November 2nd, 2008

MyEye

Photography Exposure

I went to a photography exhibition on Saturday. This is not something I’ve done much; in fact, it may have been the first photography show I’ve ever attended. Quick self-quiz: How many famous photographers can you name, Chuck? Well, let’s see… Louis Daguerre, Matthew Brady, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe… that’s about it, at least off the top of my head. Maybe more will come to me if I think about it some more. So you see, much as I enjoy photography, I’m no great student of it.

The show, as you can see to the left, is titled Made in Chicago – Photographs From the Bank of America LaSalle Collection. If you have any interest in photography and are/will be in Chicago in the next couple months, I commend it to your attention.

So why did I go? I became aware of the exhibition last Sunday, when the Chicago Sun-Times ran a flashy feature story on it, including reproductions of some of the photos. I was quite taken by some of the images and resolved to go at my next convenience – which turned out to be Saturday afternoon. It’s really that simple. What I took away from the experience, though, was a bit more complex.

There are 150 photos, culled from the complete LaSalle collection, on display. The dates range from the 1930s up until almost the present day. Style and subject matter range all over the map, though a high percentage of the photos were taken in Chicago. I found it interesting to note the types of photographs that interested me and moved me, versus the types of photos that left me cold and/or uninterested.

For example, there was one photo that was a still life of fruit on a table. It was an extensively arranged shot, with the fruit piled up just so, with every other element arranged just so as well. The overall effect for me was that the photographer was being so extremely self-conscious about everything that they had sucked the soul right out of the picture. I felt shut out, as if this photo was so completely personal to the photographer that it was never meant to be seen by anyone else. I do not say this as a blanket indictment of still life shots or of extensively arranged shots in general; I say it only as my subjective take on this particular shot.

One that I had to stare at for a long time was Cakes in a Window, shot by Nathan Lerner in 1938. It was also a still life – it appeared to have been shot from the sidewalk, looking at the array of baked goods on the other side of the glass. What I loved about it was that it made the 70 years separating us disappear. I recognized everything I was looking at as part of my world of 2008, from the raisin bread to the chocolate cake to the bulging loaves of rye bread, all gleaming in exquisite photographic detail and beautifully printed. I could almost believe that if I leaned in a little, I might catch a whiff of the bakery through the time/space wormhole created by this photo.

I also wanted to single out some stunning photographs taken by Richard Nickel. It wasn’t until I sat down at my computer tonight that I learned I’d read about him before. He was a gifted photographer who combined his craft with a commitment to preserving Chicago’s vanishing architectural treasures. As you can read by clicking here, Nickel died in 1972 when part of a the grand old Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, slated for demolition, collapsed on him. It took 28 days for wreckers to find his body. If you click on the above link, you’ll also see a photo Nickel took during the demolition of Chicago’s Garrick Theatre in 1961. There is a glorious print of that very photo in the exhibition I attended. It stopped me in my tracks. While it is good to see it online in digital form, the actual photo is breathtaking – and heartbreaking.

There was one other photo I wanted to single out. It was taken by Art Sinsabaugh in 1965. It had to have been snapped from the L platform on Lake Street. It is a view looking south on State Street, from the Chicago Theatre to the horizon. As a Chicagoan, it was fascinating to see all the changes that have occurred on State since then.

Overall, I found myself particularly drawn to photos that showed ordinary people, some of whom may not have even known they were being photographed – or even if they did, it didn’t look as if they had changed their look for the occasion. Such images, as I intimated earlier, create a connection between myself and a far-off time or place. They suggest to me that if I wish to understand people far removed from myself by time, culture, or geography, I can begin by looking in my mirror and out my window.

Another great thing about this exhibition was simply seeing actual photographic prints prepared exquisitely, showing a level of detail that most electronic reproductions cannot touch. It reminded me that we have a growing portion of our population raised on electronic images. These people may one day attend an exhibition such as this and will be shocked at the high visual quality of the images. It will be like nothing they’ve ever seen, unless the quality of common electronic images gets a whole lot better.

There are a lot of other wonderful photos in this exhibition that I haven’t even hinted at, so if this sort of thing interests you, you have 2 months left to check it out.
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