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Northwest Territory

Bob Thall's photos on the edge

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How do you photograph a dull, vacuous place without making dull photographs?"

Bob Thall is talking about Schaumburg, center of the booming "edge city" just west of O'Hare. He could be speaking about any of the northwest suburbs that cluster around interstates 90, 290, and 294. The area is the subject of Thall's new book of urban landscape photography, The New American Village. An exhibit with the same name opens tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

"I didn't want to dump on the suburbs since I was having a good time," Thall says, lifting a large framed black-and-white print out of a box in a side room off the museum's ground-floor gallery. The museum is housed at Columbia College, where Thall has taught since 1976 and recently became chairman of the photography department. "I'm just saying there's something very odd there, something off-putting about the place. Everything I love about cities is missing, and places like this are sucking off a lot of the city's vitality. You look at what the city is and the values behind it, and then you look at Schaumburg and say, well, they've taken some of these things and rejected some of the others, and maybe they've rejected the parts I liked the best."

Unlike older suburbs, which were green havens away from work, Schaumburg is a "destination suburb," whose population doubles (from 75,000 to 150,000) every Monday at 9 AM. Employers like Motorola and Sears, in nearby Hoffman Estates, provide ample opportunities and ample capital to keep Woodfield one of the largest shopping malls in the world. Most Americans live in suburbs, increasingly in diffuse edge cities, so they're places for any urban geographer to reckon with.

The New American Village is the second installment in Thall's ongoing effort to document the Chicago area's built environment. His first book, The Perfect City (1994), surveyed the changing face of the Loop between 1972 and 1991, a period of massive reconstruction. Made in a fourth of that time, between 1991 and 1996, The New American Village may be his most focused effort yet. In an epilogue to the first book, Thall compared his approach to literary nonfiction, because he too uses facts to tell stories. While his photographic method is straightforward, his goals are more oblique.

His images resemble architectural models, insistently rectilinear, lacking people or any sign of disorder. Like a city planner who sets to work after the buildings are already up, Thall erects an ideal city on paper, casting the real one in relief. His style is uncannily suited to the suburbs, where office campuses, shopping malls, and model homes seem to stand alone, apart from their surroundings. With his four-by-five-inch view camera, he corrects perspectives and aligns right angles. Ironically, Schaumburg turns out to be a perfect place for this confirmed urbanite. These Lego-like spaces were made to be photographed.

Over his five years in the suburbs, Thall says, he mostly missed a sense of history and overt displays of individuality. "If you're in the art community here, or if you're a downtown, sophisticated person, you're very conscious of yourself as an individual, and the shakiest thing that can present itself is an image of yourself as a standardized type of person." His portraits of the new suburbs capture the stock environments and characters, but people appear so infrequently that when one does show up it almost seems like a deadpan joke.

"No one seems conscious or afraid of being a generic person out there," he says with some astonishment. "All the businesses repeat, you rarely see cars that aren't standard, you get sections where there's a standard economic level, a standard age, a certain kind of taste. There's only a couple of restaurants that are one of a kind. One is a Chinese restaurant where it's full of Chinese people. It's disconcerting to see a place where no one appears to be concerned with differentiating themselves.

"Maybe they're just more honest. They're saying a house is just an appliance. I need it for a while. We don't spend a lot of time aestheticizing our refrigerator choices. Maybe their house, maybe their neighborhood is the same way. It's approaching a neighborhood as a refrigerator. You buy a refrigerator, microwave, you buy a stereo unit--unless you're a specialist you don't fetishize these things. You get a standard one, you use it up, you move on, you throw it out. It's always new, you buy it new. In some ways they're treating their place like that out there, with new architecture. You buy a condo; it's not too much different than going to Best Buy and getting a portable TV. You use it a few years and then move on."

