At City's Edge.
Photographs of Chicago's Lakefront.
Text and photographs by Bob Thall.
Center for American Places, Chicago, 2005. 88 pp., 62 tritone illustrations, 11¼x9¾".
In our Fall issue, a book by Chicago photographer Gary
Stochl was reviewed. Bob Thall, professor and chair of
the Photography Department at Columbia College
Chicago, wrote an eloquent introduction to the work,
and in my review of the book I voiced how nice it must
be to have Thall as a professor, given his lucid explanations
on the history of the medium. Well, with the release
of his own newest body of work, Photographs of the
Chicago Lakefront, we are all afforded the chance to listen
to the book equivalent of an evening slide lecture on
his work. Thall was born and raised in Chicago, which is
shorthand for saying that Lake Michigan and it’s shoreline
are embedded in his personal psyche—it was a directional
tool, a playground, a source of wonder and thing of
beauty. Thall’s work falls squarely within the aesthetic of
deadpan, large-format photography. He has worked in
black-and-white for over 30 years (unlike many protagonists
of this school, such as Gursky and Burtynsky) and
in that sense, figuratively aligns himself with someone
like Lewis Baltz of New Topographics fame. I mention
Baltz only for the obvious
camera, b&w, and the
somewhat removed vantagepoint
or emotional). But
there are others, mainly
Europeans like Basilico or
Hannappel, who have
been exploring sites in mainly the same way. In Thall’s
work to date he has focussed on Chicago’s buildings,
and more explicitly, the spaces that surround buildings.
In the brief accompanying Afterword, Thall shares with
us the worries that had kept him from photographing the
lakefront for 30 years. "I was concerned that photographs
made at the shore would be too pretty, too much
about sky and water, and not connected to what I
thought of as my real subject: the social and architectural
reality of Chicago...the beauty of the lake could be a
trap, a distraction, but the beauty of sky and water was
also a legitimate part of the city." What seems to be lurking
beneath these words is a concern that what one sees
as beautiful is not a legitimate subject matter. The lake
and it’s shoreline, something that he unabashedly loves
and has a deep connection with, had been avoided for
fear of sentimentalizing it, or being trapped by "the
beauty of sky and water." "Why is beauty a trap?" I want
to ask, knowing that many artists struggle with the question
of legitimacy for their subject matter. In this case,
perhaps the inner struggle that Thall obviously went through was required for him to approach this most
defining of Chicago’s landscape elements (the very lake
that was the cause for the building of the city) with a
maturity of vision that simply was not available to him
previously. Regardless, if one spends time with this work,
there is a lesson to be learned. DARIUS HIMES
Read Publisher's Description.
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