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Classic Act

Catherine Opie's shots of Chicago prove there's life left yet in the documentary tradition.

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Catherine Opie

Museum of Contemporary Art

Part of the surprise of Catherine Opie's 18 photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, from her ongoing "American Cities" project, is that this visitor from LA has caught our town so well, focusing on Chicago's dense architectural environment and on nuanced images of the open, ever-changing lake and sky. Fourteen of the pictures are black-and-white photographs of buildings and streets at night, all of them 16 inches high and 41 inches wide. These ring the gallery on three sides, while the fourth wall is hung with four large, vertical-format color images of Lake Michigan, a simple horizon shot for each season, the compositions split roughly in half between water and sky. Each contains a slightly different mixture of blues, grays, and greens; in the summer photo, the lake is dotted with sailboats. The "American Cities" project also includes Minneapolis, where Opie shot ice-fishing shacks and the downtown pedestrian skyways, and Los Angeles, where her subjects were freeways and minimalls.

By choosing distinctive aspects of each city and treating them in accordance with self-imposed restrictions, Opie demonstrates the strength and durability of documentary photography. For the Chicago series, she focuses on the way the city is lit, the buildings by streetlamps and window lights while the lake scenes are naturally illuminated, with no visible light sources--no sunrises or sunsets. The restraint and classicism of her technically rigorous, compositionally balanced, uniformly sized images are a surprising contrast with some of her earlier work: in a 1994 self-portrait, Opie appears nude with the word pervert carved into her chest. At about that time, she says in an interview in Artkrush, "I realized I was becoming the poster child for out, leather dyke-art, and I just wasn't interested in that." So she returned to architectural photography. She's alternated for years between pictures of people and pictures of places, but she considers all of them "portraits," and all are shot under tight constraints. For the Chicago images, she used a specially constructed camera well suited to landscapes and to architecture in context rather than individual buildings.

The recent Wolfgang Tillmans exhibit at the MCA (which closed August 13) provides an interesting contrast to Opie's work, as does the MCA's recently closed tribute to Robert Heinecken. Where Tillmans reinvents the photo exhibit by hanging an unrestricted spectrum of images, Opie selects one corner of the world and stalks it judiciously. But neither is much interested in the anything-goes possibilities of digital photography, and both are drawn to projects notable for their seriousness and large scope. Heinecken represents another possibility: his magazine-page palimpsests, created in the late 60s, reveal the strangeness of contemporary culture. In contrast to Tillmans's postmodern multiplicity and Heinecken's witty surrealism, Opie's classicism appears to be the product of a stable, coherent personality and a rigorously trained eye, following a tradition of picture making that stretches back almost a millennium. Even her photographs of androgynous tattooed and pierced young people, which opened at the MCA in late 2000, are deeply humanistic, with the kind of gravity that results from simple compositions.

Opie's work fits perfectly into the documentary tradition of photographic cityscapes inaugurated by Eugene Atget and continued here by the Bauhaus-influenced Chicago School of Design and by local photographers like Art Sinsabaugh and Bob Thall. But Opie's night vision--teased out of a rich gray scale and deep blacks--is so strong and graceful it revitalizes the form: she shows there's still much to be said. Concentrating on the city's muscular infrastructure of bridges and railroad tracks, she punctuates the uniform horizontal format with the occasional strongly vertical church, housing project, or spiraling garage. Asymmetrical but balanced compositions anchor the exhibit. The foregrounds are often open and empty, as in certain Renaissance paintings. In one photo shot from near Roosevelt Road, the panorama includes the old power station just west of the railroad yards plus a wall of buildings to the east, each structure adding some variety to Chicago's otherwise unyielding grid. Artificial lighting captures the buildings' shapes, but much of the visual interest comes from man-made textures: hewn or carved stone, Tarmac, steel, brass, the wood of railroad tracks. In one photo of a Mies van der Rohe building--one of several boldly symmetrical shots--the illuminated windows are a perfect white. Precise, carefully crafted photographs of Lower Wacker, of buildings whose light spills onto the river, of a view down Jackson all serve to unite photographic tradition and the modernist aesthetic with Chicago itself.

The only emotional dimension to these photos is a subtle sense of loneliness or loss, heightened by the fact the buildings are shot at night and have no people in or near them: the city seems a set for what has happened or will happen. The illuminated gate to Chinatown is one of many openings and pathways depicted, which might indicate some hopeful future, though they also intensify the emptiness of the streets and other architectural spaces. In an interview with MCA curator Elizabeth Smith, Opie acknowledged that a sense of the world's mutability is part of what drives her: "So much of my obsession with being a documentarian comes from the deep-seated sense of the loss of time, and of how things shift so quickly." The temporary buildings and subcultures that interest her are particularly fluid, but even cities change continually--monuments are more vulnerable than they look. Chicago has a history of destruction and renewal, and rates of change are vastly different for the lake and for architecture.

Opie's pictures of Chicago may be melancholy, but there's a countervailing optimism in her documents of our built environment. They bring to mind British critic Raymond Williams's thoughts on cities: "The lights of the city. I go out in the dark, before bed, and look at that glow in the sky. . . . I know I have felt it again and again: the great buildings of civilization. I find I do not say, 'There is your city, your great bourgeois monument, your towering structure of this still precarious civilization,' or I do not only say that; I say also, 'This is what men have built . . . and is not everything then possible?'"

WHEN Through 10/18

WHERE Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

PRICE $10 suggested admission, $6 students, seniors; kids under 12 free

INFO 312-280-2660

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

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