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One of Two Cities

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THE PERFECT CITY: PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHICAGO BY BOB THALL

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through December 4

I find the title of this exhibit almost as engaging as Bob Thall's photographs. "The perfect city" is so distant from the other epithets associated with Chicago, and yet there is an inherent ideal, a geometric beauty in its downtown sections. Thall's photographs themselves have a certain perfection: each camera position seems to offer the most fully revealing point of view, each print is technically astonishing, flawless, as if from a perfect negative in which each silver bromide crystal has recorded light and dark with the greatest subtlety and precision.

The point of this perfection, which American photography has inherited from Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz, is to produce images so stable, clear, and quiet that the viewer can contemplate the subjects outside the chaos of their contexts. The pho- tographer's rigor and disengagement filter out sentimentality, and perhaps even disentangle him or her from aesthetic convention. Thall's camera reveals what seems the model of a city--a Platonic abstraction, a meditation on a Pythagorean vision of geometry and engineering--almost entirely lacking in people.

Since I had first seen Thall's work in an ongoing exhibit of Chicago architectural photography at the Chicago Cultural Center--Thall studied architecture, then photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago and now teaches photography at Columbia College--the absence of the human figure did not at first seem surprising. Architectural photography is meant to depict buildings for study, preservation, and other historical and record-keeping purposes; it's supposed to reveal a building's structures and facades as clearly as possible, and it makes sense that people would distract from that documentation.

But at the Art Institute one is inclined to view exhibits within the humanistic traditions of Western art, in which "Man is the measure of all things." In this context the vision of a city without people is almost frightening. Thall's work is a monument to the technical capabilities of architects, engineers, entrepreneurs, and real estate developers--that is, the city's knowledge and wealth. Chicago itself, with its 150 years of exquisite and progressive architecture and its logical street grids, stands as a monument to the technology of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Thall himself says, "The type of photography I hope to make is closer to literary nonfiction than to records and documents."

By leaving people out, even by disengaging the viewer from the connotative power of the human figure, Thall draws attention to the troubling relationship between this perfect city, based on economics and equations, and the increasingly chaotic and problematic city in which we actually live and work. Many of the photographs in this exhibit record Chicago's expansion in the 1980s, particularly on the new east side (Streeterville). Of course homelessness, problems with the public schools, street crime, and other social and economic problems were increasing during this boom, so that two cities seemed to develop simultaneously. These photographs do not document this other city, but the viewer has certainly had a glimpse of it, perhaps on the way to the Art Institute, and might even be inclined to question the distance between one city and the other. Thall's success lies in revealing the disjunction between the built environment and the contested sites and inhabitants he deliberately leaves out. Paradoxically, the city the photographer captures, in this medium that has always carried and still carries the illusion of truth, is not a city at all but the vision of a city.

The distance between this vision of a city and its reality gives the photographs a certain sadness. The distance is often literal: Thall gives us empty spaces, parking lots, neglected and outworn signs. The smooth, modern buildings do not display the mark of the human hand. One of the most powerful groups of images depicts the building of the towers near Columbus Drive and the river. This series tends to show a broad foreground of unused land with creeping vegetation, piles of refuse, and building materials. In several photos the foreground is simply empty parking lots illuminated by street lights. Photographers like Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, and Danny Lyon reflect the contemporary urban condition in the faces and bodies of the people who live in cities. But without the mediating presence of the city's inhabitants, the viewer must consider larger and possibly less humane forces.

Thall's photographs here can be broken down into groups roughly separated by dates and locations. He titles his photographs like a surveyor, with street names and the direction of the view. These points on the grid of the city seem precise and eventless, but they may be no more stable than the points of view displaced during the construction of the buildings. At first I read this simple titling system as functional, then as part of the photographer's desire to avoid intrusion; finally I realized that these simple notations imply a network of points of view, creating the potential for every urban inhabitant to make his or her own city.

The details, the shades of gray and black within the dark areas created by night, shadow, and sometimes fog, are particularly lucid. Chicago (LaSalle Street at Kinzie Street, View East) 1982 is largely obscured by fog and evening, but four identical white station wagons parked in an uneven line catch what is left of the light, as does a patch of old snow. As in many other Thall photographs, street lights punctuate the shades of gray. In Chicago (Lake at State Street, View East) 1981 one ray of sunlight falls along a sidewalk, and a lone man stands in the middle ground looking at the camera; another patch of light glows in the dirty glass or scratched Plexiglas protecting the Lake Street el stairway. It must be morning, since the light seems to be coming from the east.

