Algren's Eye: Photography and the City

by Warren Leming

"Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects......"
Charles Baudelaire (on the Parisian rag pickers)

The Chicago writer Nelson Algren has come down to us in a few books: some short stories, a great many reviews which he wrote for pay, and the novels, later filmed: "Man With A Golden Arm," and "Walk on the Wild Side." Born in 1909, Algren comes of age in the first great period of photographic reproduction. Spurred by the demand for photos of the First World War, and aided by the simultaneous spread of film, the news photo comes into its own in the period just preceding the World War.

Algren grew up in a world inundated with photographs. Suddenly, the world was looking at itself in a completely new way.
Algren headed the Federal Writers Project in Illinois. He worked in that fertile period when the Farm Security Administration documented the Depression and advanced American photography.

Algren begins to write seriously in the 30's and saw the photos of Margaret Bourke White, Walker Evans, Bernice Abbot, Steiglitz and Weston.Algren meets Stephen Deutch in the early 60's and the two became friends. Deutch's photo essay on Chicago was published as part of Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make." A lyrical look at the town that Algren made his trade.Deutch will remain an Algren friend until the end. Algren's long friendship with Art Shay produced Shay's, "Nelson Algren's Chicago," which is the best document we have of his world.

Algren never forgot the Haymarket episode, and makes it part of his "Chicago: City on the Make." His emphasis on remembrance, on history, and the local amnesia informed his eye as well as his hand. For nowhere has the past been so carefully forgotten as in Chicago, a city founded on a crime.

Shay's book reveals Algren playing the lead in his own film. A black and white docu-drama about urban decay,the unofficial side of Chicago life and the drab, beaten reality at the bottom. Shay's Algren is the bespectacled observer of life at its hardest. Algren had little distance from his material; he continued to live in a three flat on Evergreen for much of his post war life. He sold out what little he had in the mid 70's and headed for the East Coast where he died, bitter and obscure, cheated of his legacy by a world that had turned on those who had sought to expose the agony at the heart of American life.

Part of his appeal for intellectuals like De Beauvoir and Sartre was his view of the American Class struggle. Chicago, with its Class war past; its ghettos and political machines, and its arrogant merchants had long been infamous. As he was to learn; to be successful in Chicago means getting to get out. It was an option he didn't consider until it was too late.

Chicago has long attracted visitors from all over the world because of the look of the place. Its architecture, springing as it does from Louis Sullivan, Wright, Burnham, and Holabird and Root, is world renowned and well documented. Algren's cityscapes blend Beaudelaire and Lloyd Wright; Film Noir and Capitalist realism. Its the world revealed in the Shay and Deutch photo-essays. The shakedown, the lineup, the cell, the corridor lit from above with its caked, split and frayed floor, the lightless window and the shattered door are the images of which Algren's prose is composed. If it was to be Brecht's task to write of the migrations to the great cities, cities which he saw as jungles, it was Algren's to record what happened within them.

The systems of ruthless oppression posing as Justice, the ward boss and ward heeler with their equivalents in the Southern sheriff, whose word was Law and whose Law was racism; the ghetto bred political overlords promising help while ruthlessly exploiting were part of his history.

Chicago today is an exciting American city. A manicured Lake Front and Gold Coast, and a well massaged Downtown give way, as one moves West, to the monotony of bungalows interspersed with car wash and gas station. The sheer drabness of the West Side is still testament to red-lining, and real estate manipulation.Austin, once prosperous, is now as blighted as any local ghetto.

Photography has been called a "cool" medium, and that chill reflects a reality. Photographs can document as well as aestheticise.
The dawn of photography mirrors the arrival of the muck rakers like Algren. One of them, Lewis Hine, happened to be a great photographer. Hine's pictures of immigrant life in New York remain the great photographic testament to human courage and the sordid spaces where it withered. Mothers and children crowded into closets; sweat shops and bordellos; bars and restaurants, all served Hine's lens; but the documentation of human misery summoned his genius. Like Algren his vision worked from the bottom up.
The photograph cannot be eluded in the same way that a book can be set aside.

Algren's writing can be both lyrical and documentary: "..the wind goes banging ashcans down every alley with an old blue hammer, and here comes Springtime as a small girl, astride a tricycle with flags in every spoke, wheels whirlabelling the confetti colored pennon of her laughter down the long bright block behind her."Algren notes that the lower you go on the urban food change, the sharper the pictures and the more blurred the story. But there is no second guessing Shay's shots of Milwaukee Ave. at night, or Deutch's portraits of leather jacketed urban kids hanging out.

Was it work that brought them here, asks Algren? And if it did maybe some of them "went to work too soon." Too young to ever recover from that awful, once visionary formula: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for play."
Is that really why we have come all this way, asks Algren? And if that's the sad payoff, then count me out. As a child Algren could open his newspaper to pictures of his baseball heroes, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the games great players victim to Comisky's greed and the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

The photograph made Chicago visible in a new way. Big Bill Thompson, Capone, Dion O'Banion, Yellow Kid Weill, Dillenger and Baby Faced Nelson have not been completely lost to memory, but their faces have disappeared. Much as today's flavor of the month is destined for the ash can of history after having been imprinted solidly in every American mind for just over five minutes.

Photos are forever fading and being replaced with new images, just as people and causes fade, only to be resurrected, still distorted, or finally understood.
How many Americans today could identify Charles Lindbergh, who conquered the Atlantic in 1927? And yet his was the most famous face of the first part of the 20th Century. Others, through TV and film, survive today more recognisable than when they first appeared.

The cheap availability of video footage has meant that the free images of Hitler, which anyone can use, have kept him a fixture of documentary and history based television. His counterparts: Tojo, Mussolini, and Franco remain obscure. Unlike the Nazi's, they commissioned no film teams to document their horror. It was Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" that made Hitler an iconic figure.

But in our own time, with the constant proliferation of images that TV and video and now the DVD have brought about, who can remember a single face? Who recall the snapshots of ones childhood? Is it getting harder to remember, or do these images remain with us to the very end? How do we counter the relentless advertised reality? Or has the photograph and its animated ancestors created a culture of amnesia: so crammed with imagery that no single unconfused thought is possible, and no likeness retained? These are some of the questions Algren's work still poses: questions more potent now than when he first asked them.

Warren Leming is a Chicago writer and playwright who is vice chairman of the Nelson Algren Committee.


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