Book Review: “City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys” by Bob Thall

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Book Review: “City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys” by Bob Thall

Thall_Bob-CitySpacesThere are many photo books, such as Bob Thall’s City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys, that are akin to collections of found poems.

A poet creates a found poem using a text written by someone else. That text is reshaped or recombined into poetic lines and given a title. The result, when done well, is something that reaches beyond the initial writer’s intent.

For instance, Vanessa Mancini mined the testimony of cult leader Charles Manson at his murder trial, and came up with 15 three-line verses. Here’s one:

Judgment of the Dead

I will not judge you;
Have no malice against you,
no ribbons for you.

Mancini saw something in Manson’s words that was deeper, richer and darker than he meant or than his hearers in court heard.

A kind of music

The same is true for photographers such as Thall. They look at something, created for one purpose, and see it with different eyes.

Here, for instance, Thall is looking at alleys and a few other walked-past sites in and around downtown Chicago.

Although a specialized genre of Chicago alleys, these, like all others, were created as a way to get to here from there — as back ways to get from here to there. They were formed by the rear ends and side ends of buildings, by fences, by property lines. They are utilitarian, functional. The architects who, with their buildings, brought these alleys into existence lavished their decorative art on the facades. The look of those structures at alley level was of little or no concern.

Yet, when Thall looked at them, he saw beauty and history and a kind of music.

To infinity

Consider this alley view near LaSalle and Monroe Streets. There is a rhythm in the parallel diagonals of the two immediate structures, and then the soaring sun-lit corners, unblinkingly vertical, beyond the el tracks, and, below and between, the continuation of the alley, seemingly to infinity.

thall --- page 27

Or this alley between Washington and Madison Streets, near Wells Street. Here, again, is that line space to infinity along the pavement through alternating light and darkness. But, above, in the juncture of two — or is it three — structures, there is a clash of angles and tones, the equal of an abstract painting.

thall --- page 36

Visions

In the rigorous grid of Chicago streets, there are, here and there, diagonal roadways that give the buildings, as seen from the street, a distinctiveness. They’re seen better than those on rectangular sites.

The alleys they create, by contrast, are like caverns or chasms that twist in such a way that there is an uneasy mystery about what is just a few feet away. Look at this one between Michigan and Wabash Avenues, near Wacker Drive.

thall --- page 58

Some alley walls — for instance, this one between Adams and Monroe Streets, near Franklin Street — are documents of the past. Here, you can almost touch the different layers of history.

If there is a text for this, it is: “This, too, will pass.”

thall --- page 17

Patrick T. Reardon
2.28.13

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