Observations on the practice, history, and aesthetics of photography and sundry other matters...
Entrance to Couch Place alley behind the Oriental Theater on Randolph St. In 1903, this alley was a scene of horror as audience members tried to escape a fire that swept through the old Iroquois Theater which stood on the same spot. cSteve Gubin 2015
Recently, I was listening to the Roe Conn radio show on WGN. Somehow the topic of paranormal events came up, and Roe started talking about the Couch Place alley behind the Oriental Theater on Randolph Street. He reported coming out of the parking garage adjacent to the alley and hearing women screaming in the alley. He said he didn't know if people were joking around or if there was a serious problem. According to Conn, when he got to the alley and turned the corner there was no one there. If people had been there, he said, he didn't know how they could have exited the alley before he saw them or heard them leaving. Conn said he is not a big believer in ghost stories but did not know what to make of this occurrence.
Although I am also somewhat skeptical about ghost stories and paranormal events, I am a big believer in Hamlet's well known remark to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." I have no desire to tangle with the unknown on a firsthand basis and I generally treat such things with respect and tend to give them a wide berth. I have a friend who worked for quite a few years as a paranormal investigator (yes, there actually is such a job) and he spoke about some of his colleagues who he felt got a little too involved with certain situations and ended up "having things follow them". Um, no thanks. The flesh and blood world most of us reside in has enough challenges to offer without seeking out problems from "the other side"...whatever that might be.
As a street and documentary photographer, I make frequent trips from the North Side into the Loop. Apart from offering a never ending opportunity for great photographs of people and urban cityscapes, I love the feel, energy, and general atmosphere of Chicago. So, on a recent Saturday, my wife and I hopped aboard the Metra to make the 30 minute trip to Union Station.
When it comes to the paranormal, my wife is much more adventurous than I am. Despite her past suggestions that we a make a trip to Bachelor's Grove, or seek out the "ghost lights" of Maple Lake, I always managed to put these off on one pretext or another. Years ago, just after we were married, I remember we went to visit her parents in Homewood, IL. My father-in-law loved to make road trips and suggested that we take a drive up to Lake Geneva. There was a flea market going on by a park near the lake, and after wandering through that we took a walk through the area to look at some of the older houses. We came across one that appeared to have been abandoned. It was a large house and although it must have once been fabulous, it was now in disrepair. There were broken windows, tangled overgrowth, and debris scattered across the long walkway that led up to the front porch. We decided to walk up to take a closer look. As we stood on the porch to look inside the house, I suddenly got the strongest sensation that we shouldn't be there. Not the sensation that someone would yell at us for trespassing, but the sensation that some kind of palpable presence did not want us there. I was not alone in that feeling. We all sort of looked at each other and walked away. To this day, I still don't know what that was all about. Some sort of mild group hysteria, or an otherworldly presence trying to tell us that we were interlopers.
Because I know my wife is interested in the paranormal, I had told her about the alley behind the Oriental Theater and what I had heard Roe Conn say about it. She thought our trip downtown would be a perfect opportunity to check out the alley.
After having lunch at Seven on State and picking up some apple fritters at Do Rite Donuts on Randolph (okay, I admit it, the variety of eateries is also one of the reasons I love going downtown), we made the short walk over to the Oriental Theater. In my photographic wanderings through Chicago, I have passed the Oriental Theater dozens of times but never bothered to check out the alley behind it. We entered on the State Street side and slowly made our way through to Dearborn. When you first enter from State Street, there is a rather odd mural on the brick wall. I don't know if it has any connection to the Iroquois Fire of 1903, but some of the symbols could certainly be interpreted that way.
"...the Iroquois presented a matinee performance of the popular Drury Lane musical Mr. Bluebeard, which had been playing at the Iroquois since opening night. The play, a burlesque of the traditional Bluebeard folk tale, featured Dan McAvoy as Bluebeard and Eddie Foy as Sister Anne, a role that let him showcase his physical comedy skills. Attendance since opening night had been disappointing, people having been driven away by poor weather, labor unrest, and other factors. The December 30 performance drew a much larger sellout audience, with each of the 1,700 seats being filled and hundreds of patrons in the 'standing room' areas at the back of the theatre. Many of the estimated 2,100–2,200 patrons attending the matinee were children. The standing room areas were so crowded that some patrons instead sat in the aisles, blocking the exits.
