Chicago Street Photographs

  • A text by Per L-B Nilsson
  • 1981-1984

It was a windy January day in Chicago. The snow was blowing between the skyscrapers and the wooden houses across to the desolate prairie of the middle-west. It was on this day that my plane was approaching O’Hare Airport from Lake Michigan. The multimillion-person city appeared on the horizon. As my plan drew closer, skyscrapers sparkled like diamonds. Farther away, I could see brick houses and wooden houses, placed as on a chessboard, all according to the ideal city planning of the Renaissance with its grind-line system. With my camera, I would explore Chicago with all its glamour, commerce and skyscrapers, as well as its slum areas, hamburger-culture, competition and sprinkles of cultural poverty – in an attempt to overcome its geometry.

My sojourn in Chicago become a two-year-long walk starting at 35th and State Street. Even in Chicago, a less glamorous place is difficult to find. The neighbourhood consisted of municipal housing projects for low-income and the unemployed. Robbery and murder were routine occurrences. The noise from ambulances and fire-trucks could almost always be heard. This is also the place where the famous ”Institute of Design”, my physical and ideological base, was situated. The silhouette of downtown Chicago, with all of its skyscrapers, was designed to make an impression. The largest is the Sears Tower, the tallest in the world with its 110 stories. The layout is characteristic those of ”big-cities”. Manpower was replaced by machine power which was later augmented by automation and computers. The architecture also had a distinct appearance. Glass, steel, polished granite and marble, plastic and neon were common materials. Technocratic designs possessing an appearance lifted straight from a science laboratory were the preferred style of the time. The green-painted subway trains pass by at intervals no more than minutes in length. The noise is incredible.

People here are always headed somewhere else. At Monroe is the city centre and the Loop. The Loop with its elevated tracks shuts off light and air. A climate independent of the seasons is created along Wabash, hidden in a stuffy dusk. ”Monroe and State” was my usual starting point for my daily walk. State Street was bright and airy with no elevated tracks for an umbrella. The buildings stand against the sky like gothic cathedrals. Their physical presence is obvious and they overpower everyone in their ambition to be the biggest and the most beautiful. During the afternoon hours the sun penetrates only tight passages, throwing a spotlight onto the dwindling stream of people. The feelings are truly surrealistic and very much Chicago. I studied this phenomenon for days. All of the faces passing in review are like the skyscrapers, like polished shells of granite and glass-hard shells not betraying anything. Chicago is a tough city. Only the most successful and career-oriented are welcome. The unsuccessful ones, the ”losers”, are unmercifully dealt with. Some of them crowd the sides of west Madison Street, in musty, shabby bars or for a bowl of soup at one of the mission houses. Both winners and losers are looking for a ticket to places far away from Chicago. Few have come to stay. They are here only for money and a career, hoping to move west some day, as if Union Station was only a stop between the east and west coasts.

In the crowded Loop are the department stores, jewellery shops, radio shops, bars and coffee shops. The neon signs are already lit in the early dusk offering deals. Here I found a protection against the summer heat and the winter cold, at department store entrances and at the coffee shops with their greasy counters, being tempted with the unobtainable at Marshall Field’s and Company. The wind and the cold are unmerciful. The wet cold of the prairie winter and the biting winter winds sweep everything dead from their paths. Huge highways make their way around the city almost like the roads surrounding those forts that once protected the European cites in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Beyond the highways is the prairie. South of Chicago you will find Peotone, Manteno, Monee, Beecher and thousands of places like them. It is a land with an endless expanse, all flat and windy. It is a land made for love. The photographs of Art Sinsabaugh talk about all these things as do his huge camera and large negatives. His prints have a depth and an extension almost like that of the prairie. There photographs are made during 1982/83; at the time I was a graduate (M.S.) student in photography at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.