A lifelong Chicagoan, Thall couldn't leave if he wanted to--he has plans for photographic surveys of the region stretching into the next century. Born in 1948 to a jazz musician and a nightclub dancer, Thall grew up in Rogers Park. At the University of Illinois Circle campus, he studied architecture but shifted to photography in 1968. He was more interested in everyday buildings than in ones by famous architects, in fathoming existing neighborhoods than in fashioning new ones. "I was saying, well, really, Sullivan, Wright, that is such a small part of the city. The city is vernacular architecture, the city is what people do to the architecture after the architect is done, the layers of marking and changes. That was what I was interested in. It was partly disappointment about the practice of architecture and my role in it."

He remembers being greatly influenced by Jane Jacobs's 1961 polemic against urban renewal, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs attacked urban planners because she loved cities, loved their chaotic humanity. It's been Thall's model ever since.

"Like a good psych 101 class, she's describing something we've all seen, so that when she makes her point, the sense you have is recognition, that you've seen that before. And then the lesson of course is, I should pay more attention to the things right in front of me. That was right in front of me. I wasn't paying quite the level of attention she was. I'm going to try and pay a little more attention to what's going on and think about it."

There are no illustrations in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, yet the book opens with a page titled "Illustrations," which reads, "please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see." It's easy to imagine Thall dwelling on this page and gradually filling it in with photographs. "If it has any kind of social importance, my work suggests that we should pay attention to everyday life," he says. "That's my idea of what an ambitious photographer does. You should be looking at things that are ordinary that you don't normally pay attention to."

Another influence was the vacant urban scenes of Edward Hopper. "My father painted Edward Hopper paintings as a hobby," Thall says. "He was an amateur painter, so I grew up in a rotating show of Edward Hopper's work. He would sign his own name. It wasn't fraud, but he would copy them as people do copy paintings, and then he'd give them away, so that there were constantly five or six Edward Hoppers hanging in our apartment. It would change slowly over the years. And then if we went to see his relatives, there would be Edward Hoppers hanging there too. I just take it for granted that inhabited landscape is the subject for art. It never even occurred to me that it wouldn't be. It's just a basic subject of art."

Though he grew up in the city, Thall says he didn't know much about it until he picked up a camera. "I can remember when I started school, just about the time I started college, just about the time I started photography, I was used to Chicago as Rogers Park, the Outer Drive, downtown, and that was about it. Once or twice a year I might go to Hyde Park. It was just these nodes, this little slice. It's really the veneer of the city. I'd been looking at this veneer, and suddenly I look underneath and it's completely different, and it's really astonishing. When I started photographing, I felt like I'd been tricked or something, that I didn't understand what the city was like. It was so huge, the whole northwest side and the southwest side and west side, these miles and miles of land away from the lakefront. These places are so powerful and interesting. I had no idea. I almost felt this little mild outrage that I hadn't known, hadn't been shown this. It was a major discovery."

Back then the city didn't resemble its current incarnation as a "festival landscape," Thall says. "It's old. It's not booming. It's not being gentrified. It's kind of static and a little desolate. Really, the feeling you have at that time is a feeling of this frozen, slightly decaying old rust belt city, even in decent, relatively prosperous neighborhoods. It's hard to photograph that quality, but that's what I was trying to do." Thall still associates mid-1960s Chicago with the panoramic photos of Art Sinsabaugh, who used a 12-by-20-inch banquet camera in what was perhaps the last comparable effort to document the city's landscape by an art photographer. (A traveling retrospective of Sinsabaugh's work is being organized by the Indiana University Art Museum; it will probably reach Chicago in 2004.)

From his office at Columbia College overlooking Grant Park, Thall can keep his eye on the theme park that's developing along the central lakefront. The area has changed in strikingly suburban ways. The museums now have a campus, close to Mayor Daley's own minisuburb just west of another airport. There are fireworks and music on summer weekends, and a Ferris wheel off in the distance.

