City Spaces

by Raf

Photos from City Spaces by Bob Thall. The Center for American Places, 2002. Buy here.

Bob Thall is kind of like the Ansel Adams of urban Chicago photography. He’s been photographing its gritty landscape and concrete canyons for more than 30 years, and in the process has published The Perfect City, which documents a changing downtown, and The New American Village, which captures images of the areas surrounding O’Hare Airport. However, my (obvious) favorite is City Spaces, which contains some excellent photographs of Chicago’s alleys.

Thall studied architecture in college, and was a night owl. He would often cruise the city with his friends and they would critique the architecture of various neighborhoods. Sometimes, they would pick out a house they saw and manufacture a story about its residents. For example, they would describe in detail an imagined bachelor rebuilding a carburetor on his kitchen table.  After a while, he changed his major to photography and forgot about the imagining-lives game.

Toting his camera around, Thall started to roam neighborhoods where he could find “ornate old structures showing the scars of hard use and poverty.” Afterwards, he focused on photographing downtown. During the 1970s, downtown was still a pretty seedy place lined with street-level shops that were only beginning to be replaced with sparkling lobbies and Radio Shack branches. Over a period of twenty years, he captured images of the transformation, which he published in 1994 as The Perfect City. One day while working on The New American Village in 1996, Thall used his last sheet of unexposed film to snap a photo of an alley:

The above image stuck in his mind, and soon he was systematically exploring downtown alleys. He found that if one looked close enough, these alleys revealed clues of their past. Here, paint and marks faded slowly since rain could not easily reach them, and chalk marks signifying poison drops by rat-control crews remained for years. The experience reminded Thall that spotting “beauty and significance where it’s not anticipated is one of the most important gifts of photography.” Thall also stated that “investigating these spaces reminded me of my earlier sense of the city as a mysterious landscape to explore.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Though the photos come from a small segment of Chicago’s landscape and most of these spots can be visited in one day, Thall can obviously shoot. There are many other interesting alleys to be found in the city’s surrounding neighborhoods, but this is a great coffee-table book that’s worth checking out.

Nowadays, Thall is Chair of the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago.