If you’re headed to the fourth floor of the Cultural Center for a look at the work of Charles Harrison and the rest of the “African American Designers in Chicago” exhibit (it closes March 3), here’s a suggestion: leave enough time for a stop on the second floor to see “Cecil McDonald, Jr.: In the Company of Black.” This photography exhibit takes Harrison’s aesthetic of everyday beauty to another level. Actually, leave a chunk of time—these images are likely to grab and hold you.
McDonald bought his first camera from a pawn shop on State Street when he was 25, learned how to master it at the Chicago Park District under the tutelage of Eric Werner, and went on to earn an MFA at Columbia College, where he now teaches. He told me that this body of work (about 60 large prints are on display) grew out of his dissatisfaction with the pictures we usually see of black life, images that present only the two extremes of misery and exceptionalism. In this series of photographs, many published in a 2017 book of the same title, paired with poems by Avery R. Young, McDonald set out to capture the beauty in the ordinary lives most people lead.