Saturday, July 13, 2013

About the photographs

    "You better say something about that picture," a friend said, after I showed him the above at lunch, "or people are going to think it was Photoshopped."
      It wasn't. It wasn't even cropped. I don't know how to Photoshop and have never been inclined to learn -- that's the realm of advertising, not journalism. This photo was snapped, on a cell phone, on Monday, July 1 -- standing in the doorway of the Burnham Building at 160 N. LaSalle, where I ducked to keep the sun from spoiling the picture, on my way to lunch down the street at Petro's (try the pork chops, they're delicious). I wasn't going to mention the photographs on this blog at all, not even admit that I took them, though I have, all of them.
      First, they're not the point of the blog, in my mind. The posts are. As a writer, I'm of course biased toward words, and the pictures, while I hope they're nice, are supposed to encourage you to read the writing.
      At least that was my original thinking. Now I find taking photos is fun, keeping an eye peeled for images that might look good on the blog. An aspect of blogging that I hadn't anticipated.
      Still -- second -- laying credit to the photos suggests I think they are anything but amateur efforts, taken for the purpose of decoration.  And I don't.  One of the primary hazards of amateurism is falling in love with your own mediocre efforts, and giving them more weight than they deserve.  Since I have no idea what good photography is, I can't tell if the above is an intriguing image or a tired cliche. You'll have to be the judge of that.
      Third, photography is a sore subject where I work, at least to me. The newspaper laying off its entire photo staff leaves anyone who presumes to snap a photo afterward in an awkward position. Let's be clear. There is no replacement for professional photographers. They have the skills. They have the experience. They have the eye, the connections, the equipment. I'm just as upset as anybody else about what happened but, unlike the critics, I work there, so don't have the luxury of condemnation or mockery. I have to hope there's a larger purpose, that survival of the paper is at stake. And, frankly, on this blog it's a side issue, because this is unrelated to the newspaper. I'm taking these photos, not as a protest or statement, as my friend also suggested, but out of necessity, because I have no choice, and I'm trying to do a good job because I want them to be interesting -- I like patterns, juxtapositions, curious images. Readers also like pictures, I believe, they help the words go down, and I'm hoping to create a blog that readers like.  I would prefer to have an entire a team of professional photographers working for union wages at my disposal, just as I would love a union copy desk plucking out my frequent typos and misspellings. But I don't. This is a one-man show.
     Anyhow, all the photos you are going to see on this blog were taken by me during my peregrinations around town, except in clear instances where they weren't, such as the photo illustrating my story about fireworks, which was shot through the windshield of our Honda Odyssey in Battle Mountain, Nevada in 2009. Sometimes I'll reach a few years back for a picture that, I think, still works.  
      When I took the one above, I was drawn by the contrast between the hideous salmon and blue modernity of Helmut Jahn's horror show of a building, the Thompson Center, opened in 1985, with the classic Corinthian columns of Holabird & Roche's 1911 City Hall. Though now that I look at it, particularly compared with the photo I shot later from the same spot, showing the larger scene, so you'll know I didn't weld the images together electronically, I see this photo does illustrate something key to both photography and writing: the importance of framing, of presenting just part of reality. You often must trim away distractions and clutter in order to emphasize something dramatic or to underline a point, and so make the ordinary seem a little extraordinary.


  1. Amazing how amazingly a reduction in extraneous detail increased the photos meaning. One of the reasons that I have in my old age learned to love art forms less realistic than my beloved impressionism ( at the top of my consciousness today, one of my last days of 9 in Paris). Truly enjoy reading your log in the morning with breakfast just a few minutes after load (7 am here is of course midnight in Chicago) Thanks, Neil.

  2. I think the photos are really nice. I was wondering along with others where they cam from. Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be good at anything. I could practice 20,000 hours and not have a good eye.

  3. Your blog, your content.
    What I enjoy reading about are the ah ha moments encountered along the way.

  4. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoy reading it. It's fun to do.

  5. I have heard 16 staffers were laid off at the Sun-Times on our about July 9. Is this true?

  6. No idea. It isn't as if I'm in the loop, information-wise. I did hear that ad layout staffers were laid off last week - that might be what you're referring to.

  7. It has been fun to see the photos you take during your "peregrinations" around the city, which I believe began when you got your new smart phone and learned how to take pictures with it. You have a unique eye for visuals, much as your stories reveal your unique outlook on the world around you.

  8. I have a question. Relatively speaking – compared to other fine arts – how important is it that a writer be read? I have often heard the assertion that more people write poetry than read poetry. For purposes of this question let’s leave aside the issue of a professional writer needing to earn a living.

    People take photographs and paint pictures for their own enjoyment. Most would probably do so if they had no audience or a very small audience of family and friends. Same goes for playing a musical instrument.

