Archival Photo Books: A Century Of Progress

cover_1I recently received a copy of A Century of Progress: A Photographic Tour of the 1933-34 Chicago World FairThe book is a collection of archival photographs from the Chicago Tribune collections documenting the world’s fair held in Chicago from 1933-1934 to celebrate the city’s anniversary.

The fair was marketed as the Century of Progress Exposition and featured exhibitions on technological feats, and futuristic ideas.  It moved beyond an anniversary celebration of a single city and became an exhibition of hope and progress for the nation.  More than 48 million people visited the fair – a huge feat considering the event was held during the depression.

The book contains over 100 photographs drawn from hundreds of photographs held by the Tribune.  One of the points I found interesting was the inclusion of archival photographs that have been damaged — primary acetate negatives that fell victim the commonly occurring vinegar syndrome. As an archivist I was interested in inclusion of a note about the condition of the photographs in the About section and liked the fact they still included some of these imperfect images.  History is not perfect and neither are historical photographs, it’s important to show that reality.

The 136 paged book is filled with black and white photographs that show a range of perspectives on the fair — the construction of the fair site, the exhibition halls, and every day people interacting with exhibits. Some of the images are funny, some beautiful, and some unusual. Many of the captions accompanying the images include quotes from the Chicago Tribune from when the images were first taken.

I liked these bits of commentary but found myself wishing for notes about when the comments were published, the context, who wrote them etc.  I understand why this information wasn’t included – it would have cluttered the clean style of the book and potentially removed attention from the images. I also found myself wondering how the Tribune archive was organized, the book does not contain accession numbers – were items processed? How labour intensive was the search for these images? Concerns of an archivist that probably wouldn’t occur to the average reader.

The archive does have a virtual portal where it is possible to search some of the back issues and photo collections held by the newspaper.   The website is in the beta version so isn’t perfect but it would have been nice to see more of a link between the digital and this physical book.  A digital counterpart that includes map of the fairgrounds with geo-located photographs would help readers get a sense of the size of the exhibition and the layout of the space.

Having visited Chicago in the past few years and being interested in history broadly I found this an intriguing book.  I like the idea of getting archival photographs out to the public in a diverse range of mediums.  Be that via social media, digital archival databases, or coffee table books like this one.

Walking Tours and Public Art in Chicago

Four Seasons, Chagall.

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the seventh post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

While researching things to do in Chicago I came across the itinerary for a self guided walking tour of public art in the Loop area of Chicago.  The tour includes 21 different public art pieces as well as recommendations of additional buildings and sights to see along the way.

There was lots of other public art to take in just walking around the city on a daily basis.  The city of Chicago has a vibrant public art program which include over 700 works found in over 150 municipal properties in the city.  So it’s hard to not see at least some of the public art. Details on the Public Art Program and highlights from the public art collection can be seen here.

I’ve done a number of guided tours in other cities but never a self guided tour. The walk was a good

Chicago Picasso

experience. There was only one or two instances where the directions on the guide weren’t terribly clear.  And we explored parts of the city and artwork we might have otherwise overlooked.

A couple of my favourites stops along the tour were the Chicago Picasso sculpture, the Four Seasons mosaic mural by Chagall, and the Town-Ho’s Story by Frank Stella.

While visiting the Art Institute of Chicago earlier in the week the small exhibit focusing on public art spoke about the controversy that surrounded the Chicago Picasso when it was installed as the first large scale public art piece in the downtown. It was nice to be able to see it in person and being used as a giant slide by children.

Town-Ho, Frank Stella.

The amount of work that must have went into Four Seasons by Chagall amazed me. The 70ft long mural is made up of thousands of pieces of coloured glass and stone. The mural depicts seasons and landscapes of Chicago.  The work includes pieces of Chicago brick that was added by Chagall after the work arrived in the city. Four Seasons was donated to Chicago in 1974.  In 1994 work was done on the mosaic to restore the piece after and a protective canopy was added in an attempt to shield the work from exposure to the elements.

