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There is still plenty of time to catch "Made in Chicago: Portraits from the Bank of America LaSalle Collection" since it will be on view until January 4th, 2009. And that's a good thing too because this is an excellent, expansive show featuring the work of Chicago photographers or photographers working in Chicago. Either way, pride of place is at the heart of this exhibit and the work delivers.
Though the Bank of America LaSalle's photography collection is international in scope and extremely large, the works on view are essentially a survey of "the Chicago pictures [. . .] a particularly strong sub-set in the entire collection." (1) With that in mind, there is no overall motive for exhibition, other than displaying pictures related to Chicago that are of importance and high quality, criterion that I will always be comfortable with. Within the exhibition, through the savvy choices of the curator, distinct themes relating particularly to Chicago emerge and are elaborated on.
The physical rise of the city of Chicago is documented by several photographers. Jonas Dovydenas's Steel Worker, Chicago, 1969, in which a bare-backed worker, hardhat off, no safety gear visible, works hundreds of feet in the air on a skyscraper (top image). It's a classic image of the manual laborer in the twentieth century. The explosive growth of Chicago just in the last decade alluded to by Bob Thall. In his Chicago (East View from the IBM Roof), from 1989, we see that view which overlooks the Chicago River. What is notable is that one can actually see the Chicago River and see Lake Michigan; they are not obscured by the tall skyscrapers that currently populate that location. On closer inspection, there are vacant lots, parking lots (as opposed to many-storied ramps) and areas of grass, what is now highly developed prime real estate. As today's Chicago Tribune worries about the end of the Chicago building boom, this image reminds the viewer of how very recent Chicago's tall skyline is.
Jason Lazarus. Inside Cabrini Green housing projects (before razing), 2007. Inkjet luster photograph. © Jason Lazarus.
Architecture and racial politics combine in a selection of photographs examining public housing projects. Though not from Chicago, Thomas Struth's South Lake St. Apts, No. 1 Chicago (1990) takes a straightforward, documentarian approach to the building. The image is reminiscent of the work by Bernd and Hilda Becher, soberly showing the building absent of people. One doesn't need much to tell this is a housing project, the caged middle section of the building connecting the two oppressive towers says volumes about the idealistic failure of these projects, all heightened by Struth's straight approach. Immediately to the left of these is a work by one of Chicago's most interesting emerging photographers: Jason Lazarus. Most of Chicago's housing projects are by now demolished and last year the infamous Cabrini-Green project was slated for the wrecking ball. Before the building was brought down, Lazarus was able to gain access and document the building. On display at the Cultural Center is his Inside Cabrini Green housing projects (before razing), 2007. The image depicts a poem left by a resident, written on the soon-to-be-destroyed wall of the building, reflecting on a life lived there. It's touching and human. While the projects were a resounding failure, Lazarus' image reminds us of the people that lived there and, at least a few, were happy. One wonders where the author of the poem has gone now that his, and many, many others, housing has been destroyed with little thought of replacement or alternative.
Portraiture was also addressed by several photographers. Of them, Dawoud Bey was well represented with two works. Bey's Muhammed (2001) is a portrait of a young African-American boy sitting atop his bicycle, looking calmly back at the viewer. Perched upon his bike his innocence and vulnerability raised an unfortunate thought in my mind, "I hope he doesn't get hurt, I hope he makes it," as far too many of Chicago's grade-school are killed every year in gang crossfire, a true mark of shame on the city. It's an image that causes me sadness today, but could just as easily be read in terms of hopefulness tomorrow (especially since tomorrow is Nov. 4). Bey's other portrait Toyia, Kelvin & Erica II (1993) is of three African-American teenagers, the image divided into six separate panels. Here Bey leaves the edges of the negative in the work, and the images overlap slightly. Each of the three subjects is divided directly down the middle of their head into separate panels. Conceptually this could refer psychological rupture or their separate yet related experiences. Tellingly, the lower right panel focuses on a Mickey Mouse watch worn by a sitter, a classic still-life motif. It's a complex portrait for a complex age.
"Made in Chicago" gathers many significant works together and lets the work speak, rather than over-controlling the exhibition and forcing connections. Related works are grouped close together so that associations are gentle nudges and easily made. The depth is also an asset, one may encounter work by photographers not widely shown. I discovered the work of Wayne Miller, who is usually associated with Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibit, through two pitch-perfect pictures Sandlot Baseball and Strike Captain During Protest by the Packing House Workers (both 1948). This will be an exhibit to go back to.
(1) Whitney Bradshaw. Curator of Photography for the Bank of America Collection. From the exhibition introduction to "Made in Chicago: Portraits from the Bank of America LaSalle Collection." 2008.
(top image: Jonas Dovydenas, Iron Worker, Chicago 1969, Gelatin silver print. © Jonas Dovydenas. Bank of America LaSalle Collection.)