At about 3:15 p.m., the beginning of the second act, a dance number was in progress when an arc light shorted out and sparks ignited a muslin curtain. A stagehand tried to douse the fire...but it quickly spread to the fly gallery high above the stage where several thousand square feet of highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats were hung. The stage manager tried to lower the asbestos fire curtain, but it snagged. Foy, who was preparing to go on stage at the time, ran out and attempted to calm the crowd.
By this time, many of the patrons on all levels were quickly attempting to flee the theatre. Some had found the fire exits hidden behind draperies on the north side of the building, but found that they could not open the...locks. The dancers on stage were also forced to flee, along with the performers backstage and in the numerous dressing rooms. When the performers and stagehands went out of the back exit, an icy wind rushed in and made the fire substantially bigger. Many escaped from the theatre through the coal hatch and through windows in the dressing rooms, and others tried to escape via the west stage door, which opened inwards and became jammed as actors pressed toward the door frantically trying to get out. By chance a passing railroad agent saw the crowd pressing against the door and unfastened the hinges from the outside using tools that he normally carried with him, allowing the actors and stagehands to escape. Someone else opened the huge double freight doors in the north wall...allowing "a cyclonic blast" of cold air to rush into the building and create an enormous fireball. As the vents above the stage were nailed or wired shut, the fireball instead traveled outwards, ducking under the stuck asbestos curtain and streaking toward the vents behind the dress circle and gallery 50 feet away. The hot gases and flames passed over the heads of those in the orchestra seats and incinerated everything flammable in the gallery and dress circle levels, including patrons still trapped in those areas.
Those in the orchestra section exited into the foyer and out of the front door, but those in the dress circle and gallery who escaped the fireball could not reach the foyer because the iron grates that barred the stairways were still in place. The largest death toll was at the base of these stairways, where hundreds of people were trampled, crushed, or asphyxiated.
Patrons who were able to escape via the emergency exits on the north side found themselves on the unfinished fire escapes. Many jumped or fell from the icy narrow fire escapes to their deaths; the bodies of the first jumpers broke the falls of those who followed them. Students from the Northwestern University building north of the theatre tried bridging the gap with a ladder and then with some boards between the rooftops, saving those few able to manage the makeshift cross-over.
It is estimated that 575 people were killed on the day of the fire; at least 30 more died of injuries over the following weeks. Many of the Chicago victims were buried in Montrose, Forest Home, Oak Woods, Rosehill and Graceland cemeteries."
I have to be honest. As I made my way through the alley taking photographs, I can't say that I felt anything terribly unusual. It was a bright, muggy Chicago afternoon and two cars and one other pedestrian made their way through the alley while we were there. However, for some reason, my ears felt slightly stuffed, and there was an odd pressure in my chest. Not as if I was having trouble breathing, just a slight inexplicable sensation of pressure. How much of this could be attributed to my knowledge of what transpired there I cannot say. According to reports, the alley was filled with many bodies of the fallen. As people attempted to exit through the windows that opened on the alley, many were reportedly pushed to their death by those behind them, struggling to get out. One must walk across such ground with a certain respect for the horror of what these people experienced.
When we reached Dearborn on the other side of the alley, I turned back to take a few more photographs of the alley and the sign hanging overhead. As I did so, I heard a voice behind me say, "This is one of the most haunted spots in Chicago." I turned to see two guys standing behind me wearing "Pinnacle Parking" t-shirts. This turned out to be Max and Jose, two men who work for Pinnacle Parking and spend a lot of time going through the alley. They very nicely took their time to tell us what they knew of the Iroquois fire and talked about their own experiences. They said that people often report hearing things in the alley or feeling a strange sensation. Max told us that he frequently runs through the alley as a shortcut to get cars. He said that when he goes through, he often feels as if there are people around him, even though he is the only one in the alley. I thanked them for taking the time to tell us of their experiences and asked if I could take their photograph.
