ART SINSABAUGH: “Life on the Road: Art Sinsabaugh’s Midwest Landscapes” (2005)

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Chi LA #84

By Stephen Longmire, Afterimage, July 1, 2005

If Edward Hopper had been a photographer, he might have been Art Sinsabaugh. Both are poets of the ordinary, of the inhabited but often unpeopled landscape, sociologists of the visual with a magical realist touch. And both take as opportunities for their pictures the way the world opens itself up to the blind, perpetual gaze of the road.

The shape of Sinsabaugh’s photographs stands out most. They are at once very big and very small, long slender ribbons of asphalt-colored silver the shape and color of the insistently straight Illinois highways and horizons he traced in the 1960s. Whether the view is agricultural or urban, it often seems he is pointing while his arm scans a distant shore. The world is always at arm’s length, so you must crane your neck to see it clearly. However small his world may seem, the photographer’s view is as large as life and the details are all there.

Nearly 20 inches wide, Sinsabaugh’s black and white contact prints are a boast whose machismo only a photographer would understand. Since contact prints require no enlargement these could only be made with a 12 X 20-inch “banquet” camera like the one Sinsabaugh commissioned from the famous Chicago camera manufacturer L. F. Deardorff & Sons, which is on display as part of the retrospective of Sinsabaugh’s work currently touring the Midwest. “I enjoy looking at the whole landscape through a camera this size,” the photographer told an interviewer late in life, not long before he died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 59. “It gives me the feeling the whole world is mine.” (1)

Along with this boast came unparalleled self-effacement. Sinsabaugh’s classic Illinois landscapes and cityscapes of the 1960s, long favorites of midwestern landscape photographers, are cropped top and bottom until the prints are just a few inches tall, some little more than an inch. His mammoth camera turns out miniature prints compared to today’s standard issue murals, with their grander expectations of size and value. Today, most photographers would scan these long, skinny images into a computer and make digital prints as big as walls. Sinsabaugh’s ambitions seem modest by comparison. (An early proponent of photographic editioning, he was hardly blind to the value of his work–which, ironically, is scarce as a result.)

The road, not the wall, is the defining space of his achievement; the linked photographic series, not the individual print, is his vehicle. Sinsabaugh’s best pictures resemble the gridded southern Illinois highways they record in shape and color. These were the pathways into his “Midwest Landscapes” of 1961-63, which remains his signature series. It was his great discovery, on which he built but which he never outgrew.

Shortly after he was hired to establish a photography program at the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1959 (he was among the first generation of university photography professors, and a founder of the Society for Photographic Education) Sinsabaugh began exploring the local countryside with his big camera in his car. Amazed at the flatness of the landscape, he honed in on the horizon, trimming his narrow images to the incidents he found there. Many show farms, but they are not about farming. Their’s is an automobile perspective, not a tractor’s; an observer’s, not a participant’s. The view is cinematic.

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Endless rows of corn come to an end at the roadside, whipping by like an artist’s perspective game. Farms and their outbuildings unfold like small towns. Grain silos and elevators line up alongside the railroad tracks, ready to ship the seed heads of the prairie’s latest tall grass to still more distant horizons. Trains smoke by in the distance, as small as toys. Always there is the invisible highway, explaining how pioneers, including this one, made their way into this landlocked place. Now there is a carnival by the roadside, now a subdivision. The careful pruning of the frame mimics the farmer’s care for his fence lines, edges of meaning both.

A short documentary film, American Horizons: The Photographs of Art Sinsabaugh (2004), included in the exhibition shows the photographer’s copious notes on his subjects, including their precise locations, but Sinsabaugh’s titles are as uninformative as possible. Midwest Landscape #24 (1961), to cite just one, shows an intersection of road and rail lines, a forest of leaning power line poles providing its only vertical lines. As in Hopper’s paintings of run-down New England towns, the T-shaped poles are crosses, reminders that human markings on the land sketch a spiritual geography as unconsidered as a crucifixion–or a rural road numbering scheme.

In the mid-1960s Chicago was being bulldozed and rebuilt to make room for a new system of expressways, displaying the efficiency of the first Mayor Daley’s political machine. Sinsabaugh, a New Jersey native, returned to the city that first captured his imagination when he came to study photography at its renowned Institute of Design. Thanks to the G. I. Bill, in 1946 he was one of Harry Callahan’s first and best students in the nation’s first degree-granting photography program–where Sinsabaugh began to teach right after graduating. His previous efforts to photograph Chicago failed to rival Callahan’s, but this open heart surgery the metropolis was undergoing opened it up to him. Sinsabaugh arranged a roving documentary commission from the city’s planning department, which granted him unlimited access from 1964-66 in exchange for prints.

