Ron Gordon’s black-and-white photos of local cityscapes, endangered buildings, and demolition sites have their roots in a childhood spent playing in the street and building forts in vacant lots. Growing up on the far south side in the 1940s and ’50s, Gordon rarely traveled, even to the Loop. (“I thought of 91st and Commercial as downtown,” he says.) While he was still in high school, his brother began studying architecture at IIT–and for the first time Gordon heard someone talking passionately about his career rather than about cars, girls, or sports. Soon after enrolling at the University of Illinois Navy Pier campus, Gordon read Crime and Punishment. “I stayed up all night. I couldn’t believe how incredible it was–the mystery, the style, the ideas, the self-evaluation.” Later, after he’d switched to Urbana-Champaign, he was inspired to major in French by stories of Paris in the 1920s, which seemed “about as far away as you could get from south Chicago.” After a year in Europe he returned to Urbana-Champaign for grad school, where he met his first wife. Her brother was a commercial photographer in Chicago, and on visits Gordon hung around his studio. “He gave me a Pentax he didn’t need and taught me to print, and I worked for him sometimes.”

Gordon wasn’t completely comfortable as a PhD student in French. “Though my family had stressed education, I wasn’t an intellectual. I didn’t grow up with books. When I went off to study literature, it was kind of as an escape from hanging around with street kids looking at futures working in the steel mills or as truck drivers or mechanics.” In 1972, when Gordon’s wife abruptly ended their marriage, he moved back to Chicago and decided to pursue photography as a profession. At the end of that year he received a birthday present from his three-year-old son (presumably selected by Gordon’s wife), a book of photographs by Danny Lyons, Duane Michals, Gary Winogrand, and others, and their storytelling inspired him.

“Photography took me back to machines and into chemistry, to the landscapes I’d grown up with, into the storytelling I’d loved in literature, and into aesthetics,” Gordon says. His first commercial work was photographing buildings for his architect brother, but one day in 1974 he came across, and started photographing, the demolition of the Illinois Central Station. “I remembered it from my childhood. I thought it was a great building. I saw this picture as a symbol of the decline of railroads–trucks and interstates had arrived. It’s the first in this ongoing series about change and time and things coming down and things going up.” His interest in time and destruction also stems from his father’s early death, when he was 11–which he first heard of from the cabdriver who picked him and his brother up at school that day. “I realized how easy it was for you to be erased from the world,” Gordon says.

Most of the pictures in this show, which are recent, reflect the same theme. One of a group detailing the destruction of a railroad viaduct, RR Bridge Demolition, 16th Street, is a three-by-three grid of adjacent views of a huge wall. Mostly intact on the left, the wall is a pile of rubble on the right. Gordon’s grids often accentuate the weight of his subjects: the foreground of Warehouse, Pilsen shows the rubble of several buildings after a massive fire while in the background a warehouse looms, enlarged by the grid’s fracturing of the image. Other grids reveal the passing of time. In the three-panel Midway Airport #12, a plane seems to emerge from behind a tree in the middle image and nearly fills the sky at the bottom. In Amtrak Along 16th Street, a train enters in the middle and recedes at the top.

Though Gordon has used a view camera for most of his career, he shot the photos in this show with a 35-millimeter panoramic camera, which allows him to photograph while walking. The three stacked images in Utility Pole, Roosevelt Road reveal a dense cluster of poles. Gordon’s thought was that not many people see utility poles up close, but from the bridge over the river you get a good view. “I photograph things people see every day but don’t really look at, kind of to say, Stop, take a breath.”

Ron Gordon

When: Through Sat 12/10

Where: Chicago Arts District Exhibitions, 1915 S. Halsted

Info: 312-738-8000, ext. 6

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.