Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chicago, then and now...

The photograph on the left by Jack Delano was made in May of 1943, looking north toward the Illinois Central Freight Yards and the North Michigan Avenue Skyline. Surprisingly much of what is shown in the picture still exists, although virtually none of it is visible today from Delano's vantage on the Monroe Street Bridge. The Pabst Blue Ribbon sign of course is long gone as are the box cars. But the tracks still serve the Metra and South Shore commuter rail lines as they terminate just to the north at the Randolph Street Terminal underneath what is now Millennium Park. Also visible in the photograph from left to right are the Carbide & Carbon Building, (today the Hard Rock Hotel), the London Guarantee Building, the New Republic Building, the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower and way off in the distance, the Palmolive Building, all still prominent, albeit diminished features of the north Loop skyline.

Here is the same view today taken from roughly the same vantage point, (with a much wider lens). Only the Carbide & Carbon Building is still visible although you have to look hard to find it.

It is stunning to see that in the 67 years since Delano's photograph, an entirely new city was built over the railroad tracks. I can recall a time, before the Monroe parking lot was covered over, and long before Millennium Park was conceived, when the area bounded by a little strip of park just east of Michigan Avenue, Monroe Street, Lake Shore Drive, and the River, was a foreboding, wind swept, semi-industrial landscape, that was accessible only by serious urban hikers and spelunkers, or by automobile.

Here is another of Delano's photographs of the same subject, taken at track level at night.

How times have changed. Today this piece of real estate just north of Grant Park is arguably the focal point of the city.

The Delano photograph comes from a series of color photographs recently published on-line by the Denver Post, (thank you Francis), which was made for the Farm Securities Administration between 1939 and 1943. The FSA was perhaps most famous for producing under the direction of Roy Stryker, a sweeping documentary project of rural poverty during the Depression. The project featured the work of Delano, and Russell Lee as well as the more familiar names of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks. Click here to see much more. Lange's iconic photograph of a migrant mother with her children was made for the project as well as many of the photographs that comprised Evans' seminal work, a book entitled simply, American Photographs.

Kodachrome, the late, great color slide film was introduced in 1935, but practical means to re-produce color prints in books and magazines, (the primary outlet for documentary photography) did not come around until much later. Consequently color photographs from this era did not get much attention until recently.

My wife once told me that as a child she believed that the world before 1960 was in black and white. While that thought never actually occurred to me, I must say it is quite stunning to see the world of the thirties and early forties in color, we simply think of that time in terms of black and white. The incredible saturation of Kodachrome, especially in the reds and yellows, was unmatched by any other medium to this day. And the film is without a doubt the most stable of all color photographic processes. Were it not for the fashion and automobiles styles of that bygone era, much of this work seems as fresh and vibrant as if it had been made yesterday.

2 comments:

Pete said...

Love the before-and-after shots. Even earlier, the northwest corner of Millennium Park (or the southeast corner of Michigan & Randolph) was the site of the Cubs' first ballpark.

jamesiska said...

The Union Base-Ball Grounds the home of the Cubs when they were truly a baseball dynasty.

Long before our time unfortunately.

Thanks Pete for the info!