Recently Thall has gone backstage to photograph alleys around the Loop, the only part of downtown he deems unchanged since he began his survey over a quarter century ago. There he found "the kind of authenticity that comes from total neglect." The back sides of buildings receive no face-lifts, only the chalked markings of the city's rat poisoners recording the dates of their visits. This spring Thall had a show of alley pictures at Carol Ehlers Gallery. It was called "Archaeology," a title that could be used to describe much of his work. Neglect has always been a favorite subject for documentary photographers; a medium that makes time stand still is naturally suited to such places. After years spent photographing sites part-time for the city's landmarks commission, Thall worries a preference for historic buildings may be elitist in a city that grows by demolishing its past. "It's preposterous to want stagnation," he says, turning back to his glossy prints of the suburbs.

The term "edge city," soon to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary, was coined by Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. Thall read the book as he was photographing Schaumburg. Garreau began writing about suburban development when it encroached on his own home in rural Virginia, west of Washington, D.C. At first he wanted to indict those responsible. He says he's the sort of person who'd like to live in the city or the country but not someplace in between. Over time, however, he became a cautious convert, "guardedly optimistic" about the way American cities are being reinvented in the fast-growing suburbs.

"Every single American city that is growing is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles, with multiple urban cores," Garreau wrote in Edge City. The familiar three-tiered structure of city ringed by suburbs ringed by countryside was coming to an end, he determined. Garreau says these categories are outdated ways of relating to one's surroundings. Suburbia, he wrote, "was originally meant to be a place specifically designed to get away from the environmental and social dislocation, the factories and the slums, of the first hundred years of the Industrial Revolution." The suburban towns "were places separate from the world of commerce and manufacture, places to which we could flee as soon as we could afford the move. Edge City has ended all that. It reflects our passing from the Industrial Age into our current one. By moving the world of work and commerce out near the homes of the middle and upper middle class, it has knocked the pins out from under suburbia as a place apart. It has started the reintegration of all our functions." Garreau began to see in this development the resolution of the age-old antagonism between city and country, just as he believes it's synthesizing work and life. "Perhaps Edge City represents Americans taking the functions of the city (the machine) and bringing them out to the physical edge of the landscape (the frontier)."

In a recent conversation, Garreau told me, "The only reason for cities in the future is face-to-face contact. All cities are shaped by the state-of-the-art mode of transportation at the time, and the computer is a greater force for distribution than the automobile. The future will look like the 19th century, only cooler." The only drawback is that edge cities lack individual character--for the time being they mostly look like Houston. But, in Garreau's opinion, "our problem of today is the solution to the problem of yesterday. Remember, a hundred years ago the problem was density. The Lower East Side of New York was no picnic."

Urban populations are spreading out faster than they're growing. The word for this is sprawl. According to the 1998 Smart Growth Network Progress Report, the population of metropolitan Chicago increased by only 2.5 percent between 1980 and 1990, but land development expanded the region by 22.5 percent. Garreau might consider that inevitable, but Gerald Adelmann, executive director of the Openlands Project, considers it dangerously unplanned. He'll be part of a panel discussion in conjunction with Thall's show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography on Thursday, December 2, along with Michael Conzen, chairman of the Committee on Geographical Studies at the University of Chicago, Frank Robbins, director of planning for the village of Schaumburg, and George Thompson, editor of "Creating the North American Landscape," the series in which Thall's books have appeared at Johns Hopkins University Press.

Adelmann, who has sponsored several landscape photography undertakings through the Openlands Project, says the dispersing effect of the computer has been overemphasized. "You continue to have places of work that people have to get to," he explains. "Since we're dependent on real estate taxes to fund infrastructure, edge cities were subsidized by state and federal tax dollars." He describes a pattern of continual outward movement from the historic urban centers, with developers building farther out, leaving the old infrastructure to decay while new services trail behind in a manner that sounds like a Ponzi scheme. A few states, like Maryland, have countered senseless sprawl by demanding that developers themselves fund the building of new roads and sewers.

"What will these places be like in thirty or even twenty years?" Thall wonders in his introduction to The New American Village. "Will vast expanses of homes all start disintegrating at once? Is it possible that these suburbs will become huge, low density slums?" This is how Adelmann describes Openlands' advocacy work (detailed in two recent reports on the organization's Web site, www.openlands.org): "Rather than doing developments, we're building community."

