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Friday, 6 November 2015


Snapshots of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s
 I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago... I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.”
Rudyard Kipling

People will tell you New York used to be the world’s biggest city, the richest or most beautiful, but also the most violent and depraved. It was the cultural capital of the world or its actual beating heart, and so on. One or two of these may have come close to the truth at some point. Chicago never attracted that level of hyperbole but what we were told about it made it more glamorous, in a tough, seedy way: the meatpacking district, the black sox scandal, Al Capone and the outfit, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. If New York was an overdressed hooker preening under Neon lights, Chicago was the snivelling little pimp standing back in the shadows.

  Not that you’ll see that in this collection, centred essentially on this and the next two, being snapshots taken by the same person in 1943. This one in particular is rather special in that we get two military men framing a view down the sidewalk on Michigan Ave, the Stars and Stripes above them creating a triangle while on the right we get a line of Cadillacs under the Pabst beer sign. Pabst is horrid: you wouldn’t feed it to a dog, but the company did build one of the few advertisements deserving praise as an architectural icon. Note the time on the sign: it looks like 7 to 12.

  Which is about two and a half hours before this photo was taken. It’s a shame there aren’t more by this photographer of Chicago in the collection. He or she had an eye for the panoramic view. Consider the way your eye moves from the pole in the foreground to the one at the middle space, and then to the Pabst sign sitting between them in the distant background. Your eye is led in towards the sign; a trick that professionals don’t always understand.

 Okay it might be a fluke except that we see it again; less successfully if you want to argue that, but enough to demonstrate our photographer understands the interior design of a photograph. Janet Malcolm in her famous essay on vernacular photography, “Diana and Nikon”, struggled with the problem that an ordinary snapshot could be visually richer than work by professionals; the problem being that she wondered how to judge it without the standard parameters in place. And now the Pabst clock says it is 5:30.

 Chicago 1954: Syphilis took care of Al Capone some years back but the Outfit is alive and kicking. Whether Memphis Minnie knows it or not, her career is riding a steep slope downhill, but in a couple of years Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf will shake up England with the blues, and on June 19 the city, being several hundred miles from the coast, is struck by a tidal wave that kills eight people. Is our photographer here aware of any of that? Seems not.

 But he/she has time to visit the Chicago Zoo in 1954, and who wouldn’t? Opened twenty(ish) years earlier, it was revolutionary in the way it removed the bars between spectator and animal. All that separated some vicious, slow-witted carnivores from the furrier mammals was a moat and a low fence. We could wonder who benefited most from this – human or animal – and here we see two polar bears sans anything like a protecting fence or safe distance. In other words, we (the people) got to imagine animals as though there was nothing between us and them. What did the polar bears think of this? Who has the foggiest to be honest, but the stretch of lawn is a nice touch. Bet they never saw that on the ice floe back home.

 From the zoo to the aquarium, to the Shedd Aquarium to give it its proper monicker, despite ‘Shedd’ obviously being a thoughtless name for the world’s biggest aquarium and an institution that will boast of its size from the moment it was founded in 1930. Shedd was one of those figures common to America C1890-1920 who made a lot of money in ways only vaguely understood by the rest of us but poured a lot of it into public institutions like the eponymous aquarium, libraries and museums. One thinks of such entrepreneurs as being either great men or lesser men that have something guilt-like to deal with, but likable nevertheless for what they bequeathed. It’s possible the photographer wanted an exposure that filled the hall with light while showing the sea creatures floating about in detail but that could never be. What we get instead is something much better – a kind of modernist laboratory. What lies behind the glass in this scene? Something more mysterious than wrasse and perch. 


The visit to Chicago has been too short and too shallow. We barely get a sense of the second city. Back in the day, if we were to leave town, presumably because our luck had run out or because the local law enforcement officers encouraged us to, Union Station would be the place to head to. It was the kid of place that required a proper entrance, in a dark suit, grey rabbit fur homburg and a kipper tie. This view vanished years ago. That neo-classical thing in the foreground was replaced by an office tower seven times as high, four times as wide and twenty three times less interesting. This should come as no surprise. Like so many cities busily erasing their past, it is stuck back there and can never be genuinely contemporary.


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