Done With ‘Ruin Porn’, Photographer Depicts South Side In Another Light | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Photographer Lee Bey Introduces Chicago To ‘Southern Exposure’

Photographer Lee Bey says Chicago’s South Side is home to several examples of underappreciated architecture — or “the finest architecture I believe that exists outside of downtown.”

As part of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, Bey and Clinée Hedspeth unveiled an art exhibit Friday called “Chicago: A Southern Exposure” at the DuSable Museum of African American History. The exhibit highlights architecture south of Roosevelt Road through photos taken by Bey, who is the museum’s vice president and a former architecture critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.

“What we’re trying to do at the DuSable is shine a new light,” Bey said Friday on Morning Shift. “It’s a complimentary look at this part of the city.”

In a conversation with Morning Shift host Jenn White, Lee explained the project and shared a few photographs.

The new exhibit highlights 'places that have been overlooked and undocumented due to racism, classism and preconceived notions about the area,' according to the DuSable website. Shown here is the First Church of Deliverance at 43rd and Wabash. (Lee Bey/DuSable Museum of African American History)

On photographers seeking abandoned buildings

Lee Bey: I was tired of the “ruin porn” that got shot on the South and West sides of Chicago … beautiful, evocative pictures that people take — very talented photographers take — of abandoned buildings. And I noticed that oftentimes I would see something on the internet — I know the building, I know the block — and I would think, “Now, you passed up five great buildings to get to this one.”

The exhibit, titled 'Chicago: A Southern Exposure,' opened Friday at the DuSable Museum of African American History. Shown here are the Rosenwald Apartments at 47th Street and Michigan Avenue. (Lee Bey/DuSable Museum of African American History)

What pictures of abandoned buildings miss

Bey: Images (of abandoned buildings) are often uncritical. They don’t talk about the forces that made those buildings abandoned. I just wanted to say, and to show, that there’s other stuff out there in abundance. It’s not just (that) there’s five abandoned buildings on a block and I picked the good one. It’s just the opposite. There’s often five good ones — or 10 or 15 or 30 on a block — and others often pick the bad one.

Lee says the exhibit offers 'a complimentary look' of South Side architecture. Shown here is the Lavezzorio Community Center at 76th Street and Parnell Avenue. (Lee Bey/DuSable Museum of African American History)

Bey: If these neighborhoods got the attention and the resources that other neighborhoods get in Chicago, it would be a help to themselves but also to the city.

The South Side has 'the finest architecture I believe that exists outside of downtown,' Lee said on Morning Shift. Shown here is Pride Cleaners at 79th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue. (Lee Bey/DuSable Museum of African American History)

On taking photos of 'living' spaces

Bey: (Pride Cleaners) is a crazy building with this hyperbolic paraboloid roof that looks like a rocketship taking off. And the first images that I took of it — that actually got circulated as part of the press — was just the building by itself, and then I thought I want to show the building in use. So I went back and found another image of a woman coming out of the cleaners with a bundle of clothes, and I used that one in the exhibit.

I wanted to show people in these spaces. I wanted to show black people in these spaces, frankly. They’re not faking or bombed out or left alone. They’re not there for the taking. These are spaces that people occupy and love and restore and take care of. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. It was adapted for the web by Justin Bull. Click the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment. 

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