Art Sinsabaugh: American Horizons

at the Art Institute of Chicago

Art Sinsabaugh’s long, slender, detail-rich panoramas of Chicago and southern Illinois, taken in the 1960s, made him a cult hero to midwestern landscape photographers. The current retrospective of his work, which has its first stop at the Art Institute, may bring him a wider audience at last.

Sinsabaugh’s photographs are both big and small, boastful and self-effacing. Nearly 20 inches wide, his elegant black-and-white contact prints represent a feat whose machismo will be most apparent to other photographers. Contact prints are not enlarged, so these could only have been made with a massive 12-by-20-inch “banquet” camera. (One that Sinsabaugh commissioned from Chicago’s famous Deardorff firm is on display.) “I enjoy looking at the whole landscape through a camera this size,” the photographer told an interviewer not long before he died, in 1983 at age 59. “It gives me the feeling the whole world is mine.”

With this boast came unparalleled modesty. Sinsabaugh’s classic Illinois landscapes and cityscapes are cropped top and bottom until some of the prints are little more than an inch tall. Look into the next gallery at the Art Institute, where contemporary photographs are displayed, and you’ll see that Sinsabaugh’s mammoth camera turned out miniature prints compared to today’s standard-issue murals–we have much grander expectations of size. Today most photographers would scan Sinsabaugh’s long, skinny images into a computer and make digital prints as big as walls. But the road is what defines his work, not the wall; the photographic series, not the individual print, is his vehicle.

Rural southern Illinois highways are the subjects of Sinsabaugh’s “Midwest Landscapes” of 1961-’63, his best-known series. Shortly after he was hired to establish a photography program at the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1959, he began exploring the countryside with his big camera in the car. (This is not a tool you shoulder and hike with.) Amazed at the land’s flatness, he homed in on the horizon, trimming his images to the places and objects he found there. Many show farms, but these photographs are not about farming. Theirs is an automobile perspective, not a tractor’s; an observer’s, not a participant’s. Rows and rows of corn end at the roadside, seemingly whipping by, the downwind side of furrows white with snow. Farms and their outbuildings spread out like small towns. Grain silos and elevators line up alongside railroad tracks, holding the fruits of the prairie’s latest harvest. Trains smoking by in the distance are small as toys.

Always there is the invisible highway, suggesting how pioneers–including the photographer–made their way through this landlocked place. Now there’s a carnival by the roadside, now a subdivision. The careful pruning of the frame mimics the farmer’s care for his fence lines. A documentary film on view in a side gallery shows Sinsabaugh’s copious notes, including the precise locations of his shots. But his titles are uninformative. Midwest Landscape #24 shows an intersection of road and rail lines; a forest of power-line poles provides its only verticals. As in Edward Hopper’s paintings of run-down New England towns, the T-shaped poles look like studies for a crucifixion scene.

Sinsabaugh, a New Jersey native, received a photography degree from Chicago’s renowned Institute of Design in 1949 thanks to the GI Bill. He was one of Harry Callahan’s first students in the nation’s first degree-granting photography program, but his efforts to photograph Chicago while he was teaching in that program in the early 50s couldn’t rival Callahan’s. In the mid-60s, when Sinsabaugh returned to the city, it was being bulldozed to make room for new expressways, and this open-heart surgery opened the place up to him. Sinsabaugh arranged a roving documentary commission from the city’s planning department, which granted him unlimited access from 1964 to 1966 in exchange for prints. In 1980 he said of this experience: “A thought occurred to me that I could view Chicago as a prairie city. From one side of the expressway, I could see the city and the strip of highway all laid out in front of me. . . . It indicated to me that I should start to deal with Chicago being torn apart and revealed by the construction of expressways.”

These are pictures of an urban system, a complete human ecology, at once infinitely detailed and abstract. One 1964 image shows a looping set of on- and off-ramps like a roiling mass of intestines. The highway construction allowed Sinsabaugh to show whole neighborhoods, many slated for demolition, in the same way that riding the el around the Loop allows glimpses of office life. Chicago Landscape #172 shows crushed automobiles stacked like hay bales alongside railroad tracks, evidence that the city is always replacing its transit systems. The river–the city’s original transit artery–also makes frequent appearances. Sinsabaugh shows motorboats parked below the spiraling garage of Marina Towers, but elsewhere the river is hard at work. Views that include Lake Michigan remind us that Chicago has always been carved open, showing its busiest face to its quietest one.

It’s hard to say how much use the city made of Sinsabaugh’s photographs beyond illustrating some promotional reports. The nature of this undercover work was perhaps clearest to the photographer, who painted his station wagon the same orange as Chicago’s official street-repair vehicles.

This show’s final gift is the glimpse it provides of Sinsabaugh’s little-known later work, sporadic in part because of ill health. Among his subjects were Baltimore, New England, and the southwest, but despite creating strong images he seldom recaptured the sustained focus of his Illinois work. A 1982 view of the Atlantic from the Maine coast, with clouds and sea slipping by as the foreground landscape slips into darkness, seems almost too big for the frame even though it’s no longer cropped–it’s a full 12 x 20 inches. The exposure might have been a matter of seconds or centuries. Such late images confirm the grandeur–and humility–of Sinsabaugh’s vision.

American Horizons

When: Mon-Fri 10:30 AM-4:30 PM, Thu till 8 PM; Sat-Sun 10 AM-5 PM. Closed Sat 12/25

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan & Adams

Price: $12 suggested admission; $7 students, seniors, kids six & up. Tuesdays free

Info: 312-443-3600