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

Afterimage, July-August, 2005 by Stephen Longmire

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.

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)

“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.

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.


1. Carol diGrappa, ed., Landscape: Theory (New York: Lustrum Press, 1980), p. 131.

2. Ibid., p. 132.

3. Arthur Sinsabaugh, “The Midwest Landscape,” (Master’s Thesis, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1967) p. 10.

4. Brian Katz: telephone interview with the author, May 2005.

5. Keith F. Davis, American Horizons: The Life and Work of Art Sinsabaugh (New York/Manchester: Hudson Hills Press, in association with Indiana University Art Museum, 2004), p. 19.

“What was at issue was a new notion of photographic style: a potent
blending of formal and conceptual concerns in which personal
expression was apparently submerged in a rigorously systematic,
descriptive methodology.”
–Keith Davis American Horizons: The Life and Work of Art Sinsabaugh

“Really this is the New Topographics start,” said Bob Thall, the Chicago photographer whose ongoing documentation of that city’s built environment most resembles Sinsabaugh’s–in spirit, if not in shape. I had asked him to talk about his predecessor’s legacy, in the city where they both have worked. Thall pointed out how Sinsabaugh’s work anticipated the landmark 1975 “New Topographics” exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, a show that proposed documentary landscape photography–or photographs of “a man-altered landscape,” as it was subtitled–as the aesthetic and political alternative to the idealizing tradition of western landscape photography. “What’s so interesting is that this work was there 10 years earlier, and it didn’t have any effect,” Thall observed.

Today many large format photographers depict place in layered ways that owe a debt to Sinsabaugh’s achievement, whether they know his work or not. Thall was quick to point out how few photographers outside Chicago had the chance to get to know Sinsabaugh’s work in any depth before the retrospective at the Indiana University Art Museum. The pictures simply weren’t available, except to a select few. Thall was among those lucky few, and has built on the example, though his work reflects different times and circumstances.

Thall, who heads the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago, where he has long taught, is preparing the fourth in his cycle of books of large-format black and white photographs of his native city, all published with the help of the Virginia-based Center for American Places, on whose board he now sits. Cumulatively, the effort surely adds up to one of the largest surveys of its built environment Chicago has ever seen–though, unlike Sinsabaugh’s, this one has no official patron or purpose. (Thall did once do occasional documentary work for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, but he makes a clear separation between this former day job and his own artwork.) Presciently, in an essay written to accompany the photographs he submitted as his Master’s thesis to the Institute of Design in 1967, Sinsabaugh wondered if “a group of photographers may some day record Chicago in all its facets for future scholars and have meaning of an interdisciplinary nature.” He was right about one, at least.

This fall the Center for American Places (with help from Columbia College, under their new collaborative imprint) will publish Thall’s At City’s Edge: Photographs of the Chicago Lakefront. Previous titles in his loosely-linked series have focused on Chicago’s fast-changing downtown Loop (The Perfect City, 1994); its sprawling “edge city” suburbs (The New American Village, 1999); and the Loop’s untouched dark alleys (City Spaces: Photographs of Chicago Alleys, 2002). Thall’s deadpan, ostensibly documentary wide-angle shots lack people except in occasional supporting roles; his subject is the city they make and leave behind, which has a hand, in turn, in making them. As Walter Benjamin wrote of Eugene Atget’s work in Paris a century ago, he photographs the city “as if it were the scene of a crime.” Thall provides evidence of people’s interactions with this at once planned and unconsidered place, asking a geographer’s questions in photography’s vernacular voice.

I asked him how Sinsabaugh’s tradition, such as it is, is holding up.

Stephen Longmire: What did the city of Chicago make of Art Sinsabaugh’s legacy? Are those prints sitting in a vault?

Bob Thall: They basically threw them out … Sinsabaugh gave them a set of prints where he had stamped “proof print” in the sky of these images–ruined them, basically. And they were just found in the bottom of a desk that they were throwing out a couple of years ago. They gave them to the Art Institute in 1983. So whoever got the prints just said “thank you very much,” paid the bill and stuck them in a desk …

I suspect that this was a condition of the Model Cities Act. The city had to make a photographic survey before they could submit the plan to get the federal funds. So it was a box that they had to check off, and Sinsabaugh had this camera, that’s why he then went to Baltimore and did the same thing. He had a selling point, of why they should hire him. He had this perfect camera to document the thing. They were the perfect client, in a way. They were spending somebody else’s money, they had to get it done, and they didn’t care at all what it was …

[When] I was in architecture [school, at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus] in the late ’60s … we still saw these plans. The Model Cities resulted in an awful lot of clearance. When you go to Buffalo or St. Louis, you see those big, horrible urban renewal swatches. And then Jane Jacobs was resisting this … [Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) was a rallying cry for opponents of utopian “urban renewal” schemes, which bulldozed slums and replaced them with housing projects and other top-down civic services. She called for planning on a more human scale, with an eye to the everyday lives of buildings and their inhabitants.]

So this was a federal program. My understanding is that this was a condition of the federal program. (1)

SL: Document it, knock it down.

BT: Document it first, it was part of the process to get the federal dollars … We were lucky here. Brian Katz [a long-time Columbia College faculty member, now retired] was [Art’s] assistant, and through Brian we got a set of slides that Art had made, these very well done slides of his work. So I’d always seen this work. But otherwise I wouldn’t have seen it. Almost no one ever saw it. A lot of these pictures are unknown, and I thought it was only that odd coincidence of having the slides here in the slide library that gave me or any of the students here any familiarity with these pictures. [These gold-toned slides were prepared by George Eastman House as part of a series involving multiple photographers, but Katz made sure Columbia got a set.]

