Illinois Issues Summer Book Section
Illinois' photographic artists
By LARRY SHINER
Art Shay. Nelson Algren's Chicago. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Pp. 122 with index. $24.95 (cloth).
Raymond Bial. Stopping By: Portraits from Small Towns. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Pp. 85. $I9.95 (cloth).
Gary Irving. Illinois. Portland, Ore.: Graphic Arts Center, 1988. Pp. 160. $35.00 (cloth).
Willard Clay. Illinois: Images of the Landscape. Englewood, Colo.: Westcliffe, 1988. Pp. 160. $35.00 (cloth).
Algimantas Kezys. City scapes. Chicago: Loyola University Press. 1988. Pp. 130. $24.95 (cloth).
Armed with one of the new generation of 35mm SLR cameras to handle aperture and speed settings, any of us might get lucky and produce some outstanding images. But the test of photographic artistry is the ability to acute a body of aesthetically interesting work year after year. Apart from the occasional museum exhibit, the photo essay is the place where such an ability is demonstrated. Since we use the term "photo essay" for any collection of images held together by a common theme, it is an enormously varied genre, as these recent books by Illinois photographers attest.
As much memoir as essay, Nelson Algren's Chicago was shot in the 1950s, using a crisp, high-contrast black-and-white style that increases its period feeling. Most of the pages are filled with grimy streets or interiors of bars, jails, courtrooms and flophouses, with side trips to Hawthorne Racetrack, Riverview Amusement Park and Bughouse Square. Except for the police, the people who populate these pages are "losers": drunks, addicts, bums, the poor.
Shay has a reporter's eye for situation. One of my favorites among his prints is of a tall, shabbily dressed older woman who has lost her winning ticket at the races. She bends down over a diminutive and indifferent uniformed guard, her arm draped over his shoulder, a look of sadness on her face such as comes only to those who are ever hoping for the big win.
Although Shay has included shots of a few celebrities (Simone de Beauvoir, Hugh Hefner, Jimmy Hoffa, Marcel Marceau), the most interesting subject in the book is Algren himself. Only a few of the pictures of Algren are portraits; most of the time he is walking the streets, sitting in bars, visiting the morgue and the rescue missions, playing poker in a dingy basement.
Because Shay was seeking a candid view of Chicago's down-and-out, he often used a concealed camera, hiding his Leica under an overcoat or hat or in a hoilowed-out book. These circumstances account for the dim light and fuzzy images in some of the jail house and courtroom pictures.
A few of Shay's most striking prints also make skillful use of deliberate blurring and other techniques. The opening picture of the text shows Algren in the foreground, walking down Division Street in the winter; he is in sharp focus, but the people and cars behind him on the street are blurred, making him seem even more the lonely observer. Near the end of the book there is a night scene at the same spot on Division where the
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street light overhead flares out, cutting into Algren's silhouetted face.
But why bring out a photo album of Algren and 1950s Chicago in 1988? Shay describes how he met Algren in 1949 and proposed doing a story for Life on Algren's Chicago. As it turned out, Life didn't want their photo essay on Chicago's underside, nor could they sell it to anyone else. (One deal fell through because Algren insisted that the title be changed to Chicago: Its Deeps, Steeps, and Creeps.) The negatives went into storage, and a selection from them appears now thanks to the University of Illinois Press's series "Visions of Illinois." Ironically, because of the passage of time what seemed too grim and unsavory in the 1950s often strikes today's reader as tame.
Raymond Bial's Stopping By: Portraits from Small Towns is a companion volume to Shay's in the "Visions of Illinois" series. On one level there could hardly be two photo essays less alike one focusing on the wholesomely typical, the other on the squalid and deviant. Yet the books have a certain affinity, since both seek to capture the flavor of a unique type of place and of its marginal people.
Even so, there is little of the photojournalist in Bial, who works out of a posture closer to that of an August Sander, the German photographer noted for his unpretentious, sympathetic portraits. Bial set out to visit the smallest Illinois towns, locating his portraits in cafes, groceries, barbershops and other little businesses that are dying out. Unlike the solemn subjects in Sander's attempt to record the occupations of Germany in the 1920s and '30s, these Illinois people are smiling and relaxed. Looking at them, one thinks that the tales sometimes told of rural poverty, boredom, violence and incest in Illinois must be about some other state.
