The Perfect City, Epilogue

Any photographer who does descriptive work soon confronts questions about “documentary” photography. What obligation does the photographer have to be objective and truthful? How much of a situation needs to be described? What should documentary photographs look like? What effect, if any, should photographs have on the world they describe?

Lately, when I consider what photography, particularly documentary photography, should be, I think of a room in the offices of the Chicago Commission on Architectural and Historic Landmarks. It holds examples of what some might consider perfect documentary photography. During the early 1980s, several young interns began driving up and down each street in Chicago, rating the buildings according to age, historical and architectural interest, and original condition. About twelve thousand buildings passed the tests. An intern then stood directly in front of each landmark and took its picture. The photographs were made in unremarkable light, and the whole building was framed in the most sensible, predictable way. The prints were then mounted on cards with a site outline and a great deal of written information. Researchers have found these photographs enormously useful, and the importance of this archive will increase over time.

I have two reactions to the Landmark Commission archive. First, I’m relieved that all of this work is done: the existence of good factual photographs frees me and others from the obligation to document particular buildings for purely historical reasons. Second, the photographs are perfect models of what most people think documentary photography should be: informative, objective, clear, encyclopedic, obsessive. I think it is instructive that once the needs of the investigator are met, the archive seems mute, devoid of interpretation or insight – devoid, it seems, of what is most essential to descriptive photographs.

When I see truly documentary photographs like these, or pictures made for insurance purposes, I realize that the type of photography I hope to make is closer to literary nonfiction than to records and documents. I strive for a personal point of view, even if it is hidden behind a straightforward use of the medium.

I began to study photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1968, while I was in the architecture program. I loved photography from my first photo class and soon changed majors. In the beginning I was attracted to the work of the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans. It seemed to me that one of the gifts photography offered was a motivation to explore and examine the world. For most photographers this might suggest travels to exotic locales, but I have always felt a sense of discovery and exploration in Chicago, where I have lived for forty-five years. Partly this is because of the nature of the city. In Chicago people cluster groups, clearly delineated by race, ethnic origin, and income. Though that’s true in most large American cities, in Chicago the divisions are extreme and finely drawn. The condition is reflected in many of the truisms one hears repeated: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods; Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States; Chicago is a city, says a psychologist I know, where if you know a person’s high school and date of graduation, you know 90 percent of what that person is like.

Chicago is a huge city, roughly thirty miles long by ten miles wide. Until I started college I knew my own little neighborhood (Rogers Park), a strip along the lake, and the eastern part of downtown. The rest of Chicago – the vast, flat, lakebed expanse of the city to the south and west – was totally unknown to me. It’s not surprising that the places Saul Bellow describes in his novels seem rather foreign to me; his characters live on the South Side of Chicago, and I have lived my life on the North Side.

I started photographing the physical city in 1971. At first I concentrated on vernacular architecture in several residential neighborhoods: Pilsen, Bridgeport, and Uptown. I began photographing the central downtown area in 1972, and that soon became the main focus of my work.

Only recently have I realized how fortunate I was to stumble on such a rich endeavor. I was lucky because the everyday landscape is a fundamental issue in our lives, worthy of the closest attention. And I was lucky because to me Chicago is the paradigm of the modern American city.

Chicago was founded at the portage site between the Great Lakes and the rivers to the west, but topography was rarely acknowledged in the city’s design. The rectangular grid system of streets derives from the federal land ordinances of 1785 and 1787 that divided unsettled parts of the Old Northwest (today’s Middle West) into square-mile sections. Almost all Chicago streets run exactly north-south or east-west. Each mile from State and Madison streets there is major avenue, with slightly less important thoroughfares at half-mile and quarter-mile intervals. There are several low ridges in Chicago (prehistoric beaches from a larger Lake Michigan), but generally the layout of the city is as flat and rational as a huge sheet of graph paper.

Lake Michigan and the Chicago River are certainly important topographical facts, but by 1830 early settlers had begun shaping the river and the lakeshore to conform to civic strategies. The river mouth once curved and was near where the Art Institute now stands. The soldiers at Fort Dearborn cut a channel straight east through the sandbar to the lake. Later the entire river was straightened and simplified, and the flow was reversed. Rather than appearing to be a force of nature that prompted the founding of a great city, the Chicago River now has the aspect of a canal, designed as part of the city street system.

I often pass a charming little public beach house built in the 1920’s. It’s now a good mile inland from the lake. Of the thirty miles or so of lakefront, there isn’t much that didn’t begin with a clean sheet of white paper on some engineer’s desk. Perhaps the first major alteration to the lakefront was in 1853, when Senator Stephen A. Douglas forced the Illinois Central Railroad to build its route into Chicago along the southern shore of the lake, some of which he happened to own. The railroad was obliged to erect trestles and breakwaters. The extension and shaping of the lakefront continued until 1964.

