Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, June 15

Gapers Block

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Starting in 1938 and continuing for 30 years, an amateur photographer named Charles Cushman traveled the world, documenting it with his Contax IIA camera, taking meticulous notes as he went. Upon his death in 1972, his vast collection of slides passed to Indiana University, his alma mater.

Decades later, his photos are remarkable for a quality lost in most pictures of his day: full color. Entering the collection is like Dorothy entering Oz.

Preservationist Eric Sandweiss puts it well: In Cushman's photos, "saturated in almost embarrassingly vivid colors, springs to life a world that we had long since resigned ourselves to viewing only in shades of gray."

In 2003, the Digital Library Program at the University of Indiana released its digitized version of the 14,500-slide Cushman collection, completely indexed and annotated. Taken both as a whole and as individual documents, the results are staggering.

Cushman lived in Chicago for several of his Contax years. His photos here were primarily taken in Hyde Park, Maxwell Street and downtown, capturing the daily comings and goings of the city's people and buildings. They help answer questions modern citydwellers regularly ask: What used to be here? More important, who used to be here, and what did they do? What have we lost, and what have we traded it for?

This summer I decided to find out. I chose several dozen of Cushman's Chicago photos and pedaled around the city on my bicycle, attempting to re-create Cushman's vantage points as closely as possible. The results are presented here, side-by-side with the originals. (Permission to do so has been graciously given by the Indiana University Archives. Indiana University maintains copyright over Cushman's photos.)

A few observations:

• My re-creations are close but never precise. It was difficult to determine exactly where Cushman stood when he took his photos, and the perspectives of some photos suggest that he photographed from atop his car or a ladder. Often I would get home and compare the photos and realize that had I stood only a few steps to the left or right, I might have nailed it. To be completely accurate, of course, I would not only have to be using the same lens length as Cushman but photograph at the same time of day and year to capture the subjects in the same light.

• Cushman would sometimes visit the same location in different decades. He shot Navy Pier from Adler Planetarium in 1941, for example, and then again in 1958. He apparently took interest in the future site of the Lake Meadows urban renewal project; he visited the buildings around South Rhodes and W. 33rd Place in 1941, 1946, 1950 and 1951. His 1950 pictures show demolition in progress.

• Cushman took interest in both demolition and construction. He seemed to appreciate how fast Chicago was changing around him, and it reminds us that Chicago has always been in a state of flux. Change is hardly just a recent phenomenon, though the deceptive permanence of brick, steel and concrete often leads us to believe otherwise.

• Both the North and South Sides of Chicago have seen thousands of buildings come down in the past 50 years. In the north, they typically have yielded to new buildings that, if not as beautiful as the ones they replaced, are taller and more utilitarian. On the South Side, however, the lost mansions and tenements have often given way to nothing more than vacant lots and parking.

• One change that's definitely for the better: trees. They are largely absent in Cushman's photos, but since his day they've been planted and grown to maturity all along Chicago's sidewalks.

Now that Cushman and his photos have helped us learn what came before, the more urgent question becomes, What is to come? I look forward to finding out, and in another 50 years I hope to head out again on my bicycle and stage these pictures again.

The photos have been divided by area, please select one to view:
» Central
» Maxwell
» North Side
» South Side


About the Author(s)

Luke Seemann works for a local publishing concern. He regrets that Charles Cushman never visited his neighborhood of Edgewater.

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