The debate between Garreau and Adelmann is being played out in the edge cities Thall has photographed. Garreau warns that the future will not be a simple extension of present trends; change is often unforeseeable. In the first decades of this century, he points out, it looked like American cities would soon be buried in horse manure--then along came Henry Ford's great pollution-reducing device, the automobile. Adelmann's fears are predicated on the supposition that urban growth will continue along current lines, and like most opponents of sprawl his goal is to retain a modified version of the old structure of city and suburb, with a stable agricultural buffer zone beyond. "We can't continue to support low-density sprawl-pattern development," he argues, "encouraging large land uses that are isolated, that aren't integrated in any way, that are automobile dependent."

There have been efforts to plan for growth in the Chicago area. In 1909 the Commercial Club commissioned Daniel Burnham's famous Plan of Chicago, and last year the organization issued a new blueprint called Chicago Metropolis 2020. Schaumburg's director of planning, Frank Robbins, who moved to the area three years ago from Texas, says he's all in favor of regional planning. While observers like Garreau have described edge cities as unplanned communities built by market forces, Robbins sees Schaumburg as a "great place," a "community with resources" and "a good revenue stream."

Thall's reaction to the fast-developing northwest suburbs had little to do with concerns for land conservation. It is the city that interests him, he says, whatever form it may take. "As far as I'm concerned, it's more interesting as Schaumburg than when it was cornfields. I'm not mourning over the lost family farm. I'd rather have a Barnes & Noble." One of his photographs shows a barn left standing across from a strip mall. Other pictures show man-made ponds on office campuses or in housing developments that look like golf courses. One photo has tiny rivulets of water flowing across a parking lot, unsubdued. In this overbuilt environment, the often conflicting forces of nature and economics are laid bare.

Now Thall has turned his gaze to the city's industrial southeast side, which he regards as an odd counterbalance to the edge city. "I see it as a teeter-totter. You've got this kind of thoughtlessness on the northwest side and the same kind of thoughtlessness on the other end, with the center of the city as a fulcrum. Something is wrong if you were ever to design a city where that could be happening at one end and this could be happening at the other end." In both cases people live close to the site of their employment. The steel mills looming over southeast Chicago give those forgotten neighborhoods a feudal appearance. The parallel to the new developments is uncanny, even if it's deflected by the mirrored glass sheets that wrap the corporate headquarters.

"I'm not posing solutions," Thall says. "I'm photographing places. I think it's different than what people normally think of as landscape. It's like the difference between photographing a person and photographing a nude. You know how a nude can be the idea of something. I think some landscape photography is about the idea of landscape, almost like the idea of the nude, using it as a subject to get to something. What I'm interested in is particular places." They may not be grand places, but they are the ones in which we live. In this respect he compares his new book to photographer Robert Adams's 1976 study of tract homes outside Denver, The New West.

If Thall's work is a critique of urban planning and--like Jacobs's classic book--a plea for old-fashioned mixed-use city neighborhoods, it's noteworthy that he's not documenting these places. "I would have a really hard time photographing Lincoln Park," he admits. "I would have a hard time photographing where my reaction is, this is pleasant. I've never worked out of that sense. I don't know where to start. There's no traction or reaction. I have to be amazed or horrified or upset by something."

In a 1967 essay accompanying the photographs he submitted for his master's degree from the Institute of Design at IIT, Art Sinsabaugh predicted, "A group of photographers may some day record Chicago in all its facets for future scholars and have meaning of an interdisciplinary nature." He was right about one photographer at least.

Thall will speak about his work at the Museum of Contemporary Photography on Thursday, December 16, at 2 PM. Even those who end up missing his show probably won't miss his two large murals that will be installed at Midway Airport next June: they're based on panoramic photographs he's made of the Chicago River. Typically, Thall will be reminding latter-day travelers of the city's history, taking them back to its first port of entry, but in its rationalized modern form, now little more than a frame around the grid of the Loop. Like all his pictures, these will highlight the city's vanishing glory alongside its ongoing and equally brazen rebirth.

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