Frank Stella’s Town-Ho Story is located in the lobby of the Metcalfe Federal Building.  The 18 foot high metal sculpture is named after a chapter in Moby Dick and it part of larger series by Stella relating to the book. There has been numerous complaints and controversy surrounding this work with many people calling it a ‘pile of garbage’, ‘not art’, ‘metal scrap’, etc.

One of the nice things about exploring public art in a self guided tour is the ability to spend as much time at a work as you want, to take time to see other sites not included in the tour, and the option of setting your own pace.  This particular self guided tour involved a fairly lengthy walk but made for an enjoyable day exploring the city.

Photo Credit: Andrew MacKay

Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the sixth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

Photo credit:

While exploring the waterfront on our first day in Chicago we ended up at Navy Pier.  The flashiness, cheesy feel, and crowded nature of the Pier didn’t appeal to me all that much.  But, there is a quiet hidden gem amongst all the children running around.

Autumn landscape, Tiffany Studio. Credit:

The Smith Museum of Stained Glass features over 180 stained glass windows in the lower level of Festival Hall.  The Museum opened in 2000 and is the first museum in the US dedicated to stained glass windows.  Many of the windows in the collection were originally installed in residential, commercial, and religious buildings in the Chicago area.  The windows range in age from 1870 to present and highlight a range of artistic styles. Some of the more modern pieces include a window created from pop bottles and a portrait of Michael Jordan. A PDF catalogue of the stained glass window collection can be found here

The Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass features prominently within the larger Smith Museum.  The Driehaus Gallery features 13 windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The Tiffany windows are showcased in a dark portion of the Museum and are lit with artificial light.  The visual effect is well done and makes these windows standout amongst the rest of the of the Smith Museum collection.

The Smith Museum was an interesting surprise.  Typically stained class is preserved in religious building or privately owned homes.  Having the collection in such a public tourism place where visitors can walk right up to the glass is unique. I’ve never seen so much stained glass in one place.  The Museum has done a good job of contextualizing each window and preserving the windows in a way that is accessible.   

Lurie Garden Walking Tour

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the third post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

The less formal gardens in Millennium Park are complemented by the Lurie Garden.  The five acre garden that makes up the Lurie was designed by  Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel.  The design of the garden reflects Chicago’s history and combines landscape design with ecological preservation.  

While wondering through Millennium Park I happened to notice that free guided tours of the Lurie are offered weekly throughout the summer.  The 20 minute volunteer led tour focuses on the design, history, and plants that make up the Lurie Garden. 

When walking through the garden on my own I had a number of questions about which plants were used, the number of native plants incorporated, and the rational behind plant selection.  The tour guide did an excellent job of explaining the reasoning behind the plants and answering questions about specific plants.  The volunteer guide seemed to know what almost every plant was, why it was planted, and the history of the plant in the Lurie Garden. Considering the wide variety of plants found in the garden this knowledge was pretty impressive.

Our guide also spent some time explaining the elements of the garden that reflect the history of Chicago.  For example, the large hedges that surround the north and west portion of the garden were included to represent ‘big shoulders.’  The shoulder hedge appears to support the Pritzker Pavilion that is to the north of the garden and is a representation of idea that Chicago is a city with big shoulders.

The garden itself is divided into a dark and light plate.  The dark plate was designed to represent the early landscape of the site and city — a rugged shoreline and challenging land.  The light plate focuses on the future and the plants in this section are much more warm and controlled.  Had I not participated in the tour I would have had no idea of the historical connotations of the design.

If you’re interested in learning more about specific plants in the Lurie the garden’s website has information on all the flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees planted in the garden. The information provided about each plant is fairly basic/encyclopedia styled but is useful if during a visit you saw a plant that you wanted to know the name of. 

