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Lee Balterman, photographer who shot it all, dies at 91

 Lee Balterman legendary Chicago photographer 1996 — Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

Lee Balterman, legendary Chicago photographer in 1996 — Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

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Updated: April 24, 2012 8:11AM

Chicago is both Carny and Cornhusker in the photographs of Lee Balterman.

He shot Rottweileresque roller derby queens at the Chicago Coliseum, and a Carl Sandburg so spectral, he looks as if he might float out of frame.

It’s a postwar Chicago that no longer exists, with the wet, neon-lit pavement of film noir.

At the tavern, he shot barfly romances, and wizened men whose faces are happy with the leer of the soon-to-be drunk.

He used to joke that he was a photographer because he wasn’t good enough to be a professional baseball player. His pictures from ballparks show gladiatorian athletes and hot dog chomping fans exploding in ecstasy at their feats.

Unguarded, intimate and raw, Mr. Balterman’s work makes viewers feel as if they are peeking or eavesdropping — or both.

One of his most heartbreaking images is of a woman kneeling at the bedside of a victim of the horrific 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School. At first glance, it could be a mere image of parental worry. The woman is wearing a good hat — perhaps donned as armor.

But looking over her shoulder, the viewer sees a little girl on a gurney with a sooty nose, a limp, open hand, and eyes that seem to stare at nothing. A tag appears to be attached to her wrist. The accumulation of details conveys unspeakable grief.

The images that Mr. Balterman shot of grieving OLA parents — his first assignment for Life magazine — helped propel a push to revamp the nation’s school fire codes.

He died Friday at age 91 at the Kenwood of Lakeview assisted living facility.

“He didn’t judge his subjects. They could be enjoying the lakefront, or face down in their beer on Clark Street,” said Paul Berlanga, director of Chicago’s Stephen Daiter Gallery, which represents his work.

During a career of more than six decades, Mr. Balterman photographed superstar athletes Muhammad Ali, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams; a young Wellesley-era Hillary Rodham; President Nixon; Yippie Abbie Hoffman; and Isaac Hayes in his “Hot Buttered Soul” heyday.

Mr. Balterman shot in color for his commercial work for Time-Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. He made the cover of Life with his photo of 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and running mate Ed Muskie. He did a compelling Life pictorial on the mother of the last soldier who was killed in Vietnam.

But he shot in black-and-white as he nosed about the city — usually Streeterville — for his own pleasure and the sake of art.

His messy hair, food-stained field vest, shambling walk and propensity for talking in half-sentences made some people think he was drunk. The reality was that an unkempt, curmudgeonly demeanor helped him blend in and take pictures.

“He had thousands of dollars of equipment around his neck,” including a beloved Leica, “but he looked like someone who would be asking you for a handout,” Berlanga said. “That was part of his genius.”

“He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He had very few vices, which is why he made it to 91,” he said.

Still, “He got hit a few times when he would be in these bars taking photographs,” Berlanga said.

“Lee called me from Detroit during the [1960s] riots. Lee was working for Life magazine,” said his friend Dave Phillips, chief of the Chicago Architectural Photographing Co. “All of a sudden, [I hear] ‘Boom.’ I said ‘Lee, where are you?’ He said, ‘a tank just fired.’ ’’

Mr. Balterman attended Lake View High and the School of the Art Institute. In World War II France, he worked as any Army hospital aide, and later, a photographer.

His condo was crammed with cameras, photography materials and negatives drying in the bathroom.

“He was married for a year and a half to a lovely woman back in the 1970s, and it only lasted for a year and a half because his real love was photography,” Berlanga said.

Still, at the end of his life, “she sent him a postcard everyday,’’ Berlanga said.

He was known to write $500 checks — unsolicited — if someone was down on their luck.

He loved the Baked Alaska at the Drake Hotel and teaching people Yiddish. He joked with his Gentile friend Phillips, asking if he knew what the bells at Holy Name Cathedral intone.

“Goyim, goyim,’’ he said.

Mr. Balterman is survived by a niece and nephew. Services are being planned.

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