Sept. 26, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 1

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    Exhibition shows Lewellyn’s unique view of University from a time long past

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    The great Chicago blizzard of 1967 didn’t immobilize Stephen Lewellyn. When he found that Linda Dolenak and 2nd lieutenant Donald Mots, Jr. intended to continue with their wedding plans, he bundled up in his warmest clothes, borrowed his son’s sled and set off to photograph the event. He is pictured in front of the Lewellyn Studios on 107th Street, Jan. 28, 1967.
    For more than 30 years, photographer Stephen Lewellyn meticulously documented the University of Chicago. By the late 1960s, he had amassed more than 10,000 black-and-white negatives showing every aspect of campus life.

    Last year, Lewellyn completed the donation of his full collection to the Special Collections Research Center in the Joseph Regenstein Library. Through the Lens, a new exhibition in the Special Collections gallery, showcases a small but tantalizing selection of these images.

    Prom at the Shoreland Hotel ballroom
    Many of the photographs reveal a University that has long since disappeared: a world where first-years wear sport coats and ties to an Orientation Week picnic, where prom queens and their escorts waltz across the Shoreland Hotel ballroom. Others, such as the image of the C-bench spread thickly with snow, are as intimately familiar today as when they were shot decades ago.

    Born in Plymouth, Ind., in 1921, Lewellyn came from a family of photographers; both his father and great-uncle had their own studios. “My dad gave me a box camera when I was nine years old, and I liked to take pictures ever since,” said Lewellyn, who lives in Hyde Park and still takes photographs.

    During the summers, he would help his father with his business, photographing such typical small-town subjects as children, families and the interiors of factories.

    Encouraged by a teacher to apply to college, Lewellyn landed a two-year scholarship to the University, where he studied business. To earn extra money, he waited tables in Burton-Judson Hall and, beginning in 1940, hired himself out as a photographer for parties and weddings. Lewellyn also contributed to the Chicago Maroon, the Cap & Gown and other student publications.

    During World War II, however, taking photographs of the campus could be a hazardous business. One winter night in 1942, Lewellyn recalled, he decided to shoot pictures of Kent Chemical Laboratory.

    Students in the Reynolds Club billiards room, Dec. 19, 1952.
    “The lab looked so pretty in the snow,” he said. “I was using a flashbulb for fill-in light. The police saw something flashing, and maybe thought I was setting it on fire or something. They came out and took my camera, and wanted to know what I was doing taking pictures. That was part of the [Fermi] lab, but I didn’t know it.”

    The next year, Lewellyn enlisted in the Army Air Force, where he trained to be a pilot. “It was a popular war. We were all enlisting,” he said. “Everybody wanted to go.” After his plane was shot down, he was held as a prisoner of war for 11 months in Eastern Germany.

    When the war ended, Lewellyn returned to Chicago, completing his degree in 1948. Meanwhile, his wife, Lois, had graduated with a degree in home economics in 1945. Together, they set up a photographic studio on the South Side. “I decided I wouldn’t make a corporate man,” said Lewellyn, despite his education in business. “I wanted to be my own boss. I had learned a lot from my father, working for him over the years.”

    By the 1950s, Lewellyn’s talents had made him the de facto official photographer for the University, a position he held for more than two decades. His work appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine, Tower Topics (formerly an alumni publication) and numerous other University publications.

    University Chancellor Robert Hutchins (far right) signs autographs for students with his wife, Vesta, at his farewell party, Jan. 10, 1951.
    One memorable image captures former University President Robert Hutchins with his wife, Vesta, at a 1951 farewell reception in Ida Noyes Hall. Lewellyn shot Hutchins looking down tenderly at his young wife, and the crush of students waiting patiently for their turn to shake hands and say goodbye. “It was a very emotional moment,” Lewellyn recalled. “Hutchins was charismatic, like a rock star. From what I saw, he went over big with everybody.”

    University Chancellor Robert Hutchins (far right) with his wife, Vesta

    While most of Lewellyn’s portraits are dignified and formal, he also caught a few light-hearted moments. During the 1950s, he recalled, he was assigned to photograph the queen and her court before a dance.

    “One of the girls thought it was just going to be head and shoulders. She hadn’t come prepared for full-length. So she didn’t have slippers, she just had bobby socks and saddle shoes,” he said. “I took a picture of it, and they ran it. She about killed me. She said she was going to shoot me.”

    Lewellyn also photographed hundreds of weddings. One photograph of Lewellyn in the exhibition shows him setting off to shoot a wedding during the great Chicago blizzard of 1967. Undeterred, he grins at the camera as he drags his equipment on a sled borrowed from his young son.

    Robert F. Kennedy (right) visits campus
    Through The Lens: Stephen Lewellyn Photographs of the University of Chicago is on display until Friday, Jan. 10, in the Special Collections Resource Center, in the Joseph Regenstein Library, first floor. Special Collections is open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.