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Vera Lutter: Chicago Obscura

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through June 15

Barbara Crane: Chicago Loop

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through June 15

Barbara Crane: Urban Anomalies

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through May 18

Camilo Jose Vergara: Twin Towers Remembered

at the Chicago Architecture Center, through June 4

Photographs in series suggest that no one image can present the whole truth. And the interplay between images seems especially important to these three photographers of urban spaces: after September 11, cityscapes can seem unstable and unreal. Indeed, the Loop has rarely looked stranger than it does in Vera Lutter’s ten black-and-white photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, commissioned by the museum. A German born in 1960, Lutter uses a camera obscura, a device that predates photography by several centuries. Darkening a whole room in an office building, she created a pinhole at the window to cast an image on photographic paper, often taking hours. Because the images on display are originals, not prints, they appear in negative and flipped left to right, reversing the orientation of familiar landmarks.

The two largest–over seven feet tall–are the most impressive, heightening the effect mentioned by guest curator Elizabeth Siegel in the exhibition brochure: “We imagine ourselves inside the massive camera, the image taking shape in front of us.” In 135 LaSalle Street, Chicago, I: October 27, 2001 (Lutter’s vantage point), the sloping facade of the First National Bank building at the left and another building at right frame an open area of sky and shorter buildings. The black sky has a peculiarly “apocalyptic” quality Siegel says is “appropriate for a post-September 11th world.” But the blackness also simply refers to the photographic process. Though these images are well framed, they make their point not so much through composition or controlled use of light as through the sense that the artist has partially removed herself, letting the basic mechanisms of photography take over. The Loop’s array of architectural styles itself seems the product of some mechanism too vast to be encompassed in a single sensibility.

333 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, II: October 16, 2001 is especially spooky, partly because it’s a view of a street. Looking north from the Michigan Avenue Bridge, this broad avenue–inviting entry by stretching into the distance–is devoid of people or vehicles (both effaced by the time exposure). The vague suggestion of a neutron bomb is paired with a more positive sentiment, one that contradicts the implications of September 11: though human existence is fleeting, the cityscape is stable, and perfectly captured by Lutter’s camera obscura. Our lives may be short, but the structures we create endure.

At the same museum, Barbara Crane, a Chicagoan born here in 1928, has two exhibitions of Chicago photographs: 40 untitled black-and-white prints from her “Chicago Loop” series (1976-’78) and 18 color digital prints from “Urban Anomalies” (2001). Like Lutter’s images, Crane’s seem to be in the process of forming before one’s eyes; a student at the Institute of Design in the 1960s, she was clearly influenced by its Bauhaus-inspired ethos of acknowledging one’s medium. Her compositions stress the tension between the lines of the architecture and her frame, a tension Crane heightens in the Loop series by surrounding most of her images with a heavy black border.

One photograph shows only a few columns of windows on two familiar buildings: Louis Sullivan’s lightly ornamented Gage and the more gothic Chicago Athletic Club. By placing the dividing line between the two near the center of her image, Crane creates a palpable tension between their styles. And by fragmenting each building, referring to structures much larger than what we see, her composition reminds us of the camera’s inherent selectivity; what’s more, the collisions of buildings with each other and the frame intensifies our focus on the details.

Most of the images in the “Chicago Loop” series are similarly filled. In one, Lake Point Tower curves toward us from its concave center, then away, its convex curves next to the image’s vertical edges, crowding the frame. Rarely do we see anything as human as a store sign; instead Crane presents a relentlessly euclidean world of huge edifices intersecting and colliding. Though the exhibition brochure remarks that Crane has been “dismissive of subject matter,” these photos beautifully capture the almost random but dynamic combinations of forms that characterize American cities.

Crane’s “Urban Anomalies” series lives up to its title. Roofs and fragments of featureless facades seem to float in a contextless space; like the Loop series, this one conveys the disorienting qualities of urban geography. One image is divided by an almost black brick chimney; to its left is a redbrick home with an open window, and to its right the brick side of a building. We barely glimpse the street, and the three roofs slope at vastly different angles. One of the simpler images shows two different rooftops, one of gravelly concrete and the other of corrugated metal, set at a slight angle to each other and with slightly different slopes. Again the viewer is disoriented with respect to the ground, struggling to come to terms with the geometric confusion of these surfaces.

