With urban life slowed to a crawl, you might find yourself studying your neighborhood like never before. Close examination reveals rich contrasts in architectural details, street scenes and other aspects of city life.
by Ian Spula
Urban photographers like Anna Munzesheimer, the CAC’s Communications Specialist, are already well-versed in this slowed-down process of discovery. Last month, Anna moved across the city to a new neighborhood. As a trained photographer partial to shooting the city and the cultures that give it life, Anna is eager to explore her surroundings, even within the confines of spatial distancing. Here are some observations she’s made on recent strolls within a half a mile of her home.
You recently moved to Edgewater from Pilsen. How are you getting to know the neighborhood under the stay-at-home order?
It has been challenging. I would like to befriend my neighbors, patronize the local businesses, get a drink at the dive bar down the street or visit the beach, but that is all on hold with the city under lockdown. Instead, I focus on taking long, daily walks and admiring my new neighborhood through the viewfinder of my camera.
My first adventure was a walk to the grocery store. My route to Whole Foods is along a quiet, tree-lined avenue peppered with bungalows and two-flats. I was delighted to stumble upon a Chicago landmark on my first trip, the Gauler Twin Houses, designed by Walter Burley Griffin in 1908. Per the landmark placard, the wood-and-stucco residences are a rare example of a “twin” Prairie School design, vertically composed to fit a relatively small, narrow urban site.
Another common trip is to the Jewel on North Broadway. I always stop to admire Saint Ita Catholic Church, a French Gothic masterpiece. It has elaborate limestone detailing and I love the winged stone gargoyles guarding the main entrance.
Gauler Twin Houses, all photos by Anna Munzesheimer
Saint Ita’s Catholic Church
Edgewater has a lot of architectural diversity. You singled out a few buildings already. Any other favorites?
When I was driving my U-Haul on Lake Shore Drive, I was thrilled to see the Edgewater Beach Apartments, one of the most popular sites in Open House Chicago. Another nearby Chicago landmark is the Belle Shore Apartment Hotel. The building is clad in rich green- and cream-colored terra cotta and features Egyptian-inspired Art Deco detailing. Across the street, the Bryn Mawr Apartment Hotel is another example of expressive Art Deco.
Edgewater Beach Apartments
What are some immediate comparisons you can make between Edgewater and your former neighborhood, in terms of the experience of wandering and discovering things to photograph?
Edgewater sprang up in the 1880s as a summer getaway for Chicago’s elite. Pilsen, on the other hand, has always been a home for working-class immigrants. This distinction is evident in the architecture, building materials and cultural expression in each neighborhood.
Pilsen has Bohemian cornices, colorful Mexican murals, summertime taco and fruit stands and block parties with Latin music playing on loudspeakers. In Edgewater, instead of those festive sounds, I hear wind chimes tinkling on every block. There are murals in Edgewater, but they’re fewer and less culturally specific.
Pilsen residents sometimes decorate their yards with a random collection of sculptures and lawn ornaments. While exploring Edgewater, I happened upon a similar scene in a yard near Unity Lutheran Church. It has several statues strewn amidst colorful flowers and objects, including a solemn stone bust with pink fairy wings tied around the neck.
Edgewater Lawn Ornament
How do you prepare to photograph a neighborhood?
My first consideration is time of day. The angle of the sun casts shadows that either help or hinder a photo. East-facing buildings are best to shoot in the morning, but west-facing buildings are best right before twilight. I’m not much of a morning person, so I prefer to take my camera out as soon as I can tear myself away from the day’s work. As sunset approaches, the sun hangs low and light becomes soft and red; photographers refer to this and the hour after sunrise as "the golden hour."
The true power of the camera is its ability to direct the eye of the viewer. I aim to take a common site and repackage it in a way the viewer has never considered, revealing overlooked details, textures and beauty taken for granted.
5400 block of North Broadway
As a photographer, what would you say are some of the visual cues or cultural markers that best define or give character to a place?
"Place" is defined by the people who inhabit an area, and the historical events and everyday rituals they take part in. All of this contributes to a place’s aesthetic and character. One of the first things I came to appreciate in Edgewater are the stone lions, gargoyles and eagles that guard the entrances of many storefronts and residences. These animals have varied symbolic history, depending on place. For example, some Buddhists believe lion statues bring peace and prosperity, while in Italy, they symbolize power and prestige. In Quebec, homeowners traditionally placed one or two lions in front of their house once their mortgage was paid off. I can’t say what the animals symbolize in Edgewater, but I appreciate their presence.
Stone Lion, Edgewater
I think many of us want to know how photographers are weathering the shutdown when so much of their work is event-based?
This is certainly a challenging time for photographers. I’m grateful that I have a salaried job, but many photographers are completely bereft of work. The outlook is bleak with the event industry unlikely to return to normal for a year or more. However, with cultural organizations moving their programming online, quality photography is key for bringing this content to life. My hope is that photographers will still get work providing essential imagery for these new initiatives.