SHE BEAT ME TO IT. They are the shots I would have taken of my hometown if I had enough time to spend there, except that Carrie Welsh is much better than I am with a camera and she can even make the horrible Chicago winter look beautiful, whereas I would never have the patience to venture out into that bitterness.
It was with her shot of a ceiling at the London House that I saw that Carrie saw those same details I remember when I was very young, a time when I worked as a messenger boy for my father on days off from school, carrying his artwork to his clients in other downtown buildings. It was a time long enough ago that a youth could walk unaccompanied on the streets and into towers that had no security to pass. At least I do not even remember seeing a security guard; I know I had never been stopped by one. I simply walked right into buildings and found the elevator, heading straight up and into offices that often offered different views of the city I always admired. When they didn’t, I sometimes pressed random numbers in the elevator to see if it might open onto another view. Most of the time they didn’t, but I often had some interior architectural surprises that I would tell my father about, as I pointed out from his office window overlooking the Chicago River.
That was another time.
Since then, not only the city but the world has transformed in many ways, but some things never change. I was glad to see Carrie Welsh accompany and capture the city in ways I would have liked to, documenting both old and new in a city that has never disappointed. On the outside looking in over so many years, I am proud to say that I have only ever encountered travelers astounded by the beauty of the city and all that is has to offer, placing it even higher than some of the world’s most renowned. It is the legacy of a city that was destroyed and then rebuilt at exactly a time when craftsmanship and Modernity met to construct a city for the people – workers – who came from around the world to fuel the industrialization of a formidable nation. It came with high costs and momentous stories in Chicago, including the questioning of social values that erupted into the Haymarket Riot most the world commemorates as International Labor Day, May 1st – except the United States.
Encountering an eye so close to that of my own, I could not help but to ask Carrie Welsh how she approached photographing the architecture of the city we both relish.
…and, no, Carrie, there is nothing clichéd about choosing Michigan Ave. A showcase like that is inevitable.
What has inspired you to photograph Chicago architecture so beautifully?
The fact that Chicago runs through my blood is a major factor for my love of photographing Chicago. My grandparents met in Chicago, my parents were born in Chicago and I have lived in the Chicagoland area all my life. As a child, my sisters and I spent many a weekend with our paternal grandparents with whom we enjoyed what Chicago had to offer. Through some family business connections with the Kodak company, we would always receive the latest cameras right off the line. That is why I’ve always had a camera in my hand, and that is how it all began.
It is said that Chicago is a melting pot of all types of people, whether it be by nationality, religion, etc. So it comes as no surprise that the same may be said of the city’s architecture. Whether the straight lines of the newer skyscrapers or the intricate detail of older masonry, there is truly a variety around every corner. There is nothing cookie cutter about this city: I think that’s why it intrigues me and why I enjoy photographing it so much.
Of all the streets and buildings of Chicago you’ve photographed, which do you admire most?
It may seem a cliché, but the street I most admire is our dear Magnificent Mile, Michigan Avenue. Whether you go north or south it seems to be ever-changing and just rolls with the punches. It’s almost like a chameleon of sorts. Old and new buildings, being torn down, being built, being rehabbed, breathing new life, reaching for the sky, or lying low with beautiful detail – as I like to say, aging like a fine wine.
As far as buildings are concerned that is a difficult question because of the conundrum here in Chicago. Do I choose between old and new? Does my beloved Wrigley Field count?
After having considering how beauty is in the eye of the beholder and only skin deep when at times it’s the bones that matter, I would have to point out the great opportunity I had last year to enjoy the interiors of some old grande dames on Sheridan Road: old, abandoned mansions from yesteryear. They had been bought and sold, and sold again before being left to neglect, later to be bought by the city. The exteriors were still in great shape, albeit weatherworn, but nothing a little work couldn’t handle. The interiors, however, were another story: time, abandonment and vagrants had beaten them nicely. But much like an onion, once you start peeling back the neglect some beautiful things started to shine – and not stink so much. Past wallpaper falling off the walls and chandeliers that are tedious to clean, stained-glass windows, marble staircases, grand ballrooms and so much more still held their grandeur. The stories they must hold! I will always treasure my time amongst the dust in those rooms and the beauty of the lines.
Do you prefer shooting interiors or exteriors? What’s different about shooting them?
Buildings are like books, the exterior is the Preface, the Prologue; it is where the excitement and the intrigue of a story begins, giving you a hint as to what lies ahead. It is the place that makes you take that step inside the doors, curious as to what you may find. If the outside/exterior gets you going, you dive right in.
The interior is the body of the book, the bulk of it all, a place where you get introduced to some characters, the scenery, the plot, and maybe you solve a mystery behind its private doors. You might even find things you really don’t want to see. It’s an experience that excites the thrill seeker in me.
That said, I guess I would have to say I get the most out of the interior if I must choose. The detail, the precision and the story: it pulls me in like a book that I can’t put down, yearning for more.
Is there a specific place in Chicago that you feel is most representative of the city?
That answer, my friend, is a dual-edged sword, because, to me, there are two places: one is personal and the other is public, worldly, the way Chicago should be seen.
My personal Chicago place would be my maternal great-grandparent’s final home, located in one of the oldest areas in Chicago, Old Irving Park. It is still standing, like many Chicago homes, after over 100 years. And like many Chicago homes that have endured harsh Chicago weather, it has been re-sided and the porch is new, but it is still there: where a chapter in our lives began in a city of many immigrants. In this case, it held the story of a retired German pastor and his wife, the parents of five children, who became the grandparents and great grandparents to many, many more. Chicago is a place of family and that is what it means to me.
If I had to choose the public face of Chicago that most iconically represents the city, it would be what we locally call “The Bean”, the sculpture placed upon the inauguration of Millennium Park, entitled Cloud Gate, by renowned artist Anish Kapoor. It was only formally dedicated in 2006, which, at only some eleven years, doesn’t make it a very old contribution to the city, but it has quickly become a tradition and integral part of the city. When the reflection is right, this glorious sculpture ties together the old and the new members of the skyline, through cold and snow, sunshine and heat, and that dreaded rain. It may sometimes be muddled by the weather, but it is always there, reflecting the skyline. Millions of people, both old and young, come to our city to see it. I think it captures the enduring spirit that is the good of this city.
The city of Chicago & fine wine and food have mostly been the subjects of local photographer Carrie Welsh, who cherishes the city of her family for generations, giving her a unique nostalgia and curiosity to document how the city has changed over the years.
3 thoughts on “Judging a cover by its book: Chicago by Carrie Welsh”