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The Urban Sublime: A Review Of Turner Publishing’s Historic Photos of Chicago

May 3, 2008

[Revised: 5/5/2008, 10:20 a.m.]

Turner Publishing has created an ongoing “Historic Photos of…” series that covers everything from Alaska to Winston-Salem and World War II. These elegant coffee table-type books present striking, generally black-and-white photographs of people, buildings, and events associated with the topic at hand.

Before acquiring Historic Photos of Chicago, I knew nothing about the book, the series, or Turner Publishing. I am pleased to recommend both my particular publication and, I believe, the 103-volume-and-counting series in general.

But why am I reviewing a mere “coffee table book”? I think this publication offers something more. One could classify it as an extended photographic essay—the text in this case pertaining to Chicago history. With that, there are justifiable reasons to turn one’s critical faculty toward Historic Photos of Chicago. Of course one might simply want to draw attention to a book. This one is most certainly worthy of that kind of puff piece. I do not intend, however, for this to be one of those reviews.

To begin, I hope we are long past the time where historians would not take some forms of photographic history seriously, especially an account accompanied by text. These presentations can and do affect the public’s consciousness of the past. Some of my earliest encounters with history, as an inquisitive child, came from picture-laden Time-Life series. That type of series, whether based in photographs or illustrations, formed both accurate and inaccurate impressions in me about the now-mythical American West, Civil War, World War II, and other subjects. And, to be sure, Historic Photos of Chicago tells a story of Chicago’s past.

A prominent member of the Chicago history establishment helped produce Historic Photos of Chicago. The Chicago History Museum‘s very own Executive Vice President and Chief Historian, Russell Lewis, composed the text and captions for this publication. In the interest of disclosure, I worked with Russell for an academic year when I served as recording secretary for CHM’s Urban History Seminar. I both like Russell and appreciate what he has done for the public’s awareness of history in Chicago. He more than many other professional historians understands how the public consciousness of history is affected by books like Historic Photos of Chicago. Scroll to the bottom of this link for a biography of Lewis.

But what of the book? It covers people, places, and things associated with Chicago from around the city’s founding until the late 1960s. The latest picture in the book comes from 1976, but most deal with 1968 and earlier. The pictures come from CHM only, and all are black-and-white. I was surprised at the limitation to CHM, but presume that permissions might have played some role in selection. The notes (pp. 199-205) indicate that a photographer would be listed for each picture citation, but only three of the photos—all taken by Alexander Hesler—specify a photographer. It seems probable that the CHM’s on-site file provides more photographer information.

Historic Photos of Chicago contains a publisher’s preface, and is divided into five historical chapters: 1840-1870, 1871-1900, 1900-1917, 1918-1940, and 1940-1970. Each is 16, 36, 70, 56, and 19 pages long, respectively. This means that the bulk of the pictures reprinted deal with the 1871-1940 period: the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, World War I, The Jazz Age, Prohibition, and Great Depression.

Each chapter begins with a page of text written by Lewis. These summations are excellent pieces that hit the high points of the period in question. They are short enough to not be distracting, but informative enough to give you a taste of the times.

The 1840-1870 chapter is understandably limited. Six of its fifteen pictures come from 1858, and the abovementioned Alexander Hesler shot three of those six. Most of these photos are of buildings: two contain people—Chicago’s first mayor, William Ogden, and another of Confederate prisoners housed at Camp Douglas. The architectural emphasis is a theme of the book. Before seeing them here, I did not know that pictures of Chicago existed from this period. My unofficial, internal sense of technological history told me that photography was merely experimental in the pre-Civil War period.

Some of the most striking pictures in Historic Photos of Chicago deal with the aftermath of the 1871 disaster that was the Great Chicago Fire. Although I had read Karen Sawislak’s engrossing academic history of the fire, Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874 (University of Chicago Press, 1995), I do not recall its containing post-Fire photographs. Although one can read about the Fire’s devastation, seeing pictures of the rubble and ruins of downtown makes a more powerful impression. This is Historic Photos of Chicago at its best in terms of concrete history. The chapter also contains some eye-catching photos of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

The 1900-1917 period heralds the arrival of more and more people in the book. In this chapter you will see Amos Alonzo Stagg, Billy Sunday, Harry Pratt Judson, striking Union Stock Yard Workers (with police), and a 1903 Chicago White Sox team photo. But, like the prior chapter, buildings, streetscapes, and architecture dominate. This seems appropriate to me, as another hidden theme of the book is that the city—its great men, raw size, hulking buildings, and geography (especially Lake Michigan)—dwarfs its populace at times. The less fortunate and weaker individuals of Chicago are subsumed by larger forces.

The last chapter, awkwardly titled “Violence and the Depression Mark the End of the First Century,” actually conveys neither any violence nor any sense of the Great Depression. But that is of little consequence with regard to the book on the whole, which is not particularly concerned with Chicago’s underbelly as was the Nelson Algren-inspired photography of Art Shay (whose work was on display at CHM last year).

This final chapter, which covers the 1918-1940 period, does however provide a real sense of connection to Chicago today. The streetscapes and buildings give the reader an early, black-and-white sense of the metropolis. I was intrigued to learn (on p. 169) that Midway held the title of “World’s Busiest Airport” from 1932 until O’Hare gained the distinction in 1962. This explains why it was news in Chicago when Atlanta’s airport temporarily wrestled the title away a few years ago.

The above-average reader and scholar will find a few faults with Historic Photos of Chicago. A few of the pictures felt out of place (i.e. two on pages 184-185 should have been in the prior chapter), and the book is a bit too focused on buildings and architecture. I also would have liked to have seen a “Suggested Reading” list for the curious explorer: even one page could help the reader extend her or his knowledge. The publisher’s preface could have been radically abbreviated or cut. Is it really needed, for instance, in a book like this to philosophize that “the power of photographs” derives from their “less subjective. . .treatment of history”? No. I do not think that Russell Lewis believes this, and there is not enough space to develop the point fully. But these minor problems should not dissuade a library or interested reader from purchasing Historic Photos of Chicago.

It defeats the purpose, of course, to be too critical of a photographic essay or coffee-table book. If it holds forth any type of beauty, or in this case historic attractions, it is probably worthy. And Historic Photos of Chicago contains many fascinating, and even arresting, images. The photographs in these pages make the book a worthy addition to any collection of works about the city. My personal favorite, a photo of a Hancock Building under construction, arrives a few pages from the end. To me, the Hancock embodies the combination of grace and power—sublimeness—that partially explains why people love our modern cities. Historic Photos of Chicago helps further our collective understanding of that attraction.


Historic Photos of Chicago. Text and captions by Russell Lewis. Nashville: Turner Publishing, 2006. 216 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-59652-255-8.

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One Comment
  1. I think the entry to engagement of students in history is the “everyday” life concept. What were things like? How did people live? What did they eat? Where (even) did they go to the bathroom? Students can jump into that because they can each find touch-points, and that creates a foundation which lets you build the “big stuff” into some sort of logical context.

    Photography is one excellent way to begin this. It describes, in ways easily cognitively understood by people today, with that first peek through the keyhole back into this other world.


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