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Michael James' 'Pictures From the Long Haul' Capture Obama, Cabrini Green

By Benjamin Woodard | January 14, 2014 7:45am
 Michael James, who turns 72 on Thursday, collected thousands of his photos for a memoir.
Pictures from the Long Haul
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ROGERS PARK — A trove of old, black-and-white photographs, captured by Heartland Cafe co-founder Michael James, reveal a storied life through the lens.

James' subjects over the years include the children of Cabrini-Green and then-Senate-hopeful Barack Obama in 2004 when he visited the Rogers Park restaurant and left-leaning political hub.

Now, James, who turns 72 on Thursday, is working on a draft of his photo memoir that will include dozens of frames, a selection of which is on display on the walls of the Heartland's dining room.

"I got a lot of stories to tell," James said Monday, sipping coffee and eating a pair of his cafe's famous buckwheat pancakes — his black Labrador Che at his feet.

 Michael James, who turns 72 on Thursday, collected thousands of his photos for a memoir.
Michael James, who turns 72 on Thursday, collected thousands of his photos for a memoir.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

As he smeared butter atop his breakfast (noting that the spread was vegan, a menu addition by the cafe's new management), he recounted the backstory to his photos that paint a broader picture of his own life.

James, part shutterbug and part political activist, grew up in Connecticut and took his first photos of hot rod cars — some of which he sold to magazines.

In 1960, on a road trip to California for a summer job at a cannery, James said he crashed his 1940 Ford Coupe.

"I woke up on the other side of the rode and there were two cars burning up — some truck driver had pulled me out," he said.

One of his earliest pictures was of that burned out car.

A year later and back in Chicago, he snapped a photo of the children of Cabrini-Green, who were standing in a storefront next door to New True Vine church.

Then, two years later, James said, he had rode his 1956 Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle four days to Mexico City College to study for 10 weeks.

"I had a lot of adventures," he said. "First time smoking weed, hookers, you know, nightlife, wild kinds of scenes at 20 years old — as well as studying."

He also captured a prescient photo of John F. Kennedy and Mexico President Lopez Mateos, waving as they rode past in a motorcade.

Other photos capture James' days of political activism. A frame from Chicago in 1974 show young men and women lined up along a fence, reading copies of Rising Up Angry, an underground political newspaper James helped publish from 1969 to 1975.

James opened the Heartland with friend Katy Hogan and then-ex-wife Diane Libman in 1976. A photo from that year shows a homeless man, named Clayton, sitting with a cup of coffee at one of the cafe's tables.

Other photos captured a road trip up the Atlantic coast with an old girlfriend.

"We ate oysters at every oyster bar we could find along the way — we hugged the coast," he said of photos from the Carolinas, dated 1988.

During a visit to Cuba, in 1991, James said he snapped a photo of boxers, blurred by a slow shutter speed while running inside of a Havana gym.

In later pictures, dated 2002, James captured buffalo loose on the plains of South Dakota. He sat in the bed of a buffalo rancher's truck as he photographed two young, curious bulls looking into his lens.

Since its opening, the Heartland was the headquarters for James' political efforts.

Obama, then on the campaign trail to win his Illinois Senate seat in 2004, was captured by James' camera.

Now James says he devotes most of his time writing the stories behind his pictures, which is really just a story of his own life.

He doesn't shoot as much as he used to, but this year plans to tour with his son's band, Twin Peaks, with camera in tow.

He plans to have a rough draft of his book finished by March. He said he was unsure whether he'd publish it himself or work with a publishing company.

"I started writing and it just became a sort of photographic and literary memoir," he said. "Life took me where it took me."