A decade in Fortress Chicago.
I spent some ten years on the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. In time my title and interests changed so thoroughly that very nearly all my friends, acquaintances, coworkers and advisors too had changed. From college freshman to Ph.D., only two things remained constant – my wife and the University of Chicago. It is difficult to explain and impossible to see how influential such close association is until that connection is cut – in June of 2010 my wife and I moved out to the San Francisco Bay area and left behind The City Gray.
Here are a collection of images and thoughts about campus conceived and captured during my last few months of tenure inside its neo-Gothic walls. Directly below you’ll see a stylized image of campus and a series of thumbnail images – this is an interactive gallery where you can click your way through a virtual lightbox of over 50 images and reconnect with a place that was for so long (or so long ago) home. Just click the image or any of the thumbnails to get started and a inset image will appear on your screen – click on the right of this frame to proceed to the next image or on the left to move backward. Below this gallery you’ll find a several of these images inter-lain with text and musings about the campus.
I hope that for all once, present and future students, faculty and visitors, these images will, in the words or Roger Ebert, quicken your heart.
The Long Farwell.
Click on the images below to go to my Flickr page where you can view them at full resolution.
A seminal moment in the entrance of any student to the University of Chicago is the fall convocation and the President’s “Aims of Education” address. I sat in the pews of Rockefeller Chapel one late September afternoon, overly warm and amongst thousands of other acolytes and their parents, listening to the President extoll the Aims, which were to guide all the students on their personal academic experience. It is only apt, therefore, that I address the Aims of Photography (or rather, the Aimes of My Photography) as preamble to this series.
Fortunate are we, who by accident of birth have been placed into adequate food, shelter, and family. Further still, some of us are lucky enough to have had formative experience within visually beautiful backdrops like the Gothic stonework of The University of Chicago. No two experiences are alike, especially at such a diverse place as Chicago, and no single experience is without highs and lows of all amplitudes. I do not and will not pretend as though every moment I spent over the course of earning two degrees on campus was something I wish to remember. The truth is, I have willingly forgotten most of the darker memories I have here. This is a function of the golden sieve of memory – an idea that is central to this blog and my photography.
I think the happier people amongst us are capable of subconsciously sifting through our experience and sorting the grain from the chaff. This does not mean, however, that we are shallow or see the wold only through rose-colored glasses, but that we do not fester on the negative for too long and rearrange memory to be a reflection of positive experience.
“This is a function of the golden sieve of memory . . . [we] rearrange memory to be a reflection of positive experience.”
Therefore the aim of my photography is to link positive memories about first-hand experiences with synthetic imagery. I want these images to evoke fond thoughts you have of campus or college or roommates long gone. This does not necessarily mean you have to have been a student at the University of Chicago. Just as the germ source of the University’s physical beauty lies across the slate Atlantic in the Oxford campus, so too do many campuses and famous buildings carry with them that seed; and I suspect that students of far-flung colleges and denizens of many cities will find beauty within these frames.
Most of these images were captured within a few months of my learning that I would be leaving The University of Chicago for the Golden Coast and Stanford after my Ph.D. work was complete. When a thing acquires a discrete lifespan, our feelings about it change perceptively. Immediately each and every experience, every pint in the dank of The Pub, becomes the “last” or “second to last” or “third to last,” though its ordinal in the long parade of such instances has not changed. Against the backdrop of this feeling, I often made the point to pack my camera and tripod as I headed to campus, planning to write my dissertation all day and then sneak out of the warm and vaulted confines of Harper Memorial Commons to find “one last” glimpse of the wonderment that had all too often become routine.
Abstraction, photography and memory.
There is much I love about using a camera to record images of places or things that I value. One of my very favorite things, however, is to see or hear about another person making an emotional connection to my imagery. This does not stem from an attempt to gain attention or become popular, popularity be damned! Simultaneous popular and intellectual success in art is the product of deductive genius and I make no claims to be capable of any of those things. Instead, I am fascinated by the way that we perceive visual stimuli, including photographs, and process those images into memory.
” . . . popular and intellectual success in art is the product of deductive genius and I make no claims to be capable of any of those things . . . “
That photography “works” in the first place is a strange and wonderful thing, as it is an abstraction much the same way that the words I typed and you now view on your screen are connecting my ideas through space and time to your own. That you or I can connect our favorite places or photographs to important moments in our lives and form associative emotions around those connections is more wonderful indeed.
