At City's Edge. Photographs of Chicago's Lakefront. Text and photographs by Bob Thall.
At City

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 reasons—large format camera, b&w, and the somewhat removed vantagepoint (whether physical 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

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