Whether or not there are ghosts or otherworldly presences in Couch Place alley is up for debate. If anyone reading this has encountered any unusual sounds or feelings, I'd love to hear about them. And if anyone decides to make the trip to see the alley, I hope you will do so with a respectful remembrance of the hundreds of men, women, and children who died so horribly on that cold Chicago day in 1903.
The Couch Place alley looking toward Dearborn. cSteve Gubin 2015
The mural just inside the State Street entrance to Couch Place alley. cSteve Gubin 2015
Period photo of firefighters in the alley in the aftermath of the 1903 fire. Viewpoint is from Dearborn looking back toward State St. At upper left, the planks and ladders that had been used in attempt to escape the blaze can be seen. (photo courtesy of loopchicago.com)
Period photo showing victims lined up for identification. (photo courtesy of Gutenberg.org)
Period newspaper sketch of the alley during the fire. (photo courtesy of wbez.org)
The Present day stage door entrance to the Oriental Theater. cSteve Gubin 2015
Couch Place alley looking back toward State Street. cSteve Gubin 2015
Max (left) and Jose outside the Dearborn Street entrance to Couch Place alley. These men were kind enough to spend a few minutes telling us what they knew of the Iroquois Theater fire and their experiences in the present day alley. cSteve Gubin 2015
Book Cover for "Chicagoland, Illusions of the Literal", available for sale at Amazon.com cSteve Gubin 2014
“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca-
If there was a list ranking photographers by their efforts at shameless self-promotion, I would most likely be somewhere near the bottom of the list. On Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ I often see posts from some of my colleagues urging readers to: “Buy my book!”, “Vote for me in Contest XYZ!”, “Look at my latest photographs!”, “Fund my Kickstart Project!”, etc. My feelings in these cases are an odd mixture of admiration and embarrassment. But as uncomfortable as it makes me when I do it myself, it's a necessary evil if you want even a handful of people to be aware of what you are doing. Such are the realities of the digital age for photographers and, well, damn near anyone who is trying to share their artistic vision with the world at large.
Having recently had a book of my Chicago street photographs published, I started looking back at the journey and decision-making process that brought me to that point. I am far from being famous or exceedingly wise in terms of bringing a photography book to publication, but I offer my humble experiences and realizations to anyone else who may be considering embarking on such a journey.
In August of 2008, I moved from San Diego to Chicago. By that time in my photographic career, my primary area of interest in photography had narrowed down from the very general (photographing anything and everything that caught my eye) to the more specific arena of documentary and street photography. Even more than New York or Paris, what other city has more potential for the grit, energy, mystery, and classic urban atmosphere found in a good street photograph than the Windy City? I had long admired the Chicago work of Harry Callahan, Ray Metzker, and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and the thought of following in their footsteps through the vast spread of Chicagoland streets was both daunting and exciting.
Between 2008 and 2014, I made walk after walk through the streets of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, slowly gathering more and more photographs. Sometimes I would return home with 2 or 3 photos I really liked. Sometimes I came up completely empty, despite having taken 50 to 200+ photos.
Over this six year period, my equipment choices and techniques went through some modifications. I went from a 43mm prime to a 35mm prime, and on occasion, even a 21mm. (For the gear monkeys out there, I am a Pentax shooter. I started out with a K10D and now utilize a K-5 and a K-5 IIs.) Initially, I always raised the camera to my eye and left the camera on autofocus. Eventually I discovered that in very close or “iffy” situations, the hip shot was desirable for me. This technique took a fair amount of practice and lot of trial and error. Depending on the lighting and the situation, I set my camera to TAv mode, 200-320 shutter speed, f8-f16, auto-ISO topping out at 6400, and pre-set the focal range to cover anywhere from 3 to 6 feet depending on the lens (35mm or 21mm) and how close I plan to get. Currently, I switch between hip shots and using the viewfinder. I don't engage in debates about equipment or techniques because I believe that the only rule in street photography is that there are no rules.
By the summer of 2014, I had nearly filled up my 2TB backup drives with photographs and started toying with the idea of creating a book of my Chicago street photography.
