Photography show provides look into Chicago's past and present

January 31, 2011

Art curator Nathan Mason, who possesses a near endless supply of old stereoscope images, postcards and black and white photographs from the city's infancy, gave me an interesting task a few months ago: take present-day photographs of the places shown in the aged images.
 
I did. And it was a blast.
 
The result is an exhibit in the City Gallery, 806 N. Michigan, inside the historic Water Tower. Called "Chicago Then and Now: A Story by Lee Bey," the exhibit, which opened last Friday, shows about 20 past images placed side-by-side with current photos of the same place. One pairing is shown above: an aged photo of St. Ignatius HS and Holy Family Church next to a color photo I took of the same structures about three weeks ago from the same angle.
 
(And it was either luck or providence that a car passed into my frame at almost the exact spot a horse-and-buggy entered the view of the photographer took the stereoscope more than a century ago.)
 
Of course its interesting to see how the city has simultaneously changed and remained the same. You'll see a magnificent vintage shot of old Prairie Avenue north of 24th Street, but most of the old manses were demolished in the 1950s and '60s; the accompanying photo shows the cleared lots and industrial fencing that still scar the landscape years after the homes were raised.
 
In other areas, I noticed streets were widened, eliminating planted parkways. In the case of St. James Cathedral at Huron and Wabash, the old and new photos show how the edifice survived both the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the massive wave of development that also changed the look of the area 120 years later.  In the pairing below of the Washington statute at 51st and King Drive, notice how the building in the background over the years lost its awnings, ornamental top and cornice. The statue itself was moved from the middle of the street to the western edge of King Drive.
 
Writer Elizabeth McNulty covered this fertile ground a decade ago with her excellent photobook, Chicago Then and Now. But the exhibit, which runs until January 2012, will dig a good deal deeper, thanks to Mason's excellent curating and city historian Tim Samuelson's captions and narratives. New images and themes will be introduced every three months and the lesser-trod paths of the city will be documented and shown. And I'll be giving a gallery talk there every third Tuesday of each month, beginning February 15th.