Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Chicago Under the Loop

The Chicago Loop is a unique transport solution. Transit lines from all points of the city converge on a central elevated loop, entering and circulating until they spool off in another direction to complete their journeys. Underneath the elevated railway is a zone of semi-darkness where a shadow is cast on traffic and trade. An elevated railway was an attractive option for transport planners working to a budget - the cost per mile is a fraction of the cost of constructing underground. Road networks of broad and straight boulevards encouraged American city planners to adopt this solution and Boston, Philadelphia and New York City still have significant sections of elevated tracks although only Chicago operates them in the central business district. In other cities they have retreated to the suburbs.

Artists and photographers were quick to spot the novel visual drama of a railway that passed over the street and recorded the scene with fascination. Visual Telling of Stories has a concise summary of the appeal. But for those existing at ground level it produced a degraded environment in which the roar of the traffic was amplified by the overhead structures, to which was added the percussive rumble of passing trains. Intensified by the lack of daylight, mounting hostility to elevated railways from property owners and business interests forced them out of Manhattan by 1955 but in Chicago they persisted. Sections of elevated railway are common in Berlin and Hamburg, while in Paris, lines 2 and 6 of the Métro run overhead for significant parts of their journeys. Somehow none of these systems has anything like the impact on its surroundings as the Chicago “L”. The reason for this may lie in the constrained character of the Loop that serves to concentrate and magnify its effects. In other cities, many routes follow central reservations, a mitigation unavailable in Chicago.

To this visiting observer all this is very fascinating and it’s an easy matter to walk the entire circuit and appreciate how it impacts on its surroundings while enjoying the brutal and unadorned heavy metal structures that keep all that stuff up in the air where it belongs. Where the streets are broad it sails overhead with little disturbance, the sidewalks being open to the elements. It’s a much more intrusive presence in narrower streets where our field of vision is greatly restricted and there’s an obvious decline in business where this happens. Prestige retail happily thrives on the wider avenues while more marginal retail dominates as the streets get narrower and feel like caged spaces. In essence, the system was developed in accordance with the prevailing American infrastructure aesthetic where every dollar must be worked to the utmost using hard materials, military quality build, with a scrupulous avoidance of any extraneous design elements that might make it easy on the eye. If American transit had been designed to the same standard as the Detroit auto industry in its mid century glory, it would be the wonder of the world for its extravagance and futuristic embellishment.

The disruptive dazzle of sunlight spattering on the streets below is much favoured by photographers but I found more of interest to record after nightfall and in the rain when halogen and LED lights are reflected off hard surfaces. Busy thoroughfares empty out at nights to express a sense of desolation and urban melancholy. This selection of photographs taken last June are not intended as a photo-essay - just a series of images inspired by a strange and forbidding urban structure.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Postcard of the Day No. 95 - Animals on Board

Today’s card offers the arresting site of an elephant in a sling, hanging in space as it’s manoeuvred on or off a cargo ship. A desperately uncomfortable position in which to find such an imperious and dignified creature. The location is a port in Colonial Burma where the British authorities had many uses for elephants as a source of cheap, and uncomplaining labour. They were especially valued on timber plantations where they could be put to work hauling enormous loads of logs out of the forests for processing. Elephant traders got rich by capturing the creatures in the wild and selling them on to commercial interests for whom they were a prized asset. Elephants didn’t join trade unions or support campaigns for independence from the colonial masters. On the second card, a rudimentary steam powered crane is hauling an ox carcass on to the quayside in the port of Casablanca where it is about to be unceremoniously dumped. These are discomforting images and worrisome examples of indifference to animal suffering.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Charleston, South Carolina 1978

Over the last few months I’ve been digitising some old slides and negatives from the analog era. The device I’m using is better than the budget examples widely on sale but the results bear no comparison with what can be achieved with professional quality negative scanners. It’s a necessary compromise given the astronomical price of the best equipment. For every interesting discovery there’s a major disappointment when the technical shortcomings of what I had fondly imagined to be a pleasing photograph are ruthlessly exposed. So, with apologies for the technical limitations and general fuzziness of imagery, I plan to post some occasional examples. The first selection come from a visit to Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 1978, some 41 years ago.

My notes tell me we stayed on the tenth floor of the Francis Marion Hotel - “a twelve-storey dinosaur, overlooking the Cooper River, the bridge, the port and the Yorktown aircraft carrier”. As one of America’s oldest cities, Charleston was well stocked with colonial-era public buildings and residences, of which a few can be seen here. The camera recorded some shopfronts, eccentric on-street commercial signage, a Colonial Revival style Exxon gas station and an Art Deco cinema - much as I might do today. In a small downtown gallery there was an exhibition of photography that included work by Weegee, Berenice Abbott and Moholy-Nagy. My recollection is that they came from the Wagstaff Collection which is now in the Getty Museum. It’s quite possible the black and white photos of Marion Square from the hotel window were taken in imitation of Moholy-Nagy.

While we were there, Bruce Springsteen came to town and delivered one of his three hour marathon shows to promote his recent album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Not yet 30, he had more than enough energy to race around stage, clowning and screaming, and driving a rather sober audience into a frenzy of appreciation. Much to my delight the second, and final, encore was Quarter to Three, a 1961 US number-one for Gary US Bonds. The bus trip to the Isle of Palms didn’t quite live up to the exotic promise in the name - but the beach was long and sandy with Atlantic rollers driven by a strong onshore wind.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Loschwitz Schwebebahn Dresden

A three mile tram ride from Dresden city centre and a short walk across the river Elbe brings us to the Loschwitz Schwebebahn. Loschwitz is a comfortable, long established suburb untouched by the fire-bombing, built on the slopes leading down to the Elbe. The Schwebebahn is a suspended monorail built in 1901 that carries passengers to and from the heights of Oberloschwitz where the most grandiose of Dresden’s 19th. century suburban villas are to be found. Eugen Langen, designer of the much more extensive Wuppertal Schwebebahn was responsible for this cumbersome project with its complicated support structure - an orthodox funicular railway would have done the job at a lower cost. There’s a vaguely Jugendstil station building at the lower level on Pillnitzer Landstraße - built in rough finished stone, it has an arcaded entrance and a jaunty stepped gable. It suggests an intention to bring a sense of occasion to the Schwebebahn experience. At the summit is a tall tower built to house the winding engine but detailed as if it were a baronial fortress. Local residents use the Schwebebahn to reach the amenities at the foot of the slope and return, avoiding a breathless footslog up the fierce gradient. It makes for an incongruous sight as the two cabins slowly rise and descend over the sedate townscape with its network of twisting footpaths and narrow roads - especially strange when it inches forward across the public highway.

Those with an appetite for white knuckle rides can relive this thrilling descent in its entirety via this embedded video. Highlights include the ghostly reflections of the production team, one of whom grows increasingly restive at the imposition of a ban on conversation.