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Industrial-Strength Wilderness

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The Lake Calumet Region: The Juxtaposition Between the Natural and Built Environment at the Graham Foundation, through November 20

By Fred Camper

One of my favorite places in Chicago is the heavily industrialized area between Lake Michigan and Lake Calumet on the far south side. The feeling of wildness there is the opposite of a neatly manicured neighborhood. A wanderer will not find predictable views, either of nature or civilization; instead the eyes are constantly stimulated by unusual forms, by vistas full of contradictions. Great industrial structures sprout like weeds in the midst of open land whose use doesn't appear to be regulated by any commission full of good intentions and "good taste." And all the feelings I recall from visits to that land of monumental industrial forms, earth, and sky are re-created in distilled form in the panoramic photographs of Minnesotan Chris Faust in "The Lake Calumet Region," now at the Graham Foundation, which focuses on architecture and urban planning.

The exhibit was cosponsored by the Southeast Chicago Development Commission, a community organization. Kathy Dickhut, who helped organize the show, told me that its purpose is "pretty simple--just to show Chicagoans the assets and the beauty of the southeast side. There's more natural areas there than anywhere else in the city." Faust himself told me he was fascinated by the region's richness: "There's so much going on. If you only went across the Chicago Skyway you'd miss it--you'd look at it and say, 'Oh, there's just a bunch of junk down there.' But it's incredibly complex. If you started walking between any two points and reflected on what was going on, it would reveal all kinds of things." One of Faust's photos includes a tree gnawed down by a beaver: "How can there be a beaver here? That means there's a habitat that isn't all bad."

Faust's photos, in both color and black and white, are either 8 by 22 inches or 12 by 38. But unlike photographer Art Sinsabaugh in his midwestern landscapes, Faust doesn't use a wide format to emphasize the land's flatness. Nor is he concerned to make images that are stunning in themselves: "You'll see very little of the 'nature grand' photographic tradition of an Ansel Adams," he says. Instead Faust's wide format captures the dynamic contradictions of the landscape itself. A photo of kids swimming off crumbling industrial structures--concrete piers and pillars, some partially submerged, at various levels of depth in the composition--reclaims for play a landscape more vertical than horizontal. In one picture, the mound of a landfill disrupts the flatness of the prairie and contrasts with the horizontal format; white metal tanks listing at various angles seem almost to have been arranged by a mildly demented landscape architect.

Many of Faust's compositions combine barges, factories, bridges, and smokestacks with open land, trees, water, and sky, creating visual collisions that suggest the contradictions (and occasional harmony) between natural and industrial processes: a scene that includes a smokestack behind a stand of trees, for instance, implicitly contrasts their visible and invisible respiration. Faust, who originally studied biology, says that much of his work is in a similar vein: "I'm always drawn toward the way nature and human activity play against each other." He sees the Lake Calumet area as "nature trying to reclaim the space, and humans trying to make sense out of it."

It was Dickhut's choice to accompany each photograph with a topographic map marked by a dot showing the location where the photo was taken. The viewer is thus constantly reminded that the photographs depict only tiny pieces of the vast continuum the maps represent. The fact that Faust's photos are not self-contained "grand" compositions helps establish this point as well: the contrasts within his panoramas turn one's attention away from the images as self-expression and toward the solid stuff depicted. I can imagine looking at an Edward Weston photograph and going home to meditate; Faust's photos make me want to return to Lake Calumet.

Many of Faust's photographs are views of the same location from slightly different camera angles. Sometimes, as in several views of the Southeast Sportsmen's Club, one can't relate one photo precisely to the others, though the various views of buildings, boats, water, trees, land, and sky give a good sense of the landscape's variety. In other cases, overlapping adjacent views allow one to see how a different camera angle changes the view. Among the four images of a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District aeration pool, for example, are two whose second is simply the result of panning right from the first.

I especially liked this juxtaposition--the second image reveals fewer trees and a steel bridge not visible in the first--because it offers a kind of viewing lesson. Just as the perfection of a Weston photo teaches us to look not at the actual pepper but at color, line, rhythm, and form, so Faust's series asks for its own kind of vision--looking for evidence of the landscape itself, whether that evidence be of beaver or barge, aeration plant or a smaller but still vital Lake Calumet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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