Collection Spotlight: Mikki Ferrill, Untitled (Chicago, IL)

Artist: Mikki Ferrill (American, born 1937)
Title:
Untitled (Chicago, IL)
Date:
1965
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Credit line:
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, the Irwin and Andra S. Press Collection Endowment Fund purchase, 2021.15

Image: Courtesy of the artist © Mikki Ferrill

In 1960s Chicago, the Black gay and trans communities came together every Halloween for a ball held at the Woodlawn neighborhood’s Trianon Ballroom. Partygoers danced through the night; trans attendees competed to be named the best dressed. Despite the chilly autumn weather, crowds of spectators gathered outside the ballroom to watch the stylish crowd file in.

Photojournalist Mikki Ferrill bought a ticket to the ball for the first time in 1965. She brought her camera along and captured events of the evening, including this joyful, fleeting flirtation between two attendees.[1]

Mikki Ferrill, Untitled (Chicago, IL) (1965), Gelatin silver print, Image Courtesy of the artist. © Mikki Ferrill

The black-and-white photograph depicts two young Black women reflected in the bathroom’s mirror. One is dressed in a dark suit jacket, white button down shirt, and bowtie. She adjusts her bowtie and looks, laughing, at the woman to her left. This woman glances sideways, coy, as she lifts an arm covered in glittering bracelets to reapply makeup. Bathroom stalls are visible in the background, as is a third figure, but the two women’s chemistry is Ferrill’s focus. They steal a moment of playful connection amidst the glitz of the ball, sharing an intimate moment in an intimate space.

Ferrill actively photographed sites on the South Side of Chicago throughout the 1960s and 1970s. She studied design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for nearly two years before discovering photography as an art form. After finishing out the semester at SAIC and taking a formative class with jazz photographer Ted Williams, she left school and“totally submerged herself in the medium,” working as a photojournalist for publications including EbonyDownbeat, the Chicago Defender, and the Chicago Tribune.[2]

She is best known for her images of The Garage, a predominantly Black dance space run out of a car garage in Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood on Sunday afternoons. Ferrill was a long-time attendee of Garage parties. She moved within this space, like she moved within the Trianon party, as both participant and observer. This dual relationship positioned her to represent scenes of affection and freedom such as the Halloween ball flirtation and a dance, captured in a 1973 photograph, shared by two Garage attendees – a bell bottom-clad woman and a man in a wheelchair.

Mikki Ferrill (American, born 1937), Untitled (The Garage, Chicago, 1973), 1973, Gelatin silver print, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, The Richard Florsheim Art Fund Purchase, 2000.25.1 Courtesy of the artist © Mikki Ferrill

Ferrill’s insider representation of Black gay and trans nightlife at the Trianon has particular resonance in light of the ballroom’s history. Opened by Bill and Andrew Karzas in 1922, the opulently decorated Trianon originally appealed to the aspirations of Chicago’s white lower-middle and working-class population. The Karzas brothers advertised the Trianon as an alternative to the speakeasies often associated with Black communities. They drew upon racialized codes and practices – such as a whites-only policy, ban on jazz music, and police presence on the dance floor – to distance the venue from Black culture and exclude a Black clientele.[3] They were also known to discourage sensual expression, mandating employees to intervene in any “public displays of affection.”[4]

In 1954, the Trianon opened to integrated crowds.[5] According to Ferrill, Halloween ball attendees were not aware of the venue’s repressive history.[6] For them, the Trianon was a place to dance, to flirt, to be seen and celebrated rather than excluded and maligned. The ballroom was demolished in 1967, not long after Ferrill attended the ball. Her photograph records the Black gay life that flourished within the walls of a space designed to uphold whiteness and heteronormativity. In taking it, she undermined these systems and revealed the power of community storytelling to speak back to marginalization.


Contributed by Lois Taylor Biggs, Terra Foundation Curatorial Associate and Temporary Curatorial Assistant


Bibliography


Footnotes

[1] Rebecca Zorach, NU Art History professor, in email to Kathleen Berzock, October 1, 2021.

[2] Mikki Ferrill and Vera Ferris, in email to Corinne D. Granof, January 27, 2021, “Mikki Ferrill,” The Art Institute of Chicago, accessed October 21, 2021, https://www.artic.edu/artists/53221/mikki-ferrill.

[3] Erenberg, Lewis A., “Dance Halls,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago History Museum, accessed October 21, 2021, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/361.html.

[4] “History in Woodlawn,” Domu, accessed January 25, 2022, https://www.domu.com/chicago/neighborhoods/woodlawn/history-in-woodlawn.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mikki Ferrill, interviewed by Lois Biggs and Essi Rönkkö, January 21, 2022.


Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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