When I finally started putting together the photographs that I wanted to include in the book, it gave me a broad overview of the organic style and approach that I had developed, which in turn brought me to a couple of realizations about the overall nature of my work: I don't do “pretty” and I rarely do “easily accessible”. Considering that those are often two key elements found in popular work, what the hell did I think I was doing? Some important adjuncts to popularity are viewership and sales. If something isn't popular, who is going to look at it, let alone buy it?
Which leads me to the key question I alluded to in the title of this article. Why do you want to publish your photography? If you don't know the answer to that question, you're just going to be spinning your wheels. In my case, I realized that I create the kind of work I do because I am driven to do it, and because I need to present that work in a way which instinctively feels "right" to me. I made the decision to share that work in the form of a book, and honor that instinct regardless of whether or not it brought me fame, money, or popularity. This makes me neither noble nor superior, but it does make me content.
Your own answer to this question can help guide you in the type of approach you need to take. What you present, and how you present it, follows from that answer. Do you want fame and a lot of book sales? Do you want to share your work only with family and friends? Do you want to bring attention to a particular social or political situation? Do you want to express a particular artistic vision? The answer to "why?" helps define your target audience and leads to a host of other questions.
Should you first attempt to build up an audience via social media? Should you seek out a publisher? Should you self-publish? Should you create your own publishing company? How much do you want to sell your book for and how much can you afford to spend? Do you want to get your book accepted into libraries? Do you want your book to be reviewed?
Although I'm happy to share the details of what I did and how I did it (i.e., ISBNs, obtaining a Library of Congress Card Catalog listing, publisher, printer, book size, number of pages, number of photos, book design, getting into libraries, etc.), these details will not pertain to everyone. The important thing is to define why you want to publish so then you can start figuring out what you need to do and how to go about doing it.
The internet is filled with articles and websites that can give you guidance and advice on the many different aspects of creating, publishing, and marketing a photography book. I have provided a few links below that I utilized in my own journey. I don't endorse any of these websites or have any connections to the people who created them. I list them only as examples of websites that I found helpful when I was looking for information on publishing a photography book. Think of them as starting points as you embark on your own publishing journey.
Family at Adams and Wabash, cSteve Gubin 2014
Man in porkpie hat, Chicago 2013 cSteve Gubin 2013
Marilyn, Chicago cSteve Gubin 2011
Subway entrance, Michigan Ave 2011 cSteve Gubin 2011
State St. Bridge, 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Friday night rush hour, Chicago 2013 cSteve Gubin 2013
Books A Million, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Winter arrives once more in the Midwest and the Greater Chicagoland area. Except for a brief snowstorm in November of 2014, the weather has been relatively mild. Will the Polar Vortex rear it's ugly head in 2015 and bring sub-zero temperatures and another April snowstorm? Will Chiberia return this year? Or will the weather gods be more merciful and leave us alone?
[UPDATE on current prediction models for the winter of 2015, along with some very rough explanations of the phenomena which will impact the weather.]
Some of the major factors that determine what kind of winter the Chicago area will have are the polar jet stream, the sub-tropical jet stream and either El Nino or La Nina. The jet streams are high altitude currents of wind which normally flow from west to east. When certain weather patterns occur, as in a large low or high pressure system, the jet streams can dip or bend from their "normal" area and have significant impact on the areas into which they intrude. In 2014, for example, the polar jet stream frequently "dipped" below the latitude of Canada and brought with it a strong flow of cold-laden arctic air. This was also combined with a phenomenon in which the Polar Vortex (essentially a large scale cyclone which rotates about the north and south poles) moved from it's normal position about the pole and meandered into more southerly latitudes, bringing with it a Siberian chill of sub-zero temperatures. Hence the term, "Chiberia".
Strangely enough, Chicago weather can also be impacted by ocean currents thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. Primary among these is the El Nino Southern Oscillation (or "ENSO" as it is referred to by meteorologists and climatologists). I do not claim to be a meteorological expert, but the El Nino effect depends upon whether the ocean current oscillation is warm or cool. An exceptionally cool current creates the Pacific phenomenon known as "La Nina". Roughly, La Nina brings with it much cooler temperatures to certain areas, and a lack of rainfall to others (particularly the southwest), while a strong El Nino brings warmer temperatures and a possible end to drought in certain regions of the US.
