City Of The Big Shoulders

Catherine Opie trains her lens on Chicago.

For the past decade Catherine Opie—best known for portraits—has photographed urban spaces both grand and mundane as part of her “American Cities” project. The intimate images reveal the character of the freeways and mini-malls of Los Angeles, the skyways and ice-fishing shacks of Minneapolis, the urban sprawl of St. Louis, and the Wall Street district of New York City. Her latest work—a series of black-and-white panoramic and large-format color photos currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago—centers on that city’s rich architectural heritage and expansive lakefront.

“Those are two quite obvious and stereotypical physical aspects of Chicago that linger in people’s imagination,” says Elizabeth Smith, the museum’s chief curator, who curated Opie’s first solo museum exhibition in 1997. “But Opie has interpreted them in a subtle and nuanced way. She has photographed Chicago’s architecture at night, revealing how the buildings are lit up; or she sometimes focuses on an aspect of a building that one might not expect, like a spiral parking garage that is next to the Hancock building.”

Her images also reveal the American landscape as a site of conquest and change. From the vantage point of this photo, for example, Opie eerily captures—in the stillness of night devoid of people—the site of the city’s first permanent settlement: the banks of the Chicago River. It is the scene of continual transformation, with the reversal of the river’s flow in 1900 followed by the construction of twentieth-century landmarks such as Bertrand Goldberg’s corncob Marina City, Mies’s glass-and-steel IBM tower (his last American structure), the ever-popular Wrigley Building, and the Chicago Sun-Times building—since demolished to make way for Donald Trump’s new 92-story trophy skyscraper.

Catherine Opie: Chicago (American Cities) is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, through October 15, 2006.

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