Last October I had the chance to spend a few days in Chicago. It was the end of the summer and I had spent the last several months working on natural history and landscape photography.
I wanted to revitalize by doing something new, so a good portion of the trip to the city was devoted to street photography. This essay is called Oedipus In Chicago, not because I had some terrible secret to work out with Dr. Phil, but because I injured my foot on my first day in town. It was minor enough, but I planned to do nothing but walk all day, every day, and by the fourth day my feet were as swollen and sore as the tragic Greek king’s.
I’ve never been a big practitioner or fan of street photography, so taking a turn at it was a good change of pace for me. I brought no digital cameras, and instead just packed a film camera and several rolls of black and white film. In fact, one of the motivations for this trip was to use up the stock of expired Tri-X and Ilford XP-2 Super that was cluttering up the freezer! I intended to stick to the discipline of a of 50mm ‘normal’ lens, but found myself drawn to the 20-35mm wide angle zoom for most shots.
As it worked out, the Art Institute of Chicago was hosting Paris: Photographs of a Time That Was. While not devoted to street photography, this exhibit had plenty of exceptional examples of the genre, from masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was enough to make even the most reluctant street photographer inspired to wander the city, hoping to awaken to the decisive moment.
And so I hit the streets in Chicago, ultimately stumbling on painful feet. I’m relatively familiar with downtown Chicago – I attended Roosevelt University for several months in the mid 1980’s, and lived on Wabash Avenue, just south of the Loop. This was before my photography days, but I routinely walked up to the then dilapidated Navy Pier, and enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods and business districts in the big city. Up to that point in time, the largest city I had ever lived in was Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was a big place compared to my home town in rural Michigan.
Chicago offers a wealth of excellent architectural and public areas that are excellent for street photography. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of the candid shot – snapping a photo of a person unawares, expecting that their expression or posture says something about them. In my viewing of most street photography, these images tell you more about the photographer and their perceptions (or precomceptions) than those of the subject.
So, I stuck more or less to shooting the street itself, the buildings and odds and ends, with the occasional human figure contributing to the image but infrequently the actual subject. Nonetheless, street photography is a significant change of pace for me. It’s relatively undemanding in terms of technical challenges - not as simplistic as shooting with a Holga, but close enough. Metering is straight forward, there’s no flash or other lighting controlls to monkey with, and I didn’t even both with a tripod. It was more or less ‘f8 and be there,’ as the saying goes.
So the callenge lies in composition, catching the moment when things come together, and seeing the shot in all the clutter of the city. For me, after a summmer of shooting bugs and natural landscapes, just gestalting the urban environment was a refreshing change.
The city itself was an extremely hospitable place. It was early October, blustery and cool on some days, but sunny and clear on a couple as well. People were out enjoying the last fleeting bits of warm weather.
The faded summer plantings and flowers were just beginning to be pulled up, an ominous sign of the upcoming winter weather. One particularly nice refuge was Central Camera - tucked away at 230 S. Wabash Avenue under the EL, just a few blocks from where I used to go to school (Roosevelt University.) It’s a great camera shop with practically everything you could want. I visited a few times, and even though Kalamazoo has a pretty substantial camera store, I found several items not locally available.
Central Camera a narrow tunnel of a store that keeps going, and going, and going as you walk deeper into it. While they are on top of everything modern and digital, this is also the place to get your Holga’s (I bought two during this visit) and re-spooled film in almost every format imaginable. I didn’t sit down, but I rested my aching feet for a while, talking with Albert Flesch, the grandson of the founder of Central Camera. Aside from discussing aquariums and other subjects, I picked up a camera bubble level and several rolls of Konica Impressa 50, along with the Holgas. Its a great shop and any photographer who winds up in Chicago should check it out. I still have the ‘History of Photograph’ shopping bag from the store - which has illustrations about past photographic equipment that even the most detailed textbooks lack.
After the trip I sent off the Ilford XP-2 Super to be developed, and worked my way through developing the many rolls of Tri-X. I had drawn from a supply of ‘old’ (pre-2003) Tri-X 400. The Tri-X was developed in Microdol-X 1:3, my standard developer for this film in 35mm format. I started scanning the images once I returned, but somewhere along the ling lost momentium.
It’s not like I wanted to tear my eyes out when I saw the shots, but I was disappointed. But then, I’m _always_ disappointed when first reviewing work. (If I ever get a good shot, I’ll hang up my cameras for good.)
Obviously, it took me a while to get around to editing these images - since I just sat down and looked at them in ernest here in May. I more or less forgot about them until I was cleaning off the hard drive on my scanning computer, and realized that the scan files were sitting on the disk, waiting to be reviewed and edited.
Since street photography is something different for me, I decided to take a different approach to the handling of the B&W images. I typically “tone” black and white scans in Photoshop, to produce an other than neutral appearance. In the past I’ve stuck to more or less emulating traditional darkroom paper tones, or toning processes (like faux Sepia toning.) For this batch of images I applied a subtle purple tone - nothing like traditional B&W processing (unless you consider what happens to poorly fixed prints!)
Hopefully the toning is subtle and not garish on your monitor - it’s amazing how much variation there is from screen to screen. But in any event, the purple haze effect seems to compliment the steely feel of the city, and it seemed to make sense to be consistent throughout the set. It certainly is more subtle than the magenta toning I use in digital infrared shots.
Technical details: All shots taken with Pentax Mz-S, FA 20-35 f4 zoom, or FA 50mm f1.7. Film was a mix of Ilford XP2 Super, Tri-X 400, and one roll of Kodak B&W Plus chromogenic. A few more shots form this trip:
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