Some meteorologists have recently seen signs to indicate that El Nino is strengthening and may make a return in 2015. This could bring a milder and drier winter to the greater Chicago area, and possibly end the drought conditions that have plagued other regions.
The thing to remember is that all of these factors (and, in fact, factors all over our planet, not just in the Pacific or the northern hemisphere), are part of a highly complex and interrelated system. Meteorologists can predict weather changes based upon previously observed data during certain conditions, but we still do not fully understand how they influence each other. What causes a strong or weak El Nino? What, if any, effect does it have upon the Polar Vortex, the polar jet stream, or the subtropical jet stream?
If nothing else, Chicago area residents may be able to realistically hope for a relatively mild winter in 2015. The interpretation of some of the recent data indicates that we can expect much less snowfall than last year, along with milder overall temperatures -- possibly even including some spring-like temperatures in January or February.
On the photographic front, all of this may mean less dramatic photos of Chicago weather this winter. (Remember some of those amazing Polar Vortex shots taken along the Chicago waterfront from last winter? None taken by me, alas, but kudos to the brave souls who ventured out to capture them.) But that is a price I will gladly pay for a milder winter in 2015.
So take heart, my friends, and here's to an early Spring!
Photographs from some early winter wanderings through Chicago and the collar suburbs...
Winter gloves, Michigan Ave, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Van Buren and La Salle, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Moose, Morton Grove 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Wabash and Van Buren, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
77 E Van Buren, December 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
November 2014 snowstorm, Capulina Ave, Morton Grove IL cSteve Gubin 2014
One Way, Wells St, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Alleyway in snowstorm, Morton Grove IL cSteve Gubin 2014
December on Van Buren, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Joe in the park, Des Plaines IL cSteve Gubin 2014
"...the black-and-white photograph is flat, monochromatic, motionless, contained within a frame, and descriptive only of a single point of view. In fact, the medium so radically alters the world that the photographic image may be understood to have more in common with fictional descriptions than with tangible facts."
-Jonathan Green, American Photography, (1984)-
A street or documentary photograph is paradoxically both a fact and a fiction. It purports to be a literal record of a singular moment, but the reduction to only two dimensions, and the stripping away of the periphery by the act of framing, transmutes the image into something else. It is a fiction, yet also a reality unto itself, possessed of its own rules and potential consequences, imparting its own essence and truth.
While none of this is particularly new, and has been expressed in the past via both words and imagery (most notably by John Szarkowski and Garry Winogrand in the 1960's), it seems not to have sunk into the popular imagination. If the general populace even conceives of a photograph as being both a fact and a fiction, the metrics of popularity used on various social media sites ("likes", "+1's", "favorites", "follows" "love", etc.) distinctly point to a preference for photographic facts and fictions that are portrayed in as pleasant and colorful a fashion as possible. "Eye Candy" is the term sometimes used to categorize populist photographic sensibilities. Why bother plumbing the murky depths of Rosalind Solomon or Larry Clark when the crystalline shallows of the latest social media wunderkinds are so inviting and close at hand? If Szarkowski thought he could pry the world away from the easily accessible optimism of The Family of Man, the photographic landscape of much of the internet says otherwise.
Although popular taste has rarely made much aesthetic impact upon the art world -- unless it was served with a healthy dollop of irony, or as a form of social commentary -- the duality of fact and fiction still remains problematic for some. Such expenditure of angst by so many photographers over showing what they "saw", over capturing "the truth"! For some, it is the importance of "not disturbing the scene". For others, the fact exists in intentionally engaging a subject (or subjects) and thereby allowing the essence, "the truth" of the subject, to willingly blossom before the lens. Some may practice both methods, and every imaginable shade and variation in between. And, of course, there is the opposing view which posits that no photograph shows the truth, that they are all lies, deceptions, and fictions. But seeking truth and facts, or even lies and deceptions, in a two-dimensional simulacrum is a fool's errand until you come to the realization that the photograph is the fact. A fact separate from whatever reality it is that the photographer thought they were capturing.