For me the most interesting aspect of Bial's book is the quantity of detail captured by his large tripod-mounted camera. On the front of the counter in Jewell Maria's grocery at Delland one can read all the lettering on the assorted notices: an Elks club poster admonishing us to "Honor Our Flag," a "J & H Towing" flyer, an old lottery ad curling up at the edges, a homemade garage sale poster and a small hand-lettered sheet of paper stating the store hours, "Mon thru Friday 8:AM-6 PM." The lines on the face of the proprietor who stands behind the counter tell you she has probably worked these hours and more for many years.
The finest portrait in the book is of a restaurant owner in Elliot who smiles directly into the camera over her simple but spotless counter. Neat rows of gleaming glasses and coffee cups line the shelves behind her, and behind the shelves in a wallpaper pattern one can read "Spirit of 76," "Bunker Hill," "Liberty." It is a beautifully composed image whose clarity of detail and simple lighting replicate its well-ordered content and make one believe for a moment that these towns might just be a refuge from cynicism and moral decay.
Bial's black-and-white tour of small town Illinois may be a bit sanitized, but it looks like collection of Depression-era Farm Security Administration portraits beside the two color essays on Illinois brought out in 1988. At first glance Illinois by Gary Irving and Illinois: Images of the Landscape by Willard Clay could be mistaken for each other. They are both large, richly colored "coffee table" books, and their pages are sprinkled with lines from Carl Sandburg.
Where they differ is that Irving's book sets out to visually sample the whole state, including Chicago whereas Clay sticks to nature scenes. The Irving book also features a running text by Kristina Valaitis, offering a combination of history and travelogue which is usually in formative but which occasionally slips into the ingratiating tone of the tourist flyer. Yet her redolent prose is no more overripe than Irving's saturated color prints.
Why am I put off by this kind of book? Is it because most of us so rarely see leaves or fields in such lush color, with the light at just the right angle, and because when we do, it is only
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interlude among days that range from gray to bleached out? Looking at an entire book of perfect technicolor moments has an effect on me similar to eating a seven-course dinner off the dessert cart.
The color in Willard Clay's photographs is occasionally even more luminous than in Irving's, and Clay is even more relentless in his search for beauty. This is partly because his narrower focus on landscape allows him to do things like close-ups of wildflowers or double-page spreads of trees silhouetted against the sunset or low-angle shots of frozen waterfalls. Yet in some ways Clay's photo essay is more satisfying since it doesn't try to combine visual lusciousness with verbal information; it's just a pretty picture book to take out and look at now and then. After my wife thumbed through both of these Illinois books on a gloomy February afternoon in Springfield, she sighed, "It's enough to make you wish you lived there."
The last book under review is not primarily about Illinois, although it is by an unusual Illinois photographer. Algimantas Kezys, a Jesuit based in Chicago, divides his photographic work between recording the life of the Lithuanian community there and producing broader photographic essays like Cityscapes.
Architectural photography has two poles: At one extreme, every effort is made to show the whole building or at least its most distinctive features; at the other extreme, the building is more of a prop in a composition of forms and volumes. Kezys' book falls in the latter category, seldom offering a view of an entire building but selecting some interesting pattern or confluence of angles as his subject.
He likes to exaggerate perspective, and his penchant for shooting up at tall modernist structures from close in becomes a little tiring. But he has a fine eye for geometric pattern and for capturing the reflection of buildings in windows. Although he features cities from all over the world, about half the pictures were taken in this country, and they include several of Chicago's buildings. The best of these, and one of the more interesting pattern studies, is his interior shot of the ceiling structures of the State of Illinois Building.
Unlike painting or conceptual art, photography in this country has never concentrated most of its creative energies in a single city like New York. This has been due partly to the fact that landscape photography was practiced in the West and that academic centers for the study of photography were set up in places like Chicago, Boston, Buffalo, Tucson and Austin as soon as they were in New York. Perhaps one of the reasons that Illinois still produces so many strong photographers is that the most important American program in photography prior to World War II was started by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in Chicago in 1937 as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Some of the country's leading photographers were trained at the Institute under people like Gyogy Kepes, Arthur Siegel, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. But cameras are notoriously portable, and many of these people have gone elsewhere whereas other photographers, like Art Shay and Willard Clay, have settled in Illinois, as hospitable a climate for photography as anywhere. □
Larry Shiner is professor of philosophy at Sangamon State University. He frequently reviews art exhibits for Illinois Times, Springfield's weekly newspaper.
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