Roger Ebert (the famous and even-handed film critic) wrote a wonderful blog entry, titled The image of a man you do not see after a famous Louis Sullivan quote, about how much more stirring and powerful he believes older styles of architecture to be – using my photographs as both example and inspiration. Ebert is a thoughtful and talented writer who explains why ornament and decoration are not to be discounted in their soul-stirring powers, especially when contrasted with the daring but less dreamy spaces of even the most talented modern architects. His own experience at the University of Chicago for a year as a doctoral student was what connected his mental stream and my own via the photographs featured here. I will take this as high praise indeed from a man who has experienced all the highs and lows of cinematic photography of the last decades and, like Nero of old, has not hesitated to render judgement with his thumbs.
These photographs depict a much loved spot on campus. Here you can see the social sciences quad in the dreamy and close throes of blue hour during a snowstorm. I had my camera at the ready, and couldn’t resist the temptation, when twilight arrived, to rush out into the Gothic splendor of campus and record a few bits and pieces for memory’s sake. Much like Ebert’s take on architecture, I believe photograph has more to offer in ornament and detail than my art history and art appreciation courses might indicate. I have great faith in the eyes and hearts of the common man to see and to connect with aesthetic beauty in photography.
The aptly, but unimaginatively, named Social Sciences Quad is one of my favorite spots on campus to photograph. Just east of the Harper Memorial Quadrangle, this spot offers a more intiment environment – only footpaths bisect the quadrangle. I have had precious few occasions to purposely visit this archway – once as an entering freshman taking exams, once as an economics student, once as a graduate student trying to escape a downpour and then finally as a photographer hoping to capture a bit of twilight beauty during a snowstorm.
It is amazing how strong the associative power of vision is on a subject that is only seldom visited. Smell is the most associative scent – capable of conjuring distant and vivid remembrances from the slightest whiff, but, when the scene is not a part of the daily humdrum, I think visual association is the most evocative (imagine the photographer espousing that). So much change of aspiration and position, all within the same setting makes those memories seem like they came from another time or another person. Each chance I had at seeing this spot in passing reminded me intensely of those chance visits from past lives as though I had just seen a younger specter of myself walking through that arch into the close and snowy dark in a heavy wool coat, crunching along a northerly path.
I knew that the images I was making of the University of Chicago would be a personal success. A giddy excitement overcomes me whenever I’ve made a good frame and see its preview appear on the back of my camera – this is a thrill that wholly supplants for me the anticipatory joys of film photography. Had I known that they would be as popular as they have become, I may have attempted to make more, and in doing so I would have surely destroyed what is essential to their success – a personal narrative about the past.
“I don’t have your memories . . . photography only works when we share some element represented in the frame.”
Here I walked into the Reynolds club for the first time, largely unaware of the University’s existence and dubious about its merits. Â There I crossed again on a second date with my future wife, ignorant (blissfully?)Â of how long indeed I had yet on campus. Â Here summer and shake day, there winter and a growing love for coffee. Â Here Blues and Ribs, there Summer Breeze. Â Rather than fading into one, each defining moment, which seemed circumstantial at the time, stands alone as though from a life past. Â I don’t have your memories and I don’t know how to use imagery to connect your current condition to past experience. Â Photography only works when we share some element represented in the frame.
It is widely rumored that many students of Fortress Chicago marry one another – in fact it is suggested that this occurs in higher proportion here at Chicago than it does at other universities. Â I don’t know if this is true, although I’ve seen several analyses that indicate it is indeed not. Â Surely Chicago students can be insular and quirky, and (as the second sentence proves) prone to over-analyzingÂ just aboutÂ anything. Â It is true, however, that I married a fellow student and was in fact married on campus. Â Here again, I am not alone and attended a number of others’ weddings on campus. Â These stories, to which I allude but selfishly keep to myself, are the narrative thread I wove through each of my University of Chicago photographs and are the key to why others have found interest in them as well. Â Even if Chicago were home to the lowest student-student marriage rate, a multitude would find their own story accidentally threaded into these rectangles.
With so many luminaries and notables amongst the Alumni body – I wonder if Barack and Michelle shared a favorite spot captured herein, or if Fermi shared a fruitful conversation along one of these campus paths. Â I wonder still if those Alumni that I hope will make it to this page will tell me if and how I knotted your own story in telling mine?
An open book.
Just as the “Aims” and so many convocations afterward were designed to hammer home the values of self-learning and continual education, so too I leave this photoessay open ended. I pretend as though my time as a permanent fixture of U-of-C is concluded, yet who knows what the future will hold. In capturing the images on this page (originally part of a series called “The Long Farewell” and “University of Chicogwarts“), there were some parts of the story left untold. The Cloister Club, The Pub, and countless nooks around campus never saw the business end of my camera.
Trips to visit my family will surely mean stops on campus to reconnect and find those photographs yet to be made.
Justin Kern, AB ’04, Ph.D. ’10 Â -August, 2010