But how are these facts discerned? And who are they discerned by? It is not a question of accurate color, or zone system, or histograms, or resolution. That is the province of the technician....and leads right back to popular taste.
It is the feeling. The feeling the photographer experienced while they took the photograph, the feeling derived from the surroundings, and quite frequently, the feeling that was not revealed until the editing process took place (hours, weeks, or even years after the image was taken). It is the feeling the viewer derives from looking at the image. And that feeling may or may not be similar to the one experienced by the photographer. It almost doesn't matter. What matters is that the reality of the feeling transforms the fiction of the photograph into a new "fact", a transcendent accuracy that reaches beyond empirical reality. In theory, this can hold equally true for "eye candy" and "popular" photography, but it rarely applies because the popularity of such photos exists primarily in their easy accessibility, in their being exactly as what they appear to be (whether they are "true" or staged in a studio). It is the more difficult photographs (possessed of ironic banality, deceptive simplicity, fantastical constructs, the seemingly mundane, the anti-decisive moment, etc.) whose significance requires feeling, accompanied by thought, to be revealed. It is this method, the application of feeling to arrive at the "fact" of the photograph itself, that causes certain vernacular photographs to be recognized for a brilliance never intended or dreamed of by the person who took them.
It is not something that everyone is comfortable with, because it is hard to grasp, hard to put accurately into words, and almost impossible to quantify. And that is very nearly a sin in a world largely obsessed with the need to quantify everything and assign objective metrics as a measurement of value. (Now there's a fiction for you...) But it is important that this methodology, whereby feeling is utilized to guide and assist conscious analysis, is not construed as an all-forgiving relativism whereby anything goes and anything is significant.
As examples, it is the underpinning of feeling which gives strength to the more challenging photos, say, of Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, or Daido Moriyama. Intellect alone, discerning formal visual arrangements, or reading and assigning statements of social significance, are not enough to grasp the "why!?" of photographs like these. (Compare this to the much touted and misunderstood "decisive moment" which, by itself, renders an image as nothing more than a one trick pony. If that is all a photograph has to offer, then it descends nearly to the level of a cheap parlor trick.) Much relies on the ability of the photograph itself (and thereby the intuitive and innate talents of the photographer) to convey the feeling, mood, or atmosphere wherein the "fact" of the image exists. And it often requires a corresponding talent on the part of the viewer to ferret it out. If good photographers are "born not made", then the same may be said for a gifted viewer, curator, collector, or critic. Sometimes, the act of understanding requires as much effort as the act of creating.
El Platform, Adams and Wabash, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Woman and man, Foster Ave Beach, Chicago cSteve Gubin 2014
S. Wabash Ave, Chicago cSteve Gubin 2014
Interior of an Irving Park duplex, Chicago cSteve Gubin 2012
Family under the El tracks at Wabash and Adams, Chicago cSteve Gubin 2014
West Loop Ephemera, "Forgive Yourself", Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Poem beginning with a line from Santayana
It is not urged against cuticles that they are not hearts
which venture forth in search of toenail clippings lost.
You and I seek no forgiveness for the masks we leave behind
like breadcrumbs leading back to where our rootless bodies wait
in crowded isolation.
Blindly, our private desires stretch forth public tentacles
to probe the lacunae of history:
Theirs. Mine. Yours. The yet unwritten and
Gutter angels leer from street corners
on the periphery of our vision.
Unrecognized. Mistaken for passing demons
of no consequence, we hurry past
lest consequence occur.
They mind not, nor do we mind
the blurring of the line between now and
between mask and flesh
root and rootlessness.
Too late we see there is no line,
only an eternal quest for the face we wore
before our mothers were born.
cSteve Gubin 2014
Woman on Adams III, Chicago 2014 cSteve Gubin 2014
Sunday on Michigan Ave, Chicago 2012 cSteve Gubin 2012
Man reading newspaper, Wabash and Adams 2012 cSteve Gubin 2012
Waiting for the Metra, Millenium Station 2013 cSteve Gubin 2013
Outside the Blackhawks Store, 325 N Michigan Ave, 2012 cSteve Gubin 2012
Ephemera from The Loop, "We Can't Stand You", Chicago 2011 cSteve Gubin 2011