SL: So that’s where you first saw the work.

BT: Every now and then one would pop up in a show. [You asked] how many people are in his tradition here–I think that was very limited. These were rare, odd prints. In a way, it’s a little bit like [Richard] Nickel [who photographed Louis Sullivan buildings until one that was being demolished fell on him]. You’d hear about it, there were people that worked with him at the time that respected him, you’d see a few prints here and there for sale, fairly high prices, but it wasn’t available. Where would you go to look at the work until this book came out? They both died young. They’re both a little grumpy, maybe a little eccentric. These are hard prints to make. You’ve got a vacuum table, and they’re expensive. But you have to say, he seemed a little conflicted about his own work and his career.

What’s interesting about this work, and maybe what did happen with the city as a client, is it forced him to be more systematic. You can see him proceeding in a very systematic way around Chicago, but that doesn’t keep it from being either art or personal, it just makes it a more difficult project. [On the subject of his own past work for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Thall draws a sharp line between commissioned and “personal” work.] It was very tight. I was paid by the hour, the trick was to go out and figure how to make the needed pictures quickly in a billing. [He says he almost never made pictures for himself in the process, though the work occasionally sent him to neighborhoods to which he returned. By contrast, Thall contends,] This was so close to Sinsabaugh’s own work …

It’s interesting how the camera probably affected his vision too. He can’t let anything be too close to the camera … These are pretty perplexing pictures.

SL: In the sense they don’t appear to be about–

BT: Something interesting. It’s so normal. But he is pretty methodical … He’s circling the city at larger and larger intervals.

SL: When did you first realize that you were engaged in a long-term project here in Chicago?

BT: It wasn’t until I edited the Perfect City pictures. It was 20 years’ work, and I was looking for some sort of structure, and all of a sudden I saw how much things had changed, and how I had this record.

SL: Do you find in retrospect the photographs are about other things than you thought they were about?

BT: I edited the book around the city rather than the discrete things I was working on. I was concentrating on things that were more formal, and then I exploded those. So it doesn’t represent my working method.

SL: Since then you’ve had three books about much tighter topics.

BT: I changed my idea of what I was doing. So I actually did think of this as more documentary, or more descriptive, or more about the city.

SL: You describe this current book as more personal. What do you mean?

BT: It could have been a more carefully descriptive book where you roll down the city, and you also deal with the different times of the year, and different things that go on. I somehow forgot to photograph the air and water show [a major summer event in Chicago] in five years, I missed it every year. If you were doing an editorial thing, that would be key. And the pictures tend to … [show] isolated moments, in winter, in bad weather. It’s kind of a melancholy book, which is my memory of spending time at the lake, off season, mopey.

I came up within that ID [Institute of Design] tradition where your next work is based on whatever you did in the last work, and you just set problems for yourself.

SL: And your problem was?

BT: Well, it varied. I started in school thinking about pretentious architecture that had been trashed. That’s why I went to neighborhoods like Pilsen [a once grand, but long down-at-heel ethnic community on the city’s near-south side]. And once I was there, I started getting interested in signs of history on the buildings. So that led to me documenting street scenes. And at some point I wanted to get more in the picture. But then you had the problem of filling up the top and the bottom of the picture. And I thought, well, if you go downtown that should solve that! So one thing led to another. I would be interested in light, or a certain kind of space. A lot of the work I did was based on thinking about the beautiful, the picturesque and the sublime and whether you could upset that kind of formula in a picture. That was the early 1980s. The suburban book was really a reaction to all the formalism. I thought I’d see if I could actually describe a place. It was a reaction to a lot of the pictures I’d been doing downtown, which only had to do with visual things. I thought, the city’s changing, and how would you go about this if you actually tried to describe a place with more completeness? But it was almost as a photographer setting a problem, not as an urban studies person.

[Working along the lakeshore, the problem is different, he explains.] Sky and water are so pretty, especially when they’re together. How do you avoid just being about a kind of conventional prettiness? How do you tie these pictures to the city? A lot of the pictures are about the kind of neighborhoods where the city just stops, the whole texture of the city just ends arbitrarily. You want to somehow make it about the beauty of the city, but somehow tied to the rest of my work. Of course the beauty is part of it. I’m not sure if formally I’ve solved all the problems. I don’t know if I’ve been careful enough.

SL: Who is the audience for your work in your mind, who is your ideal viewer?

BT: A hundred other photographers.

SL: Do they need to know the city of Chicago?

BT: That’s funny. I’m considered a regionalist … Sinsabaugh’s work, or my work, looks regional because it’s too specifically about the particularity of that place … The most palatable subject for global art right now is globalization. It’s the one subject everyone can relate to.

1. Lyndon Johnson announced his plans for a Great Society in 1964, the year Sinsabaugh went to work in Chicago. The federal Model Cities Act, which created the Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat “urban blight,” was not announced until 1966, but may have been in the works earlier, making Thall’s suspicion hard to verify. “They had to do it,” he recalls hearing Sinsabaugh say about his work in Baltimore.

Sinsabaugh does not appear to have been reluctant about his involvement with city governments. “I am proud to be part of your efforts,” he wrote Louis Wetmore, Deputy Commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Development and Planning on December 13, 1966. “I am left with the gratifying feeling that in some small measure I was given the opportunity to reveal some of the qualities of the city I love.”

STEPHEN LONGMIRE is a photographer and writer living in Wisconsin.

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