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On Exhibit: ruins of a railroad civilization

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John Wells doesn't need to leave the city to get away from the noise and crowds. He just climbs the nearest railroad embankment, and is in a different world. The souvenirs he brings back are black-and-white photographs.

"It's a nice way to get away from the city," he says. "It's harder near downtown now, though, because of gentrification--all the old buildings being turned into lofts and so on. I just don't want to have a new car in the front of my photo."

Wells photographs Chicago's railroads as if they were relics of some ancient civilization. He photographs rails, bridges, abutments, warehouses, and the rest of the massive infrastructure that once went into making Chicago the railroad capital of the United States. But almost none of his photos have any people in them. The structures could be ruins 1,000 years old, abandoned in some catastrophe.

But it looks like whoever abandoned the structures, ages ago, left the lights on. Wells loves to photograph by artificial light, adding flash to accentuate whatever man-made light illuminates scenes. Some of the most evocative views in his current exhibition at the Cultural Center were taken at night, lit by the glow of streetlights.

Wells has been fascinated by railroads ever since he moved to Chicago in the mid-1970s. "It seemed that everywhere I went there was a railroad or something that was served by a railroad. First, I wondered how important Chicago was to the railroad industry. Second, aesthetically, it's real pleasant to look at: the massive steel, the engineered lines."

He got out his maps of the city and began exploring wherever he saw rail lines or yards. He liked what he saw, and eventually he began taking a four-by-five-inch view camera with him. "It was a form of trespassing," he says. "I asked permission, and everyone except the Santa Fe said no. So I went anyway."

He found a world unknown to most Chicagoans, especially since the ebb in rail travel that accompanied the rise of the automobile and airplane. In his photographs the viewer can see both the glory and the decline of the railroads: the glory of solid and surprisingly beautiful railroad engineering and architecture, and the decline represented by empty yards and abandoned track. The emptiness is telling: railroads today, says Wells, are so highly automated that two men with a crane can load or unload a train. In the past men unloaded every boxcar by hand. There aren't many people in Wells's photos because there aren't many people working on the railroad anymore.

But there are scenes of great beauty. Wells has an eye for the interplay of textures, which he frequently emphasizes with high-contrast printing. One of his photographs depicts the steel plate of a viaduct. It is a simple frontal view, but Wells turns it into a contour map, with ridges, a pattern of rivets, and recent graffiti, both diffused and sharp-edged (in a number of his photographs graffiti is the most convincing sign of life). You can almost feel the corroded metal surface. Or, in a picture of the coupler mechanism that joins freight cars, two metal fists, looking rounded and almost soft, meet in an organic embrace.

Wells contextualizes such shots by photographing the ancillary structures around the rails and bridges: factories and storage areas, a Jefferson Street restaurant that presumably catered to workers in the neighboring warehouses. A shot of a deserted steel foundry on the Burlington Northern 16th Street line is a masterpiece: Wells photographed it at night, juxtaposing contrasts--the grit of the concrete driveway, the horizontal striations of a pair of corrugated metal garage doors, the gloss of brick, the fluidity of glass-brick windows. The streetlight just out of the frame that lights the shot illuminates some of the materials harshly, some gently.

At times the emptiness is haunting, as in the photographs of the Ashland Avenue Yards, formerly a major rail yard near the stockyards. In Wells's photograph of a rail viaduct over an access road to the yards, the concrete abutments are massive, overgrown with brush, and dripping with white mineral deposits, as if they were parts of a cliff or cave. A dusting of snow covers the middle of the road and the sidewalks. And in the far lane of the road is only a streak of light--left by car headlights as Wells left open his shutter for a time exposure. Suddenly it seems the automobile age is transitory--just a specter--while the remnants of the railroads are as eternal as Stonehenge.

And they are, to an extent. Even with many rail lines derelict, trains still move a lot of freight. Chicago still handles more rail freight than any other U.S. city. And the traces are everywhere. "Some people say, 'Oh, in Chicago it's the architecture that's important,'" says Wells. "But I think it's the work more than the architecture that made the look of the city. You can't go anywhere in the city without seeing a train viaduct."

"Chicago Junction: Photographs by John Wells" will be on display in the east gallery on the ground floor of the Public Library Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, through September 30 (346-3278). Hours are 9 to 7 Monday through Thursday, 9 to 6 Friday, and 9 to 5 Saturday, and admission is free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Wells.

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