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Window on a Lost World

The city as its first photojournalists saw it.

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At the turn of this century Rich Cahan led the massive yearlong photography project, Chicago in the Year 2000, or CITY 2000. Now the year 2000 recedes into history, in ways those thousands of pictures have begun to intimate. "They're starting to get old enough to have that beautiful second dimension that only photographs can have," Cahan says. "They're just a tiny bit off. In ten years they'll be a little more off."

What, then, of pictures taken in Chicago 80, 90, 100 years ago? More than a little bit off, they're a lost world. The city looks dramatically different, the people inhabiting it unlike us not merely in their attire but in their postures and in the expressions they screw on to face the camera (still a novelty). We know this place because we've seen such pictures before. But we only imagine we've been there.

"These were the absolute first years of journalistic photography," says Cahan. He and his friend and collaborator Mark Jacob have just published a record of it, Chicago Under Glass: Early Photographs From the Chicago Daily News. The "glass" of the title refers to the glass negatives from which the pictures were made, negatives often marked up with the photographers' notations of who was who, but never with the names of the photographers themselves.

"Photojournalism was in its infancy and Chicago was in its adolescence," says Jacob, the national and foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune. "There was a kind of a lack of understanding of the impact of a news picture at first. You can see through the era the slow realizing of the impact of what they've got."

Chicago Under Glass reproduces, side by side, the front pages of the Daily News when the big stories were the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, the Eastland disaster of 1915, and the Saint Valentine Day's Massacre of 1929. There were no pictures on the front pages that reported the first two calamities—even though the Eastland capsized in the Chicago River mere blocks from the Daily News offices and photographers quickly reached the scene. By 1929 the papers had finally caught on: five pictures ran in a cluster in the middle of page one, four head shots and a photo taken at the garage where Bugsy Moran's gang was rubbed out.

There are 260 photographs in the book, and if they make you hungry for more you're in luck. Almost half a century ago the Daily News, moving to new quarters, donated its collection of old glass negatives to the Chicago Historical Society (today the Chicago History Museum). "They sat there about 35 years," says Cahan. But a decade ago the Historical Society entered into an agreement with the Library of Congress to scan the photographs and put them online. At memory.loc.gov (click on "list all collections") there are another 55,000 pictures taken between 1902 and 1933.

"At least half the pictures in the book I don't think were ever published in the Daily News," says Jacob. "Pictures they would never have even thought of printing back then come through to me as enthralling." As a rule, the more distant from us the picture is the more enthralling. There was something telltale in the self-conscious posing, and today it can give the most pedestrian picture an archaic fascination. There's the swimmer lying flat on his stomach, arms and legs flailing, on a little table in 1909. Or the boxer in trunks launching a left uppercut—shot in a Daily News stairwell in 1902. The paper wouldn't add a photo studio until the 20s.

Only a fraction of Chicago Under Glass is devoted to sports, but another sports photo caught my eye: three hurdlers barreling toward us in 1924 in a new stadium not yet named Soldier Field. One jersey says lake view. I wonder if there's anyone at the school, let alone in the neighborhood, who knows Lake View High was once was home to world-record holder Norma Zilk and a world-class women's track program.

Cahan has made a cottage industry of books full of vintage photos—he and collaborator Michael Williams just published Chicago: City on the Move, a collection of archival CTA photos, under his own imprint, City Files Press. Chicago Under Glass was three years in the works; it's being published by the University of Chicago Press.

The Daily News went under in 1978, long before it could have created its own online archive. So the writing in this famously literary paper is largely lost, but the photography survives, and now an anonymous photographer's strange, wonderful picture of a group of blind children stroking a circus elephant deservedly finds a spotlight as the cover of Chicago Under Glass. It's a fitting introduction to the book, expressing the idea of reaching out to touch something most alive in the imagination.v

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