If the design of the city’s landscape obliterated natural facts, it compensated by providing a good venue for commerce. The grid of streets proved especially conducive to the most exuberant real estate speculation. If you visit an old European city, the civic focal point – the best real estate – can be determined clearly and isn’t likely to move. In Chicago, it’s important to be fairly close to the lake, but otherwise the center of the city is always open to change. In 1865 the focus of commercial activity in downtown Chicago was the corner of Lake and Clark Streets. Potter palmer bought cheap land several blocks away along State Street and built the city’s most glamorous hotel. State and Madison then became the focal point. Similar shifts have occurred in the past ten years. Chicago is never meant to be finished; like any landscape, it is predicated on continuous, sweeping change. The city is big, energetic, thoughtless, crass – and proud of it. To me Chicago seems the perfect American city to photograph.

It is difficult to work with a view camera on crowded streets, so I often photograph Chicago at dawn or at sunset, when the business areas are almost deserted. Convenience was my first motive for working at these hours, but I soon became addicted to their particular qualities of light and to the quiet. These are moments when the city seems to lose its historical and social meanings and appears as a mysterious and dramatic organism. At 5:30 on a Sunday morning, downtown Chicago strikes me as like a small mountain range or a coral reef – a breathtaking fact of nature.

In making these photographs I intended to distill a certain kind of beauty. This beauty, I should point out, is not the scenic prettiness most travel books present. It is also not “livability,” a quality felt in smaller cities such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or Madison Wisconsin. The beauty that interests me does not spring from discrete examples of good architectural design or enlightened urban planning; it’s the subtle, unexpected, impractical beauty of a big city, made clear and accessible in photographs.

The photographs in this book provide only modest insight into the complicated forces that shape the physical landscape of Chicago or any city: economic cycles, zoning laws, political dramas, racial conflicts, the personalities of the movers and shakers. These forces operate too far beneath the surface for a topographical photograph to describe them. But the medium of photography is nonetheless very good at capturing and structuring visual epiphanies and a sense of place. Moments of light and space (beauty is perhaps the only word that can describe these small visual events) can be frozen and concentrated on four-by-five sheets of film. Though they may seem trivial compared with the immediate problems of daily life, or even the complicated task of negotiating downtown streets, the medium effectively argues for the importance of these small visual occasions that, cumulatively, make a place a place.

My photographic interests have varied over the years, and the work in this book reflects a series of projects. One year, for example, I was particularly obsessed with radical changes of scale. Another year I tried to make photographs that described the course of demolition and construction. At times I was concerned with light, the unexpected play of scale, small open spaces within the city, the historical narrative incised on the surface of buildings, or the possibility of different picture structures for an urban landscape. These investigations were part of a larger attempt to distill the visual qualities of an archetypal American city. When I began to review, edit, and sequence these photographs I was confronted with a record of urban transformation, an evolution I could not have anticipated twenty-one years ago when I began the project. I decided to organize this set of photographs around that notion of change.

At one time I thought the beauty I found in the city’s landscape derived from the nature of a great modern city – its size, energy, muscularity, and heedlessness. I thought this beauty existed in spite of the efforts and decisions of architects, planners, landscape architects, and developers, and I believed it would last forever. This was a very hopeful and innocent idea. My own work during the 1980s showed me I was wrong about the nature of the city, wrong to assume that its beauty is inevitable. The gigantic building boom that began in the late 1970s and lasted until the onslaught of deep recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s radically changed the landscape of downtown Chicago. The concentration of large buildings shifted westward and clustered along the river. The scale of buildings increased both in height and in “footprint.” The materials and styles changed, eliminating much of the evidence of individual craftsmen. At street level the city became sanitized. Small eccentric businesses that lured pedestrians inside were replaced by large glass-walled lobbies and generic franchise stores. So much of Chicago’s downtown has been in rebuilt in a short period that the history of the city can no longer by deduced from the juxtaposition of buildings on each street. That change may hearten the city’s leaders, but it has destroyed much of the visual quality that I and other Chicagoans loved most about this city.

The four thousand photographs I have made of Chicago since 1972 are not intended to constitute the sort of objective archive that the landmark commission of any city likes to produce, but I am surprised and heartened to find some of that same historical value in this set of photographs. The depressed economy of the early 1990s has brought a lull in the radical changes to the urban landscape, a moment when we might stop to survey this great city and consider what has happened. The city that prompted me to begin photographing has now vanished, and so I am glad we have taken the time to pause and present this set of photographs in that great conservator of Western Civilization – the book.