Chicago Yesterday and Today: A Photographic Juxtaposition

By Brian J. Failing on January 2, 2012


Two icons of Chicago architecture converge in the photo exhibit “Chicago Then and Now: A Story By Lee Bey.” Chicago architecture expert Lee Bey shares his vision of the city within the walls of the historic Water Tower.  The exhibit ends January 22nd, so this is your last call to check it out, especially if you haven’t had a chance to see it. I know I had been meaning to go for months, and was pleased to find the exhibit to be very doable, too: free and open every day at 10am, the exhibit consists of some fifteen subjects in the compact Learning About Chicago Architectureyet airy City Gallery (806 North Michigan).

Bey says the exhibit has its roots in the extensive historic image collection of Nathan Mason, curator of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs.  Mason went through his many vintage photographs, souvenir postcards, and stereoscopic images and chose a concise group of Chicago sites, both well-known and less familiar.  Over the course of 2010 and 2011, Lee Bey photographed these same buildings and locations.

The exhibit is organized in sets of two or three.  The juxtaposition of old and new is revealing: some buildings have been beautifully preserved (like most of the churches featured here), while some have been dwarfed by development (the once mammoth Auditorium Building now seems lost in the crowd of skyscrapers), and others are scenes of abandonment (Pullman’s utopian beauty a far distant memory).

Many Chicago parks buildings are highlighted in the exhibit, from the huge, glassy Garfield Park Conservatory to the old Washington Park Administration Building (now the DuSable Museum of African American History).  I was amazed at how many flowers and fountains filled the old images of these park sites!

The two photographs of the 1886 Haymarket Riot site offer a unique glimpse into how the event was memorialized: one, the earlier monument to the police officers killed (now relocated) and the current, and more encompassing monument, which pays tribute to all who lost their lives in relation to the tragedy.

Lee Bey Exhibit Skyscraper History







One aspect I found intriguing about the exhibit was Bey’s choice of photographic vantage point.  The exhibit is not a simple “you are here” photo comparison.  Bey interprets and challenges with his camera angles.  I asked him what determined his choices.  He said that logistics played a part in some of the decisions: the historic photo of St. Martin’s Church in Englewood had been taken from the rooftop of a building that no longer exists.  And while he was able to shoot Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral from the exact historic vantage point, the jumble of parked cars distracted from the photograph, so he went with another angle.  But you will find sets of photos where Bey was able to stand exactly where the original photographer did – such as at the Museum of Science and Industry – his favorite, because the scene remains the same as a century ago.

We highly recommend this photo exhibit for an engaging experience with Chicago’s past …and its present.

 —Wendy Bright, Chicago Detours Tour Guide