I would definitely recommend the free walking tour to anyone who is interested in learning more details about the garden itself.  If you don’t have time for a tour or aren’t interested in learning that much about a garden – the Lurie is still worth a visit and is a beautiful place to take a walk.

Photo Credit: Andrew MacKay

Parks, Public Art, and Community Gardens

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the second post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

One of my favourite mornings in Chicago was spent wondering around Millennium Park and the numerous public gardens in the area. Millennium Park contains a number of great public art pieces, examples of great architecture, and regularly hosts free music events.


Vegetables in Millennium Park flower bed

 I loved the fact that so much of the downtown area had been preserved as green space. The space the Millennium Park occupies was  maintained by the Illinois Central Railroad and prior to 1997 the area was filled with railroad tracks and parking lots. Through a public and private partnership the now 24.5 acre park was turned into a public space built on top of the ‘unsightly’ parking lots. Photographs of the transformation of the land can be seen in the Chicago Public Library Millennium Park Digital Collection

The park is perhaps most well known for its inclusion of the work of architect Frank Gehry in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge.  Both are beautiful structures and during my visit we took in a bit of the Grant Park Music Festival in the Pavilion.

The park also has a number of public art installations including Cloud Gate (aka the bean), Crown Fountain, and currently 1004 Portraits by Jaume Plensa is on by the Crown Fountain.

Art In The Farm Garden

I was also enthralled by the integration of vegetables into the gardens of Millennium and Grant Park.  A number of the main gardens and flower beds in Millennium Park contain corn, tomatoes, herbs and other veggies.  When harvested the vegetables are being donated to local non-profits. 

Youth working in the Art In The Farm Garden

There were also a number of vegetable only gardens in other sections of the park.  The community driven nature of these initiatives is inspiring.  The Grant Park “Art in the Farm” urban agriculture project is managed by Growing Power which trains and employs at-risk youth in urban agriculture and community food system development.  The gardens were both beautiful and practical.  It was great to see people working in the gardens and actually engaging with the green space. 

The prevalence of community gardens reminded me a lot of wartime community gardens that were started during WWII.  In Chicago over 1,500 victory gardens were started in the city mostly by people who had never gardened before.  An interesting comparison between the 1940s victory gardens and contemporary urban gardening can be seen here.

You can easily spend hours wondering around the parks in Chicago taking in the public art, gardens, and examples of community building.  I also spent considerable time in the Lurie Garden, which I’ll talk about in a separate post.

Photo Credit: Andrew MacKay.

Chicago Architecture From the River

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the first in a series of posts about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there. 

During my fist full day in Chicago I spent part of the afternoon enjoying the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.  The 90 minute boat tour featured a journey down the Chicago river and focused on the history and architecture of over 50 buildings in the area.  Some of my favourite buildings on the tour were the Marina City building, 35 East Wacker, and the Civic Opera House.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) which operates the tours is an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the architecture of the city.  The organization was founded in 1966 in an effort to save the Glessner House from demolition.  This initial initiative brought together Chicago residents from all walks of life and resulted in the founding of the CAF.  Today the organization has over 450 volunteer docents who run tours such as the river cruise. Last year 319,661 people participated in tours put on by CAF.

Marina City Building

The CAF volunteer docents undergo a comprehensive training program and it shows.  Volunteer docents are required to complete a five week class on the fundamentals of Chicago architecture and a four week class specific to the tour they will be running.  More details about the training can be seen here.  The docent of my particular tour was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and conducted the tour with great professionalism.

Overall the tour was a great mixture of history, architecture, and local anecdotes.  The docent covered the basics of architectural style, talked about influential architects in the city, provided detailed accounts of numerous buildings, and filled in the tour with the history of Chicago. I came away from the tour feeling as though I learned a lot but also had an opportunity to simply enjoy the sights.  Even if you don’t know a ton about built heritage or architecture the tour is engaging and designed to be accessible to the general public. 

Photo credit: Andrew MacKay