City Spaces, Foreword
Before I discovered photography, I studied architecture for a while in college. My friends and I were night owls. We would often study and work on our drawings until 1 or 2 in the morning and then get together to drink coffee and eat burgers on the far north side of Chicago. After an hour in some diner we’d pile into one of the big American cars our fathers owned and drive aimlessly around, talking and looking at the city. We’d critique neighborhood architecture and remodeled houses. Sometimes we would play an improvisational game, pointing out a house that seemed resonant and imagining details within. “That’s an old bachelor’s place. He’s rebuilding a carburetor on the kitchen table.” “Grandmother,” I’d say, “with lace doilies on the arms of all the chairs.” The trick was to notice some small clue and then extrapolate wildly. After a few years I drifted out of architecture into photography and forgot, for a while, about the game of imagining lives from the facades of houses.
In order to explain the photographs in this book I need to provide a little history: my history, the history of photography, and most importantly, the recent history of Chicago.
I was born in Chicago in 1948 and going Downtown in the late 1950’s and early sixties was an adventure. It was an exciting place to explore. My favorite places were the observation deck at the top of the Prudential Building, then the tallest building in Chicago at about 50 stories, and, equally engrossing, the Illinois Central terminal buried beneath the street just below. Big, mysterious, slightly sinister, the train station contained a number of hot dog and pizza stands, juice bars, exotic magazine displays, and an excellent pinball arcade. After I had emptied my pockets into the machines I might visit the Art Institute and the Public Library, both nearby. Mostly, though, I just explored downtown, looking at things.
My earliest serious photographs were done about 1969 in the style of my first heroes: Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. I had become a Photography major at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and although I was excited about photography, I was still smarting a bit from my experience in the architecture program. In 1971 I decided to make photographs that would, I thought, critique the pretensions of architects. I borrowed a view camera and roamed around some old neighborhoods in Chicago, especially Pilsen, where I could find a lot of ornate old buildings showing the scars of hard use and poverty. Luckily, I quickly forgot my concept of architecture exposed as pretension and rebuked by hard use, and instead remembered our old game of reading the surfaces of buildings for clues to the history of the inhabitants. I was fascinated and began what is now a thirty-year project of photographing the city landscape in and around Chicago.
In 1994 I published The Perfect City, which described the changes to the downtown Chicago landscape over a twenty year period. When I began photographing downtown Chicago in the early 1970’s it was a very gritty, authentic-feeling place. Chicago’s central landscape had been frozen by the Depression. No new major downtown buildings were started from 1930 to 1954. Downtown in the 1970’s was still a bit seedy and grim. The surfaces had a dark patina. It was diverse, complicated, old. The city felt very real.
In the 1980’s the downtown landscape was transformed by a building boom which replaced many small, old structures with huge new office buildings. The maze of unique street-level businesses disappeared, replaced by sanitized lobbies and national chain businesses. The last ten years have brought other fundamental changes. The city has been aestheticized. Flower boxes are in the middle of many streets. Charming “retro” lampposts replaced many of the 1950’s streetlights. Downtown Chicago is increasingly a landscape designed for tourists. Described as a “festival” landscape, this change is producing a city-as-theme-park. The theme, of course, is a fictitious and nostalgic concept of Chicago. The wonderful way that a city can truthfully contain and reveal its own history has been diminished. Much of downtown Chicago no longer feels like an authentic place.
In 1996 as I was completing my second book, The New American Village, I chanced on a scene on the near west side and casually took a picture, using the last sheet of unexposed film I had with me. That photograph (the Frontispiece of this book) intrigued me. It didn’t fit in with anything I was planning to work on. I couldn’t really decide if it was even a good picture, but I couldn’t dismiss it either. The image seemed beautiful, puzzling, yet resonant of some important quality of the city. In 1998 I was ready to start a new body of work. I had planned to photograph the industrial area of southeast Chicago, but that odd picture of an alley stuck in my mind. I thought that I would listen to the advice I give my students: don’t plan too much, just follow up on interesting pictures.
What I found as I systematically explored downtown alleys were the remnants of the old city I had once found so compelling. The fronts of these buildings may have been extensively refurbished but no one had bothered with the back. These alleys are deep urban slits, the walls twenty, thirty, or forty stories tall. Rain almost never hits the sides directly. Signs, marks, and layers of paint survive, fading slowly. The rat-control crews leave the dates of their poison drops on the walls, and the chalk marks survive five and ten years. One could see the evidence of many years of use and history.
The alleys weren’t easy spaces to photograph. Over the course of a year, I needed to concentrate on the most basic elements of photography: light, space, framing, very small changes in vantage point. I felt that I had returned to my beginnings as a photographer and was forced to rediscover the elements of the medium that I had long ago struggled to control. The dim light in these places required long exposures, vulnerable to vibrations from traffic and the L trains, but I learned to see the delicate and lovely quality of a small space lit by a tiny rectangle of sky way above me. The visual delights of the city and architecture never seem more important than when they are found in unexpected circumstances. Prompting one to see beauty and significance where it’s not anticipated is one of the most important gifts of photography.
Working with a view camera attracts attention and curiosity. The truck drivers, maintenance people, and homeless who are in these alleys would ask me what I was doing. Looking for a simple, easy explanation I would tell them that I admired photographs that Eugene Atget had done of the Paris alleys in the 1920’s. I said that I thought I’d try the same thing here in Chicago. That seemed to satisfy the questioner, and some of them, surprisingly, even knew of Atget’s work. They had seen the photographs I was talking about at the Art Institute or the LaSalle Bank.
I had thought of Atget’s photographs as an easy explanation, but I soon started thinking seriously of those and other early photographs of cities and walls. I studied Thomas Annon’s photographs of the narrow streets of Edinburgh and photographs of the monuments of the Middle East done soon after the invention of photography by Salz and others. Once, referring consciously to the work of other photographers would have seemed to me unambitious. I saw post-modern quotes of other photographers as a sort of defeatism, an acknowledgment that one couldn’t compete with the earlier masters on their terms. Now, however, I was surprised to feel differently. I have to admit that publishing two small books and having recently won a nice fellowship made me feel that I had a very small place in the history of photography. I flattered myself with the thought that the earlier photographers were now my colleagues and the many small similarities to their work I saw in my photographs seemed a type of collaboration.
Smelly, dirty, dark, occasionally a bit dangerous, these alleys were not physically pleasant places to work. At the end of the block I often saw people in shorts walking in the sunshine across the alley toward Grant Park and the Lake. I felt submerged in a dark, murky pool, so emerging from an alley after an hour of timing long exposures could feel like rising to the surface. Still, this project was one of the most exciting and wonderful experiences I’ve had as a photographer. Investigating these spaces reminded me of my earlier sense of the city as a mysterious landscape to explore. Without planning or anticipating it, my history as a Chicagoan, my history as a photographer, the history of Chicago, and in a small way, the history of photography all came together for me through the making of the photographs in this book.