By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
For long-time residents of Hyde Park who walked into the exhibit space at the Hyde Park Historical Society Sunday afternoon, they were immersed in Nancy Campbell Hays’ version of Hyde Park.
Photos of Hyde Parkers, young and old, hanging out at the beach or in a park with friends and family taken by Hays, an activist and local photographer, lined the walls of the historical society’s headquarters at 5529 S. Lake Park Ave.
Hays, a long-time resident of Hyde Park, moved to the neighborhood in 1958 where she created advertising campaigns for the Hyde Park Co-Op and took weekly assignments from the Hyde Park Herald. Her eye was attracted to children, parks and the lakefront; seemingly mundane subjects that Hays transformed into stunning images of fleeting, precious moments.
For Becca Major and her husband, Mik, — curators of the exhibit — that is what they loved about Hays’ collection once they viewed 24,000 negatives. In 2017, approximately 10 years after Nancy died, the Majors, who also are photographers, moved into Hay’s condo on 50th Street and Dorchester Avenue. After researching past occupants of their new home, they discovered Hays. Wanting to learn more about who she was and what she meant to Hyde Park, their new discovery led them to the Hyde Park Historical Society. Michal Safar, president of the Hyde Park Historical Society, pointed the couple to Hays’ collection in the U. of C.’s Regenstein Library, Special Collection Research Center. For two years, the couple along with help from members of the historical society went through 24,000 negatives and choose about 60 images to print.
Major felt close to Hays when she saw her work reflected in Nancy’s photos, she said, “I heard originally that she loved to shoot in the neighborhood, the lake and kids. Just as we learned of her, I lit up because that’s also what I love to shoot in Chicago. Professionally, I take family photos around town and we go to parks and shoot around the city. I just knew, on top of learning about our community and helping our community out that I would be so inspired by the way she shot.”
“Nancy’s story spans a lot of generations and it’s just been a wonderful way for us to get to know our community, the history of Hyde Park and our building,” said Major.
A special guest for the evening was Francy Hays, Nancy’s niece, who said she was thrilled to see Nancy’s work come back to life.
“For myself and my three brothers, this is the resurrection of Nancy,” Francy said. “We came out the last 10 years of her life when she was quite disabled and not keeping up with her park issues and the Hyde Park Herald. The first wonderful decision that Nancy made was to bequeath all the negatives, photographs and assorted clippings to the Hyde Park Historical Society because we had no idea how we would deal with it.”
Looking around at the work that went into the exhibit, Hays continued, “I’m so in awe of the historical society and what Mik and Becca have accomplished and the vision they have for what to do next. In our wildest dreams, the family never expected those 200 boxes to be opened.”
Bruce Sagan, the owner of the Hyde Park Herald, spoke of Hays’ time at the Hyde Park Herald, “It was always a contest of which one of her pictures to use because she was so good at it. For 30 years or so, we did work together. It’s marvelous that it has been saved and it is available and that it is being shown. It invigorated the Hyde Park Herald for many years and told the story of this neighborhood.”
For Stephanie Franklin, Hays was not only a photographer and activist, but she was also her dearest friend for many years. They met in the 1970s, around the same time that Nancy started to get involved in protecting trees, the lakefront and parks in the neighborhood.
During her life, Hays joined the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference and formed the Daniel Burnham Committee to protest the city’s plans to put a freeway and feeder route through Jackson Park in 1965. In 1975, she became one of the founders of Friends of the Parks, where she served on its board for three decades. In 1983, she became one of the founders of the Jackson Park Advisory Council and served on the board until she died.
“I didn’t get to know Nancy when I first came, then we kept running into each other. She was taking pictures everywhere. We ended up becoming really the best of friends. She was a mentor to me, and we were involved in so many park things,” said Franklin. “She had such a gentle, witty sense of humor. Her photographs, especially her photographs of children, are just absolutely outstanding.”
The Hyde Park Historical Society is looking forward to the future of Nancy Hays project, which is reviving her pictures for the public to see. According to Safar, the organization still must examine almost 200 boxes of Nancy’s negatives. The 24,000 negatives that the Majors discovered are less than a quarter of Hays’ collection; they estimate that there are around 150,000 to 200,000 negatives. The historical society is in the process of finding all of Nancy’s negatives because the boxes are not properly marked. The historical society will raise money to process the rest of the collection.
In addition to searching for the rest of Hays’ collection, the historical society wants to move the exhibit around the city. Before the exhibit leaves the Hyde Park Historical Society’s Headquarters, there will be viewings from 2-4 p.m. on Nov. 10, Nov. 24, Dec. 8 and Dec. 21. For more information: www.nancyhays.org