One thinks of Rimbaud's, Lorca's, and even Apollinaire's odes to the urban dawn. "The dawns disturb," according to Rimbaud as he greets mo- dernity, and in Lorca's aubade to New York, "Dawn comes, there is no mouth to receive it, for here neither morning nor promise is possible." Apollinaire's famous poem "Zone," about wandering the Paris underworld all night, ends with the enigmatic declaration "Sun cut throat." Despite the history one might bring to these photographs, any melancholy, any philosophical unease, must ultimately be expressed in shades of gray. It's comment enough that the perfect city appears only in twilight, darkness, or early morning. At first, Thall says, he shot during these hours as a matter of convenience, because of his heavy, awkward view camera, but then it became a matter of choice: "I soon became addicted to their particular qualities of light and to the quiet."

It seems logical to connect Thall's project to Eugene Atget's photographic documentation of Paris in the early part of this century: both artists give their catalogs of the urban environment a similar scope and specificity. Like Atget's work and the poems lamenting the urban dawn, these photographs imply a solitary wanderer, someone out when no one else is, someone who frequents twilit empty parking lots. Atget, however, generally depicted the city from the point of view of someone on the street, capturing 19th-century architectural detail and the businesses that heralded the coming of the 20th-century commercial city. Thall's point of view is more varied, though even at street level he's somehow still removed from the scene. His photograph of the old Northwestern terminal, with its arches and decoration (Atget's world) crumbling, is framed by the clean concrete lines of some bridge, expressway, or other rectilinear structure--but where another photographer might have been sentimental, Thall is simply and profoundly precise.

Our fascination with ideal forms, rather than human needs, seems to be part of the problem Thall presents us with. Are the modernist grids and towers of the present-day city compatible with human life? Or do skyscrapers, which were born here in Chicago, somehow intensify the city's alienation and anomie, finally resulting in mayhem? Another set of photographs--Chicago (Lake Street and Franklin Street, View North) 1991, Chicago (Lake Street at LaSalle Street) 1990, and Chicago (Lake Street Near Dearborn Street, View North) 1992--confronts the viewer with a complex design of grids: these views contain only geometrical patterns. In IBM Building, View South the camera is placed in front of an empty table in front of windows with miniblinds; the view is another wall of grids. This is an inorganic, almost crystalline world of infinite repetition and variation of vertical and horizontal lines, of volume and mass, and yet each of the windows in the grids implies a person and a point of view. Even so, I couldn't help seeing the table as simply a circle or ellipsis, not "an empty table" with its attendant emotional meanings.

Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities--an imaginary poetic dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan--writes, "In the Khan's mind, the empire was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data, like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian's logogriphs." Calvino clarifies my sense that the mystery and complication captured in these photographs are likely to be answered only with more metaphors, repeating indefinitely, with variations, the riddles of what we are and what we have created. I can't help thinking of Calvino as I look at Thall's "The Perfect City" because their projects seem so parallel: "Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and how they sadden and fall into ruins."

The distance between the aesthetic constructs of the city's monumental skyline and the people who walk the streets, between power, politics, and everyday life and the "invisible order" that Thall's photographs offer us, is ultimately up to the viewer to supply. His precise vision captures the distance in visual terms, and in so doing opens a space for a million possible readings. In the end there is a kind of generosity in Thall's images, whatever his intentions may have been, because they hold up a model of the perfect city for the viewer to contemplate, to discuss, and possibly to transform.

"Issues and Identities: Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Photography," which fills two smaller galleries near the Thall show, contrasts nicely with it. These are primarily portraits of one kind and another, supplying the diversity and conflicts absent from "The Perfect City." A broad range of photographic techniques sets off the austere perfection and carefully consistent formats of Thall's gelatin silver prints: collage and computer-generated images, digital images and chromogenic dye prints. Cindy Sherman's odd 18th-century version of herself hangs down the wall from Nan Goldin's authentically distressed portrait Suzanne Crying NYC 1985. Susan Meiselas's color prints of the war zones in Nicaragua and Sabastiao Salgado's black-and-white prints of the Brazilian silver mines employ markedly different means to reveal the issues that politicize Central and South America. Sylvia Malagrino's ghostly Large Presence #5 (1992) captures the shadow quality of memory while it documents the reality of "disappearance" in Argentina. Angela Kelly's two pensive, poised teenage girls dressed up in white sitting beneath a Purple Rain poster in an attic room and her portrait of a young boy in an after-school program staring dreamily at his homework portray the North American everyday with a graceful sense of mystery and humor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago and Bob Thall.

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