Tuesday, December 09, 2008

'Historic Photos of Chicago' ...

I am not a book critic.

I love books. And I can certainly be critical. But when it comes to criticism of the journalistic persuasion, I don't boast any professional credentials. I simply know what I like. And what I don't.

Recently, an e-mail from Liz Chenery from Turner Publishing Company in Nashville, Tenn., popped up in my in box, asking me if I'd like to receive a copy of one of Turner's titles in exchange for a possible review.

I write book reviews on my blog all the time, but they're all from a personal perspective, simply my take on books I've picked up out of my own interest.

I'd never been approached by a publisher to review a book. I know some bloggers who expressly won't. I've never asked them why. Perhaps they don't want to be inundated. Maybe they think solicited reviews would compromise their bloggeristic integrity. But Chenery's missive contained two magic words: "possible review."

There are plenty of opportunities in the blogosphere to blog for money. But today, as I was cleaning out my filing cabinet, I ran across one of the ethics statements that I had to sign every year as an employee of the Chicago Tribune and while I no longer work there, I still hew to those standards. Simply put, I can't be bought.

If I like your product, I'll happily tell the world. If I don't, I won't.

So on this grey, drizzly afternoon, I leafed through Historic Photos of Chicago and I must say, I found it fascinating.

Have you ever seen photographs of the city in the aftermath of the great fire? I hadn't. But I have now.

Did you know that the continuation of Michigan Avenue north of the river was called Pine Street? I didn't. But I do now.

Did you know that when the Merchandise Mart opened in 1930, its floor space made it the world's largest building? Me neither.

Do you know what building usurped that designation 13 years later? The Pentagon.

The very early photos of the city amaze me. It was so sparse. We tend to think of everything in terms of our own time. But when next you find yourself in the park by the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue (nee Pine Street; and I'm talking about the historic building, not the mall that opened in 1976), try to rewind your mind back 100 years to a time when Borders wasn't at the corner of Michigan and Pearson. When the Park Hyatt and Armani weren't just to the west. When Boul Mich wasn't bustling with buses and bicyclists and cabs but was simply a tree-lined street.

On the Acknowledgments' facing page is a photo of the most spectacular mansion. "Where is that?" I asked the page, excitedly. How had I missed that magnificence all these years? Then I read the caption. Potter Palmer's mansion, into which his family moved in 1885, was demolished in 1950. Demolished! Who was the genius who decided to demolish such a refined residence?

Luckily, pages 58-59 provide a glimpse into the grandeur of the space, its walls filled with art, its ceiling soaring. "Subtle," I said, chuckling. It was very Citizen Kane in its outsized opulence.

I've always been a fan of architecture but what strikes me most about old photos are the faces. It's easy to scan over people in photos almost as though they're props. But I stop to look into their eyes and think about what they were feeling in that moment in time, like the woman with her hand to her mouth on page 63. And I think about how, in that moment, she and those around her weren't aware that someone would be looking at their faces 104 years later, feeling a connection to the past that was their present.

Photographs are portals in that way, a chance to stop and consider life in another time. The concerned woman didn't simply appear in that photo. She woke up that day and arranged her hair and chose her clothes and likely made breakfast for the girl whose hand she is holding. Where did they live? How did they arrive in that place, in the frame of the camera?

Books like these never bore me because they're so visually rich. I can skim through the pages or I can land on one photo, dense with details, and study it intently.

Turner publishes a bevy of these titles, from cities far and wide. Taking this tome as representative of its offerings, I encourage you to explore the history of wherever you call home.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The historic photo of Chicago I want to see is Governor Rod Blagojevich in an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and leg irons.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chicago is a fabulous city. I'm 51 and I REMEMBER when there wasn't a Border's at Michigan and Pearson! When half those giant hotels weren't there. When the tallest building was the Prudential Building. When the Bears played at Wrigley Field! Old Comiskey! Chicago Stadium (it smelled)! I remember when the real shopping was on State Street ... and Marshall Field's was the cat's meow (so sad about Marshall Field's). I also remember when Chicago had FOUR healthy daily newspapers. Now it's a city on the verge of NONE. How can that happen to the city of The Front Page???

12:11 PM  
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1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How did Turner Publishing get your name as a potnetial reviewer? Just curious.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

You know, I didn't even ask. I presume she did a search for "Chicago" + some book-related search term and I popped up in her results.

7:57 AM  

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