This seemed a natural expansion of his photographic frame. In a 1980 interview he recalled:

Before this I photographed a few whole towns on the landscape. 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. (2)

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“Neighborhoods were just sliced open and laid bare for my inspection,” Sinsabaugh remarked closer to the time.

Sinsabaugh’s Chicago is a drive-in world where pedestrians play only bit parts. One 1964 image, Chicago Landscape #117 (1964) shows a mass of looping on and off ramps like a roiling mass of intestines, blurred cars barely visible in the grand scheme of digestion. Others show entire boulevard blocks laid out like inhabited architectural–or anatomical–drawings, reminders of a prior scale of urban life, and of the ethnic, mostly Italian, neighborhoods bulldozed in the process of “urban renewal.” Chicago Landscape #172 (1964) shows crushed automobiles stacked like hay bales alongside a set of railroad tracks, evidence that the city regularly replaces one transit system with another. Chicago Landscape #85 (1964) shows a vast football field of parked cars with the downtown “Loop” in the background, its skyscrapers–among the nation’s first–looking like a drive-in movie screen

The Chicago River, the city’s first transit artery and one of its major engineering feats–it was famously reversed in 1900 to drain sewage away from the city’s water source, Lake Michigan–also makes frequent appearances. Below the new Marina Towers, the height of modern urban living at the time, Sinsabaugh shows motorboats parked below the spiraling parking garages in Chicago Landscape #150 (1964). Tracing the north and west edges of the Loop–which takes its name from the route of another transit system, the elevated train–the redirected river conforms to the compass like the rest of the city’s grid, a perfect expression of the Rectangular Land Survey that laid out the Midwest. Views across stretches of Lake Michigan remind us Chicago has always been carved open, showing its busiest face to its wildest one, a triumph of planning over nature.

These are pictures of an urban system, a complete human ecology. They are at once infinitely detailed and as abstract as their titles. The highway construction allowed Sinsabaugh to show whole neighborhoods, many of them slated for demolition, in the same way riding the “El” around the loop lets one visualize office life. As the city now completes another major facelift, transforming its lakefront into a tourist destination of parks linking a museum “campus,” it is clear how time-sensitive such artful records can be. These dated yet timeless photographs show a city struggling to dust off its big shoulders and drive.

Sinsabaugh pioneered a form of photography, now far more popular than in his time, that evenly balances the demands of documentation with those of art. How much use City Hall made of his photographs, beyond illustrating a few promotional reports, is hard to say. Sinsabaugh’s former student and assistant, Brian Katz, remembers planners using enlargements of his panoramic photos to model a contested expressway that would have linked the city’s airports. After superimposing the new road on the prints, they decided not to build it. (4) The nature of his undercover work may have been clearer to the photographer, who painted his station wagon the same orange as the city’s street repair vehicles, ensuring access to difficult locations. In doing so he briefly turned a bureaucratic leviathan into a patron, but more importantly, he turned art photography into geography, and turned himself into a sociologist of sorts.

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Keith Davis, curator of the Hallmark Cards photography collection, culled this traveling exhibition from Sinsabaugh’s archives at the University of Indiana. He writes eloquently of his subject’s Chicago work:

Just as they represent cross sections of a vast horizontal network,
these photographs function as “snapshots” of a larger process of
temporal change. By their very stillness and specificity, they imply
the generic rhythms of a day, a season, or a life: laundry is hung
out and retrieved, cars are endlessly rearranged on the street, trees
grow leaves and drop them, and buildings age and are repaired,
constructed and destroyed.” (5)

Abstract expressionist painters speak of the “alloverness” of their canvases, working edge to edge. Photographers enact a different kind of appetite, hungering for more place and time, their twin building materials, both of which become insubstantial in their hands. Sinsabaugh’s big little pictures narrate this drama, and his place in time.

A final gift of this long-awaited show is the glimpse it provides of Sinsabaugh’s little known later work. This was sporadic, in part because of ill health, in part because he had finished his major projects–all but the long cherished goal of publishing them, which this show’s lush catalog accomplishes at last–and was not able to realize the new ones he conceived. Sinsabaugh’s later subjects include Baltimore (where Larry Reich, a friend and former Chicago planner, moved in the late 1960s), New England and the Southwest. But despite many strong images, he seldom recaptured the sustained focus of his Illinois work of the ’60s, even as he struggled to build on its achievement.

An ambitious image of the Atlantic Ocean off the Maine coast, made just a year before the photographer died, Maine Landscape #31 (1982), is almost too big for its frame. Clouds and sea slip by as the land slips into a murky bay at the edge of day. The frame is no longer cropped; a full 12 X 20 inches, it has room for both earth and sky. The exposure could be a matter of seconds or centuries. Such final images confirm the grandeur of Sinsabaugh’s vision, and its humility.

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