A sample of reviews of Abramson's books and exhibitions.
Light: On the South Side (review: Dusted Magazine)
Housed today in major museum collections, these images are the result of an obsession by Michael L. Abramson, then a skinny white 23-year-old living in Evanston. In a brief essay in the back of the book, Abramson writes of his persistence and the acceptance he gained as an outsider, but the claim is redundant; the images demonstrate it. Many of Abramson’s black-and-white snaps are candid – the half-closed lids and ecstatically rolled eyes of couples dancing cheek-to-cheek, bar money squeezed into the palms of patrons waylaid on the dance floor – but just as many document seized opportunities to pose. At Pepper’s, where Abramson describes the scene as “menthol, bourbon, and the blues,” such subjects include middle-aged sisters in feathered caps, flashing identically gapped smiles. At Perv’s house – where it was “Donna Summer and gold lamé” – it means burlesque dancers in pasties and young men in cocked fedoras, posing with boxes of Pimp Oil (one of Simmons’ countless side ventures).
...These are terrific cuts, with solid production values... an ideal soundtrack to a slow tour of the photos. Abramson’s images help to repurpose Pepper’s Jukebox, the two-LP compilation. Instead of purported treasure for skeptics to reject using their Chess-issued rubrics, this music serves as a vehicle, transporting the listener to a boozy Tuesday night in a time and place it’s fun to fantasize about...
Workmanlike is too much of a pejorative, but that’s the quality that makes this set special, however paradoxical that sounds. At Pepper’s it was “Every Night Like New Year Eve” – not just select Saturdays. “I shot five or six nights a week,” Abramson writes in his essay; Bobby Rush (“Sitting in a car and the car won’t go / That’s the way you spell Chicago”) and Willie Davis (“Every day and every night when I come home / I wake up my darling and fight”) sound like they delivered (and lived) these songs just as often. Flipping pages and LP-sides, it’s that tension between “Every Night” and “New Year Eve” that resonates: one woman sits alone at a table full of empty glasses and a crushed pack of Salem’s, maybe thinking about work in the morning. Another is decked out in pounds of jewelry, an hour’s worth of makeup, and nothing to hide her midriff, looking like tomorrow is the last thing on her mind. The doors would close at two, and then for good, but this set throws them joyfully back open. As second chances go, this one’s pretty irresistible.
By Nathan Hogan
Michael Abramson: Pulse of the Night // Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2015)
None of the 36 black-and-white photos that make up Michael Abramson's first solo show in Chicago come with captions or any identifying information—if you weren't "the woman on the right" or a regular at south-side clubs such as Pepper's House or Perv's House in the mid-70s, chances are these images will be a total mystery. Abramson, who passed away at 62 in 2011, didn't even name his photographs.
The absence of a backstory makes it easier to get lost in Abramson's lively images. "We wanted ones that showed the energy of the nightclubs," says Abramson's longtime partner, Midge Wilson, who helped curate "Pulse of the Night." The energy is there; it's in Abramson's unconventional framing, which occasionally sits at a slight angle that accentuates the spontaneity of many moments he captures; it's in the crumpled cigarette packs, half-drunken glasses of booze, and worn-down furniture that fills the background of some shots; and it's in the intimate shots of clubgoers relaxing on benches or getting lost in a song on the dance floor.
Abramson printed all but two of the photos back in the 70s—Numero Group published most of them in 2009's Light: On the South Side, which packaged a hardbound book of Abramson's work along with a double-LP compilation of blues tunes that filled south-side jukeboxes during that time. Six of the photos weren't included in Light: On the South Side, and according to cocurator and archivist Kristin Basta, they've never been seen publicly either.
"Pulse of the Night" is spread throughout the second floor of Columbia College Chicago's library. It's an unusual space for a gallery show, but it's kind of fitting; Abramson documented people as they lived, and rather than quarantining his work in a gallery this show is on display in a building that's an integral part of college life.
Chicago Reader / Leor Galil
Abramson’s black-and-white photographs of South Side Chicago nightclub life during the 1970s are printed with luscious sharpness in this handsome volume, and what intimate portraits and tableaux he captured. From New Jersey, Abramson was white and a rare sight in these African American neighborhood joints, but his eloquently composed photographs are clearly the fruits of mutual warmth and trust. He traveled the world for Time, Newsweek, and Forbes, while in Chicago he sought to emulate Brassaï’s Parisian night photographs in his expressions of tender regard for men and women looking their best and seeking to dance away stress and strain. This is a time capsule—the Afros, the platform shoes—but also a gathering of timeless pictures of the perpetual negotiations between men and women, of vulnerability, lust, delight, hope, and resignation. The profound resonance of Abramson’s photographs is richly amplified in the accompanying poems by award-winning African American poet Patricia Smith (Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, 2012). A Guggenheim fellow who grew up in Chicago, Smith knows the scene; she hears the music, and she writes to the beat, articulating with sensitivity, wit, and sting the inner world of Abramson’s dancers, players, and watchers, creating irresistibly supple, sexy, empathic, and knowing lyrics. A supremely arresting and affecting match of potent images and singing words.
— Donna Seaman