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CHICAGO AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY IN PHOTOGRAPHS
By Larry A. Viskochil
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1984 Chicago Historical Society
All rights reserved.
THE ELEPHANT THAT NEVER FORGETS
By the turn of the twentieth century almost anyone who could look at the evidence could see that Chicago was already America's second city. In less than a century it had grown from a small, remote military outpost and trading village to become the undisputed capital of the nation's heartland. Its position was all the more remarkable because only three decades before, in 1871, it had been almost leveled, flattened like the prairie from which it sprang, by what the whole world called the Great Chicago Fire. Few who had known the energy and enthusiasm of the city's entrepreneurs doubted the confident boast, "Chicago Will Rise Again"—bigger and better than before. Chicago's business community not only demanded the best but, more importantly, was willing to pay for it. The fire gave them, and the city's most imaginative engineers and architects, virtually a clean slate on which to plan for the reconstruction of a great urban metropolis.
By the end of the 1880s a new skyline was already taking impressive shape and the golden age of the Chicago School of Architecture had begun. In the next two decades most of the main elements of what we call modern architecture would be unveiled in Chicago for the world to admire and emulate.
The number of people drawn to this new city continued to grow at the impressive rate that had been characteristic of it from its beginnings. One year before the 1871 fire the population numbered 298,977. Ten years later it was 505,185 and by 1890 it was 1,099,850. Three out of every four Chicagoans were foreign-born or the children of foreign-born. By 1900 this immigrant population had swelled the total number of residents to 1,698,575.
Many more came to Chicago as tourists and visitors. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 attracted over 27 million visitors. Perhaps the biggest and best exhibit of the world's fair was the city itself. Even though the contrasts were great between the dream world of the White City and the reality of the grey and brown city surrounding it, in growth, opportunity and energy Chicago may have seemed to many a sightseer's eyes a city second to none.
The system of trolleys, trains, ships and carriages that transported visitors to and from the fairgrounds on the south side was part of an ever-growing network that spread from one of the most concentrated city centers in the nation. To feed this core of commerce, culture and services the latest methods of public transit were installed. The introduction of the cable-car trains in 1882 supplemented the horsecars. They, in turn, were replaced in 1906 by the electric trolley and the elevated steam railroad, both introduced in 1892. By 1897 the elevated train that "looped" the central business area was a reality. In a little more than a decade it, and other forms of public transportation, were bringing over a quarter of a million workers and shoppers each day to what, by then, was universally called "the Loop."
Many of these architectural and engineering marvels still exist in the 1980s and are used daily for the purposes for which they were built. To understand their use in the past and present, one has but to examine them. Additional insights into their importance to, and their influence on, the lives of the present and future residents of, and visitors to, Chicago can be acquired from historians and other commentators. Their written words are presumably based upon their examinations of historical evidence of all kinds. In actuality, most of the evidence that these commentators and interpreters have studied has been limited to textual sources. Perhaps many of their conclusions would differ had they devoted equal energies to the study of this city's visual records. This book, and the exhibition it accompanies, are an attempt to bring under closer public scrutiny some of Chicago's pictorial heritage and to examine the place photography may have in the study of the whys and wherefores of urban society.
The photographs reproduced in this book were selected from a collection of 300 glass, gelatin-emulsion, dry-plate negatives given to the Chicago Historical Society in 1938 by the Barnes-Crosby Company, one of Chicago's largest photoengraving firms at the turn of the century (founded 1897). Photographic contact prints made directly from these 11-by-14-inch plates provide a remarkable view of Chicago's built environment and a visual census of the city as it appeared during the early years of this century. They now comprise part of an archive of almost a million images that is the Prints and Photographs Collection of the Chicago Historical Society.
While individual items from the Barnes-Crosby collection have occasionally appeared in publications and exhibitions at the Chicago Historical Society since their acquisition, it was not until recently that all 300 were carefully cleaned and repaired by the Chicago Historical Society's photographic conservators, contact-printed by its photographers, identified and cataloged by its curators and made completely accessible for study and use by the general public. To celebrate the opening of the entire collection for research, and to make their availability more widely known, they are being formally exhibited in the galleries of the Chicago Historical Society in the summer and fall of 1984. The acquisition, display and publication of these images have been based upon one central assumption: that historical photographs should be considered both as vital tools for historical research and as aesthetic objects for pleasurable and informative viewing.
Almost from the moment when the daguerreotype process was revealed to an astonished world in 1839, arguments have arisen about what photography was good for. At first the users of this new medium were limited to those who had the time, money and talent to experiment with it—the very chemists, experts in optics and artists who had discovered and perfected the early processes. Later, as others began to grasp the implications of the discovery, each new explorer staked his claim to the products of the marvelous new machine for his own purposes. As the number of claimants to photography increased, philosophical arguments over the proper uses of photography were proposed and hotly debated.
Was photography a discovery best suited to serve as the handmaiden of art or of science? Was it chiefly for public enlightenment or for commercial exploitation? Would it function to preserve society's most significant past or only as an instrument envoking nostalgia and personal memories? Did it offer an opportunity to examine the world in a serious way or was it simply a clever toy? These questions, and others like them, persist unresolved to this day. The answers proposed remind one of the familiar English fable entitled The Blind Men and the Elephant:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
" 'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Though each of the disputants about the proper function of photography was also in the right, their "elephant" was also greater than the sum of its parts. With this moral in mind, how then should we determine the possible functions of individual photographs? To help keep the conclusions of our fable clearly before us, let us examine carefully one memorable image. Initially we know nothing about this photograph beyond what we can see by looking at it and by reading the title inscribed on it: "First Blind Massage Class in America/Peter J. Peel—Instructor."
