fortunate that his principal base of operations was his hometown of Chicago- a city that was in a tumultuous period of transitions.
Throughout his career, Natkin was a photographic chronicler of fading aspects of urban life- subjects that most people took for granted, or ignored altogether. In his presence, timeworn buildings and neighborhoods revealed the layers of their past, and the realities of their present.
Even more revealing were his photographs of people. Each Image gives the impression that Natkin personally knew his subject, unobtrusively recording poignant moments in their lives. And in fact, seldom did Bob photograph a person without spending time getting to know them first, so that they were completely at ease before the camera ever came out of the case.
The comfortable informality of Natkin’s approach makes an interesting counterpoint to the sophisticated beauty and composition of the images themselves. Largely self-taught in photography, Natkin nevertheless gave himself a rigorous education in the subject, insatiably learning all he could from books, exhibits and other practitioners. Personal trial and error experimentation was also a major element of his photographic education. Natkin was the consummate tinkerer and improviser, often achieving exceptional results from unlikely sources.
Resourcefulness of this type is not surprising for somebody who grew up in a struggling family during the lean years of the Great Depression. Robert Natkin was born in Chicago to a Russian Immigrant family on April 23rd, 1919, initially residing on Chicago’s West Side. Around the time Bob was ready to enter high school, the family moved to Albany Park, a multi-cultural neighborhood northwest of downtown Chicago.
While attending Von Stueben High School, Bob acquired an interest in photography, enlisting the basement of a friend’s house as his first darkroom. From his summertime employment as a camp counselor in Eagle River, Wisconsin, he began to study and photograph nature. It was a passion that continued throughout his life.
A strong interest in science led Natkin to pursue a career in medicine, taking pre-med classes at Wright Junior College and later at the University of Illinois, until financial hardships of the post-depression years forced him to discontinue his studies. Drafted into the military in 1941, Natkin’s pre-med training resulted in his being assigned to the Medical Corps.
Photography intervened in Natkin’s military career after an officer observed him taking nature photographs in his off-hours. He was reassigned as an Air Force gunner photographer, accompanying bombing squadrons to document the effectiveness of their strikes. He received the Purple Heart after being wounded on his forty ninth mission, but completed his fiftieth before returning from the war in early 1945.
Upon his return to civilian life, Natkin chose to become a professional photographer rather than resume his medical studies. Like many young photographers in the early stages of their careers, Natkin accepted the usual commissions for weddings and portraits while he pursued contracts that would lead to more rewarding commercial projects. He soon secured a position with Photo Ideas, a photography based publicity agency in downtown Chicago which offered opportunities for magazine work and journalism-related assignments- a precursor to what would constitute much of his later creative output.
An unusual commission came to Natkin in 1948, when the Mexican Tourism Bureau sent him on a border-to-border automobile journey capturing images suitable for promoting tourism. Bob was especially attracted to small villages and out of the way places where he was able to create candid images of people and everyday life far beyond the path of the average tourist. Typical of Natkin’s easy-going approach, subjects seldom seem self conscious of the camera’s presence. The images reveal glimpses of everyday activities not often seen in tourism promotions, such as a woman casually enjoying a drink, or people waiting in a bus depot. Although strikingly beautiful in composition and content, the confidential candor of Natkin’s images were not always what the Mexican Tourism Bureau had in mind. Nevertheless, the series has survived as some of Natkin’s best work, in intimate portrait of Mexico in the late 1940’s.
Striking off on his own, Bob Natkin’s growing reputation as a skilled photographer with a socialogist’s sensibility made him perfect for the thriving field of magazine photojournalism in the early 1950’s. Often working on assignment for such prestigious photo agencies as Pix and Black Star, Natkin’s work began to appear regularly in the pages of major national magazines.
Subjects included everything from covering the delegates attending the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago to the drama of the City’s narcotic courts. Publicity assignments included included documenting Chicago’s pioneering efforts in the commercial television industry, creating revealing images of suce early notables as Dave Garraway and Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Other major clients from this period were John H. Johnson’s early Chicago-based African-American publications Ebony and Jet, which ran numerous Natkin images in the early 1950’s. Natkin’s contact came from noted editor Ben Burns, who helped guide both publications in their early years.
Bob Natkin’s contacts with the publicity director for the Chicago Housing Authority led to a commission in the early 1950’s to document slum housing in the city, as well as to create publicity images of newly completed public housing projects. The images of the south side slums on the future site of the Robert Taylor Homes housing project are among the most powerful in Natkin’s portfolio. He recorded the deteriorating exteriors of the old wood cottages of Chicago’s Near South Side, and went inside to document the environments of the families who lived there.
At a time when Bob Natkin’s career in photography was thriving, he began planning a major change in his life and profession. Married to Judy Lewis (also a photographer) in 1949, the family soon expanded with the birth of two sons, Paul and William. Seeking to build a home for his family, Bob Natkin purchased a lot in West Rogers Park, and taught himself how to act as his own general contractor for it’s construction.
The successful outcome of this project soon led to other construction projects. By the mid 1950’s, Bob Natkin virtually abandoned his career in photography to concentrate on his new profession as a general contractor for the construction of homes and commercial buildings.
He became a passionate advocate of solar energy and in the late 1980’s, with son William, built the first all solar heated home in Chicago. William has followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an electrician and builder.
It proved to be nearly fifteen years before Bob would resume his career in photography, motivated in part by the slowing of the economy in the early 1970’s, and the decline of the construction business. Bob was undaunted as he revived his old commercial photography business, rapidly returning to where he had left off years earlier.
He re-established his contact with former Ebony editor Ben Burns, and began to provide images for Sepia, another periodical targeted for African-American markets. Another old friend and contact, legendary publicist Ben Bentley, secured him the position as the photographer for the Chicago Bulls. Bob enjoyed having a job where he could take photographs while getting in to see the games for free. His son Paul, who has gone on to his own distinguished career in photography, often accompanied him.
Covering events in Chicago’s African-American community for Sepia during the early 1970’s, Natkin became increasingly interested in returning to the South Side housing projects he had documented for the Chicago Housing Authority years earlier. It was the start of a major photographic documentation of Chicago’s inner city, which he hoped to make into a book in collaboration with a teacher from the University of Illinois.
As he had done throughout his life, Bob moved freely and unselfconsciously through areas that were considered to be some of the most dangerous in the city as he worked on his documentation project. He had an unshakable faith in humanity, and believed that people should be able to go anywhere without fear or hesitation.
Despite that faith, during one of his south side visits in the mid 1970’s, Bob Natkin was robbed of his camera equipment at gunpoint. Although physically uninjured, the incident dissolved Natkin’s drive to complete the inner city documentation project- not, he insisted, because he was afraid, but because something he always believed in had been betrayed.
Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Bob Natkin continued to accept commercial photographic assignments, fully retaining his sharp eye, well honed skills and insider’s perspective. He also partially returned to his contracting business, building several commercial darkrooms and photography studios in Chicago. As a part time instructor at the Darkroom Workshop, he mentored the careers of many young photographers.
Bob Natkin’s final years were spent taking nature photographs near the family vacation home he had built in Eagle River, Wisconsin- the same place where he had taken similar photographs sixty years earlier. He passed away there in September, 1996.