    However, unless one is writing a diary it seems that nine tenths of the fun is gone if the writer has no readers. Am I correct?

  9. Whenever I head people talk about the "good old days" when governors like Thompson "worked" with the legislature, I just recall "Thompson's folly" which is the name unofficially given to that impractical glass enclosed monstrosity of an office building. I worked in a nearby building where I saw it built and erected as a monument to big, wasteful and stupid thinking by government. The "with-it" and "oh-so-cool" designer selected by Thompson put GLASS BOTTOMS originally in the elevators. Fortunately, it didn't take long before even the clueless ones in state government figured out why guys were congregating there during lunch hour. Add to that how occupants got an early taste of global warming with the glass providing a greenhouse effect and a completely inadequate air conditioning system. I am not a big fan of Governor Quinn but he comes off as a "profile in courage" compared to pols like Thompson.

  10. Graf & Steinberg:

    Dave posted on the wrong thread. Perhaps you can do a switcheroo.

    1. JerryB,

      Very funny. You do recognize that the glass monstrosity in the photo is the James R. Thompson building - right?

    2. Graf & Steinberg:

      I am going to take the Fifth Amendment so as to keep people guessing whether I am a total idiot or a comic genius. :<)

      And it was "blogmaster" as in whips, handcuffs, and tight leather apparel.

  11. @Jerry -- funny, my blog post tomorrow touches upon that very issue, answering your question with an anecdote from the life of Dante. Sorry to keep you in suspense (okay -- spoiler alert!): professional writers want to be read. If nobody reads the stuff, well, it undercuts what you're doing. In my view.

  12. I love the photos; they add depth to the blog and highlight each post. The above is a great contrast of architectural styles. The reflection of a third style in the windows of the nearer building add to the contrast.

    I'm also a fan of the Tribune's Mary Schmich and follow her on Facebook. Her camera shots taken as she walks in and around Chicago are great! As I'm not from the city, I enjoy the visual perspectives from people who live or work in Chicago.

  13. Neil Steinberg:

    A reply from a blogmaster is always appreciated. But in the future I will not give a “naked thank you” so as not to clutter up a thread.

    As you see, we both agree that it is very important from the POV of writers to be read. But I wonder if there is much more for the very best.

    With regard to physicists it is said that there are “ordinary geniuses” and then there a “magicians.” For an ordinary genius one can see how he got there. For the magician –Einstein, Schrödinger, and Dirac – it is the rabbit out of the hat.

    Same for writers. Hemmingway and Samuel Clemens are the ordinary geniuses. But Melville (MOBY DICK), Faulkner (ABSALOM, ABSALOM -- being the quintessential example), and Shakespeare are the magicians.

    In my opinion the magicians have a POV that is immeasurably deeper and wider than even the very bright among us. It appears that this vision simply has to pour forth although the magician would have been more popular in the short run if the vision was “dumbed down” a bit.

    (I know that Shakespeare was immediately popular but he worked much harder than need be for immediate popularity.)

  14. maybe urban planners should be fashionistas they wouldn't be caught dead "wearing " a Mondrian color block jacket paired with a roman greco toga dress! this would prevent such glaring fashion don'ts when it comes to our historic fabulous Chicago architecture

  15. @Jerry -- Am I now a "blogmaster"? Hmmm, I'm not sure if I like that. It sounds like a character from H.P. Lovecraft.

  16. @David -- I am one of the few people who have actually set eyes on the enormous "ice cube" that was -- and for all I know still is -- in the attic of the Thompson Center, part of the Rube Goldbergesque system that was supposed to save on cooling by forming the block of ice during the night, when electricity costs were low, and then wafting air over the cube during the day to keep the building cool. Only it never worked. I always thought the city should hold an enormous Stalinesque show trial for Helmut Jahn, to make him pay for his aesthetic crimes, the foremost being the Thompson Center.

  17. Photoshop is an important part of craft, for professional photographers. We think we see a particular picture, and then are surprised at the results that the camera produces - the image may be too dark, or too light, or the color balance is incorrect. Photoshop is used to adjust the finished photograph to match either what we saw, or what we visualized at the time of exposure. It makes the difference between a beautifully crafted photograph, versus all the bad point-and-shoot and cellphone photographs. Read Ansel Adams to learn about how visualization leads to the finished image.

  18. I worked in the One North LaSalle building in '86 and '87, and although the hideous Thompson Center was a place to be avoided in the summer, it did have a nice food court, and was also a great place to people-watch at lunchtime. The baked-potato concession was always popular. And the Thompson Center was the first downtown venue to offer Dove Bars. Previously, they were only available on the South Side.

    Another minus for that ugly monstrosity--the atrium became a magnet for suicidal swan dives. I seem to recall at least two. Fortunately, I was lunching elsewhere during both of those messy affairs.


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