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Pieces of History

After the wrecking ball, Ron Gordon’s images are all that remain.

By Bill Stamets

Photographer Ron Gordon dwells on destruction. Whenever vestiges of the older city are slated for demolition, he memorializes the process of their disappearance, training his large view camera on landmarks, both great and small. He’s salvaged images from such now-extinct structures as the Chicago Coliseum, Chicago Stadium, and the first Comiskey Park. “I’m watching Cook County Hospital and Soldier Field,” he says.

Singling out the gargantuan replacement for the old Comiskey, Gordon says, “I abhor the change of scale going on in this culture. It disturbs me to no end.” He recalls a time when most buildings had a public function. Loop office towers, for instance, were all once like the Monadnock, welcoming the public at large; newer buildings have security guards in their lobbies–they only serve their tenants. Even our public buildings seem designed to frustrate: in the Harold Washington Library Center, patrons must board a series of escalators to get to the books. “You can’t walk through the first floor of the renovated Dearborn Station,” Gordon complains. “It’s telling you not to go in there.” He regrets the rate at which Chicago erases its past and mourns the vanishing of eras embodied not only in buildings but in their inhabitants. “Ron Gordon, Selected Photographs, 25 Years,” an exhibit of 89 of his black-and-white pictures, is on view at the Prospectus Art Gallery, 1210 W. 18th Street, through June 20.

Gordon started this project in 1974, when he shot the Illinois Central railroad station on Roosevelt and felt “compelled to capture the dying breaths of American industrial society.” After that, he says, “I was constantly bombarded with images compelling me to record them.”

For the current show, he put together a booklet with commentary on the people he encountered during his photographic forays. He was impressed when octogenarian Merle Deardorff, who ran the Deardorff Camera Works on Peoria Street, honored a 30-year-old warranty on his classic four-by-five view camera: “It makes me sad to know how far away we’ve come from that kind of pride, quality, and kindness in American manufacturing.” Then there’s Julius Gilland, a fixture at the Donohue building: “He was one of the last of a dying breed. He was a gentleman.” Referring to his portrait of Bill Veeck, Gordon proclaims, “Losing old Comiskey was a great assault on life in America.”

Gordon, a graduate of Bowen High School who once sold peanuts at the south-side ballpark, pursued a doctorate in French literature on a Fulbright grant. He traveled to Paris in the late 1960s, where, he says, “I studied surrealism, the wonder of the quotidian: this is an ordinary thing, but it’s extraordinary if you stop to look at it.” Inspired by French New Wave cinema, he thought of taking up filmmaking but considered it too cumbersome. That’s when he found still photography. He also discovered a distinctly non-American sense of history: “I learned a building wasn’t old until it was ten centuries old.”

After returning to Chicago, Gordon worked in commercial photo labs, eventually putting together his own custom darkroom in a rehabbed loft in the South Loop. His new home, the Rowe Building, served as a base to document that area’s transition from declining industrial district to the upscale residential neighborhood now known as Printers Row. Gordon later moved to Pilsen, where the nearby Maxwell Street market vanished before his lens. Some of these photos are presented in series. One grid of pictures documents the 1985 demolition of a Pilsen clothing store called Respect Yourself. In the seventh frame, the sign hangs upside down. By the 13th shot, it’s fallen on a heap of rubble. Gordon then moved in for a close-up of the still-legible twisted metal sign. The last image was taken from across the street. It shows the leveled lot. Like a shadow–or the wrecking ball’s next victim–another building looms in the distance.

“I’m a big fan of irony and meaninglessness,” chuckles Gordon. In the exhibit catalog, curator and critic Kenneth Burkhart likens the variation in Gordon’s sequences to “the stanzas of a beat poet…with all the atonal blunt diatribe.” Gordon’s elegies mute his outrage. Building With Pigeons, for instance, is a single photograph showing a half-gutted four-story building. The exposed floors and walls resemble the grid format. Above this anonymous structure, he captures a blur of pigeons in flight.

Aiming his camera at one building after another as they’re bludgeoned into oblivion makes Gordon wonder what’s behind his documentary obsession. “It’s my own sense of mortality,” the 55-year-old photographer theorizes. “It’s my legacy. It keeps me alive so I don’t disappear…not just to answer the question of what used to be here.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Building With Pidgeons”.