As in Crane’s “Chicago Loop” series and Lutter’s work, these self-conscious compositions foreground both the viewing process and their architectural subjects. Neither artist presents spaces that acknowledge the human body, but this exclusion of physicality focuses attention on the enjambment of lines and forms.

The 61 photographs in Camilo Jose Vergara’s “Twin Towers Remembered” at the Chicago Architecture Center present cityscapes in a manner quite different. Vergara, who first came to the United States from his native Chile in 1965 to study electrical engineering, then switched to sociology and later to photography, is more of a documentarian than Crane or Lutter. Best known for his depictions of American ghettos, he began taking photographs of the World Trade Center’s twin towers when he moved to New York in 1970, while they were still under construction. He says in his introduction to the handsome book that accompanies the exhibit that he intended “to record them from every possible angle, during different times of day, and in different seasons…just because I liked them.” Here it’s the story the series tells that gives each image its meaning.

Vergara was born in Santiago in 1944 but grew up in a small village where the tallest building was only three stories, he told me. And there’s a kind of boyish wonder in his photos of these Brobdingnagian towers, taken from different parts of the New York area under different atmospheric conditions. One thinks of Monet’s famous grain stack series, showing caches of grain under a variety of circumstances.

Sometimes viewers complain that a work of art doesn’t render their experience of the subject. “This is not my Paris,” film critic Andrew Sarris once remarked of the fleeting views of that city in Stan Brakhage’s The Dead. I lived in Manhattan during the World Trade Center’s construction, visit regularly, and recently took a horrified walk around Ground Zero–and Vergara’s series really rings true to me. Shots taken during the towers’ construction show massive cranes atop them silhouetted against the sky, a view that inspired wonder at the time. They thrust up improbably from desolate landscapes in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and sightings of these landmarks often helped orient travelers in the region. They looked different in different weather; one year when I taught in Staten Island and had to take the ferry twice a week, I noticed that on sunny days one tower would often cast its shadow on the other. That can be seen several times here, notably in Charles Looking at the Lower Manhattan Skyline From the Statue of Liberty Ferry, 1985.

Some of these photos were taken during Vergara’s expeditions to the ghetto neighborhoods that were his primary subjects. Lower Manhattan Skyline From the Tompkins Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 1989 vividly contrasts foreground and background–older buildings, vacant lots, and low-rise projects with the fairy-tale castles of lower Manhattan in the distance. Many of the images taken in lower Manhattan contrast ornate older buildings with the blank, almost soulless facades of the towers. In the stunning Lower Manhattan Skyline From Exchange Place, 1977, the towers are reflected in the Hudson River and seem to extend partway across it.

After hearing of the attack on NPR, Vergara headed downtown with his camera and took several pictures of rising smoke in compositions similar to those he’d shot over three decades. (Two decades ago Vergara tried unsuccessfully to sell some of his tower views as postcard images.) Photos taken a few weeks later show open sky instead of smoke. Pairing views from the same vantage point, Vergara replicates the way one’s memory of the towers tinges the new views of sky.

One sequence of four views taken from the Manhattan Bridge with the towers just behind the west pylon of the Brooklyn Bridge is especially powerful. The first two show lower Manhattan by day and near sunset; in the third, taken September 11, a massive cloud of smoke rises. In the fourth, at sunset, all is placid again but there’s a notable absence. The exhibition concludes with the small, unassuming Lower Manhattan Skyline From the Staten Island Ferry, 2001–an image that might seem ordinary in another context. Here it takes on an elegiac edge, the ferry’s wake leading back to a skyline once regarded as awe inspiring, now strangely denuded, almost toylike.

Vergara’s documentary approach–which served him well in his surveys of ghetto topography–contributes to the problem here. Crane and Lutter make the viewer a participant, engaged in the production of meaning. Vergara’s compositions, while coherent and well framed, don’t give the viewer as much to do; his photos are windows one looks through rather than objects encountered. His approach doesn’t make us question perception or context.

The September 11 attack on civilians was evil, but it apparently happened as a result of U.S. policies that are arguably wrong yet remain unexamined and unchallenged, tasks that seem ever more urgent. Our leaders tell us the attackers “hate democracy”–but does anyone seriously claim that our troops in Saudi Arabia are defending democracy and not Americans’ “right” to fuel their SUVs cheaply? Since thousands of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan have escaped, and thousands more terrorists remain throughout the world, there’s reason to fear that, without fundamental changes in policy, our war on terrorism will fail.