Review: The Adventures of an Urbex Photographer in Abandoned Chicagoland: Rust on the Prairies

“Dying piano summoned by Heaven.”

Chicagoland abandoned: rust in the prairies
By Jerry Olejniczak
Arcadie editions

I have always been attracted to and repelled by demolition sites. Ruined walls, shattered by a wrecking ball and revealing fragments of past lives and lost work. And if it’s a building that I knew and loved, there can be tears too.

This new book by Jerry Olejniczak is filled with images of demolished sites, transformed by decay, and sometimes overtaken by nature. Olejniczak (pronounced Oh-lay-KNEE-chalk) is an urbex photographer, an urban explorer photographer. The work can come with legal risks (when a photographer breaks in) and personal risks (photographer and activist Richard Nickel died in 1972 while taking pictures on a partially demolished Chicago Stock Exchange).

But the urbex photographer persists in researching these sites and photographing them for posterity. The term “ruin porn” is sometimes used derisively to describe this work, but these images can hardly be called obscene. They are images of great beauty and rich in symbolism. They also remind us of how abandoned we are as a society as we build great edifices of wealth, education and worship, and then let them decay when we tire of them.

Churches, theaters, post offices, hospitals, factories, schools. Olejniczak takes us on his urban, suburban and rural escapades, mainly through Chicagoland but also in other towns of the Rust Belt. Its introduction is a brief history of Chicago as an economic engine of the Midwest and includes, of course, an excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Chicago”. He reminds us that “today’s scintillating skyline and barren yuppie quarters” belies the fact that Chicago was the proper setting for Upton Sinclair’s documentary novel about stockyards, The jungle; Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A raisin in the sun; and the tragic novel by Richard Wright, Native son. Each of these works describes communities where poor black people or European immigrants lived and worked.

In his introduction, the author talks about other central Rust Belt towns that have turned into ruins. Something similar has happened in Chicago, he says, except that “the slide into urban decadence has happened on the outskirts, in outlying areas and in the suburbs, where it could be more easily overlooked.” The south side, southern suburbs, and the southern lakeside to Gary, Indiana, declined far from downtown, and the decline affected people who lacked political power and therefore easily ignored.

Arsonists may have struck the church after it closed.

“Chicagoans may think of their city as a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods,” says Olejniczak, “or a thriving mall and commercial center, but it remains, fundamentally, a successful blue-collar Rust Belt city.”

Each of Olejniczak’s nine chapters includes his commentary on the nature of spaces, their environment and how he accessed them. He is a photographer who knows that even great photographs can need a few hundred words.

His photos range from desolate interiors, marked by objects left behind, to crumbling exteriors or wider landscape views of structures in the context of their territory or “the built environment slowly being reclaimed by nature”. One series shows Monet-style views of the deserted tennis courts in Gary, Indiana, at different times and seasons.

“The frenzied textures of the peeling paint provide a reasonable approximation of the hallucinatory effects of LSD.”

Hallways, doors and stairs are in the spotlight as “particularly powerful subconscious symbols of transition and ascent.” In a context of urban exploration, they symbolize all the risks taken during the trip.

However, the places to explore are not always grandiose or ceremonial. Olejniczak explores the spaces he calls living pictures or living images. The term refers to an early form of entertainment where scenes were carefully lit and staged with props and sometimes people; they were meant to represent works of art or Bible stories. For the urbex photographer, the ruins with rioting colors, furniture and rubbish left behind are modern times living pictures. Old schools are sometimes examples, littered with desks, books and debris, as are factories and workshops, deserted department stores, private homes and churches.

“Landscape on the ground of the post office”.

“Oh the Places You’ll Go” is another chapter of Olejniczak’s wandering. Usually off-limits, these spaces make you think you are the last person on earth to see them. They can be mundane like a deserted back office, or kitsch like the bathroom of a house no one has lived in for decades. A high school attic turned out to be a gallery of student signatures and years of study scrawled over decades on the walls and wooden ceiling. A huge poultry feed factory next to the railroad tracks in the southern suburb of Riverdale had been deserted since the 1970s. Now, “it was a thirteen story monster of rebar and rust.” The floors were drilled with holes and filled with the remains of conveyors, pipes and machinery. And photographers who braved a rooftop trip, he says, have found jaw-dropping views of… well, nothing really. You could see the Chicago skyline 20 miles away, but not much else. “However, the roofs are their own reward.”

Olejniczak’s stories and photo captions are as intriguing as his photos.

My only criticism of the book is its format. It is vertical and measures 6 inches wide by 9.5 inches high, which makes it difficult to see the photos at their best. Photos that would be greatly improved by a larger format are displayed on a half page at 5.5 x 4 inches. Certainly, a larger format would be preferable (the classic table book), but this format could be better used. I would prefer to see the book laid out horizontally with the spine on the short side. This would allow at least some of the photos to be displayed full screen. With its 145 photos, that would mean more pages than the current 96 and therefore a higher price. But the result would be a superior book.

The equipment remains in the old hospital.

Urbex in other art forms

Urbex imagery can also be found in other art forms. Several documentaries, for example, detail Detroit’s visual fate, but not as dramatically as the 2012 documentary. Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (streaming on AppleTV for $ 3.99). Detropy portrays the decline of a great American city through the eyes of its citizens, politicians and the business community; its inhabitants are struggling to cope with a city whose economic system is broken. Pioneering Urbex photographer Camilo Jose Vergara once requested that downtown Detroit be set aside as a park of ruins, which he called “the American acropolis.”

Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 romantic vampire film, Only lovers will stay alive, is located in a dilapidated mansion amidst the crumbling Detroit landscape. Adam and Eve, age-old vampire lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally roam the crumbling Brush Park neighborhood, past deserted auto factories and abandoned theaters, in Adam’s vintage Jaguar XJS. Adam is a moody rock star; the first five minutes of the film are a glorious homage to vintage guitars. (The film is available on Prime Video.)

This month in Chicago, the Wrightwood 659 Gallery opens a new exhibition titled From Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright. The exhibit will use 3D models, ornaments and salvaged artifacts, as well as archival photographs to document the design, construction and destruction of Sullivan’s Garrick Theater on West Randolph Street (demolished in 1960) and Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, NY, (demolished in 1950).

Chicagoland abandoned: rust in the prairies by Jerry Olejniczak is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “America Through Time” series; it is available from bookstores and on the publisher’s website. Arcadia publishes other historical and regional books, including the well-known “Images of America” series.

All images are courtesy of the publisher.

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