Chicago photographer Mickey Pallas (1916–1997) once said, "I never took a picture I wasn't paid for." Although the motivation for his work may have been to satisfy the immediate needs of his commercial clients, Pallas's memorable images of 1950s America– hula hoopers, picket lines, black church groups, gas station attendants, and stars the likes of Eartha Kitt, Jerry Lewis, and Bill Haley – have proved enduring.
Born in Belvidere, Illinois, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Mickey Pallas’s impoverished childhood in Chicago altered the course of his life. His family’s severe poverty led to Pallas moving into an orphanage where he made lifelong friends and learned to take pictures. After graduating high school in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Pallas explored a range of occupations: he drove a truck for Manischewitz, sold insurance, ran a dry cleaning store, worked the assembly line for Studebaker, (where he chaired the Anti-Discrimination League of the United Auto Workers) and, in his spare time, led a band, "Mickey Pallas and His International Famous Orchestra."
Pallas began his career as a photographer in the mid-1940s, and his early work includes subjects typical of a novice– babies, weddings and bar mitzvahs. Yet these images reveal the respectful approach that became a trademark in Pallas's work. Before long, he counted Ebony, Playboy, and Sepia magazines, ABC-TV (most notably Studs Terkel’s “Studs’ Place” and “The Morris B. Sachs Amateur Hour”), Standard Oil, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Harlem Globetrotters among his clients. Regardless of the subject, his images expressed America’s post-World War II optimism.
In 1959, displeased with the quality of local photographic processing, Pallas founded Gamma Photo Lab, Inc. What began as a two-man operation quickly grew to 125 employees, becoming one of the largest labs in the country. When Pallas sold Gamma to the Weiman Company in 1972, he earned a healthy profit.
Pallas opened the Center for Photographic Arts in 1973. Inspired by a lifelong dream, the Center was intended to support the Chicago photography community, housing galleries, a bookstore, darkrooms, and a research library. Despite good publicity, and sterling intentions, Pallas suffered huge losses and closed the Center after less than a year. During the 1970s, he opened two more galleries, but neither proved successful.
In 1979, Pallas hired Janet Ginsburg to help organize the huge collection of photographs he had created. Ginsburg felt his work deserved exposure as fine art and in 1986 co-curated, (with Kenneth Burkhart of the Chicago Office of Fine Arts) Mickey Pallas: Photographs 1945-1960, the first retrospective of Pallas’s work. Pallas continued to photograph until his death in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1997.
Today, Pallas's images provide unique documentation of a vibrant historical period, and wryly remind us of our own follies and foibles. The Mickey Pallas collection contains nearly 100 fine prints, and the archive includes: an estimated 250,000 negatives; 8,000 contact sheets from 1945 to 1980; correspondence; biographical information; exhibition announcements; publications; and other materials documenting his life and career.