This caption only partly answers the first question that is asked of every photograph (but not of every painting, drawing, etc.): What is this a photograph of? But while we have provided a title, there may be many other possible titles. The questions we ask of it may help us to expand and explain this image and to determine the ways in which it can be used. The methods we will apply to the analysis of this photograph can be used on the other photographs reproduced in this book and on millions of other historical photographs that are available for research.
To further understand what this is a picture of, what it means and what are its uses, we must try to determine the circumstances under which it was made, the role it was meant to play and something of the intentions of those who made it. Was it to be an aesthetic statement, a scientific record, an announcement of a newsworthy event, an attempt at public education, a call for reform, a business record, a visual training aid, a graduation picture, a public-relations handout or an organizational report? It could, of course, have been any, or even all, of these things. In fact, it could still play any of these roles, or other completely different roles, any one of which may be completely different from the original roles intended by the maker of this image. The answers, again, depend upon which part of the elephant one is touching. This opportunity for different interpretation becomes especially evident as we become aware how the different circumstances under which a photograph can be made affect how a picture looks and, consequently, what it means.
From the time of its invention, people have been attracted to photography because they believed that the camera could reproduce reality faithfully to the smallest detail. Because the vision of the camera's eye (so unlike our own) appeared so indiscriminate and unselective, the adage that "photographs don't lie" gained almost universal credibility. But later, as the proponents and opponents of various uses of photographs again looked at their "elephant" more closely, a new adage could be coined. It may be true that "photographs don't lie," but "liars do photograph." Photographic lies, like photographs, are not so much black and white as shades of gray. In order to detect which lies are little white ones, which lies are deep, dark deceptions, and which are not lies at all but simply less than the whole truth, the viewer of photographs must be prepared to examine carefully the circumstances under which the photograph was made.
To do this, the viewer must first get past the message (the subject matter of the photograph) and examine the message bearer (the photographic print) and the message sender (the photographer). This is no easy matter, for the objects depicted are very seductive, preventing the average viewer from going beyond his natural first question, "What is this a picture of?"
As important as "What?" are the other investigative questions—" Why?," "How?," "When?" and "Where?" These questions should be asked of photographs just as they are of any other sort of evidence that we study in order to reach a conclusion.
We have already questioned why our photograph of Peter Peel's massage class was made. We also need to consider how a photograph is made. If this information is not apparent on the print or from other written evidence associated with it, we need to examine the photograph closely and in detail. It is often impossible to draw major conclusions on the basis of one image and, even if we were standing next to the photographer, we might never know all of the "hows" involved. We should be aware, however, that the photographer's technical considerations play a large part in deciding which truths (or "lies") we will see.
The equipment that the photographer selects will directly affect the kind of photograph he will take. If it is lightweight and small he may be able to take it to areas to which a large camera could only be moved with difficulty. The images that comprise this book were photographed with a large, heavy 11 x 14" view camera, no doubt accompanied by a heavy tripod and a case of 11 x 14" glass plates and holders. Where it was positioned greatly influenced the resulting images. Many photographs of tall buildings in this book were made with a camera with a wide-angle lens positioned on the upper stories of another tall building nearby. How different a photographic truth would we see if the photographer was differently positioned and if he was using another camera or a lens with a longer focal length? The length of the lens not only determines how much of the scene we will see, but how we will see it. A telephoto lens, for example, tends to compress objects that are in reality farther apart than they seem. How the lens is set and focused will determine which parts of the scene appear sharp or blurred. Even the optics of the lens can distort reality since images in the center of a lens are usually more distinct than those at the edges, where distortions are more likely to occur.
What the lens sees is indicated to the photographer by the camera's viewfinder. Through it the operator frames the scene, introducing further selectivity to the process. The lens indiscriminately takes in everything that the light strikes before it, differing markedly from human vision, which only focuses on one area at a time. Our eyes, however, are not restricted to what is within the final frame of the camera's viewfinder. This dual characteristic of every camera—that it seems to see too much and that it frames too little—must ever be kept in mind in our search for a truthful record. What is not contained within the frame and, consequently, not capable of being recorded in the photograph, is withheld from the viewer by the photographer. Is everything that we need to know about Peter Peel's class contained within the borders of our photograph? What might be missing? Were the camera lens and shutter fast enough to capture and hold movement, or was the scene posed? Was the film sensitive enough to record the correct color and tonal values of the scene? Were any real or imagined shortcomings of equipment or materials remedied by creative manipulations of the developing and printing processes in the darkroom? What subtle shades of meaning does the photographer impart to a photograph by his choice of developing and printing chemicals, photographic paper, filters, exposure times, cropping, masking?
Reality, of course, exists whether we see it or not. How a photograph was taken determines how much reality we can see. Therefore, if we can see the same reality in different ways, we can conclude that we are looking at a truth rather than the truth. The truth that we are given is the product of the imagination of the photographer, the mind of the viewer, the operation of the photographic equipment and materials, and the behavior of the subject in nature. Together they form a photograph that is greater than the sum of its parts and something that cannot be replicated exactly in the real world. The less each of these elements intrudes on, or intervenes in, the process, the more the result can be a truthful record of reality.
As we have just seen, there are plenty of opportunities for photographers to lie according to how each chooses to photograph what is seen through the viewfinder. The photographer can also falsify the scene itself by rearranging, adding and subtracting elements from it in such a way that he becomes a director rather than a recorder of reality. If his intentions are honorable ones, however, we can try to decide if his aims were primarily to interpret or to document the scene before him. Whether his motive is artistic expression, commercial marketability or scientific analysis, the reality he will photograph and present to us will depend largely on these intentions. Determining what these intentions were may be a difficult task.
Excerpted from CHICAGO AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY IN PHOTOGRAPHS by Larry A. Viskochil. Copyright © 1984 Chicago Historical Society. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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