Shooting the Periphery: An all-nighter with Zane Davis

This article was originally published on Sixty Inches From Center
Zane Davis, “Chicago River (South Branch) at South Canal Street”, Chicago, 2012.
Image courtesy of the artist.

“Following the north branch from the edge of Skokie to the heart of downtown you see the complete transformation from a creek in a forest, to a drain for the city.” —Zane Davis on the Chicago River

A dark and sober night makes me pay attention. Shadows hide the distracting details of daily life; the bits of light that are present guide my eyes. I meditate on the details as something seemingly ordinary transforms to something noteworthy.

From industrial parks to deer sprinkled mid-western forests, the bridges dispersed along the Chicago River highlight the heterogeneous landscape of the great city. Zane Davis’s series Towards Wolf Point, gives the viewer a chance to see this. He shoots at night and invited me to go along for one of his “all-nighter” photo adventures. The plan for the evening was to jump into the rented convertible, Rosa, and shoot the Chicago River from the bridges on the city’s periphery. Around 10:00 P.M. we started at West 35th Street and Ashland, the southernmost bridge crossing the Chicago River. Each image is taken standing on a bridge facing towards downtown, and, per the series title, Towards Wolf Point, where the branches of the Chicago River converge.

At South Archer Avenue, the second bridge on our long list, I started to look at the landscape not as an unknowing pedestrian but as a curious lens, collecting the unnoticed details. Here, guided by Davis’s attention, the infrastructure hovering over the river becomes an abstract study of symmetry, line, texture, and light. I noticed tiny but bright patches of color—twinkling lights hanging from the bridge and reflecting in the water. I saw the small bugs in the water creating spatter-like ripples scattered around the murky water. Davis uses the bridges as a starting point, he says, “The bridges actually don’t matter all that much to me, it’s the River that I’m interested in and the bridges provide a curated number of viewpoints onto the river.”

Zane Davis, “Chicago River (South Branch) at South Archer Avenue”, Chicago, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Suspended above water on the manmade structures, Davis takes photographs with a long exposure time for which he must pay attention to uncontrollable aspects of the environment such as wind and cars passing by—their interference causes unwanted vibrations which make the photographs blurry. He waits for stillness. On the other hand, Davis will also sit and wait to capture a duck, or, in this case on South Archer Avenue Bridge, a semi to pass divulging the element of time and exposure imbedded in each photograph. When looking at this particular photograph one notices the horizontal faded shape above the edge of the bridge. Due to the long exposure, instead of a solid mass, the quickly passing semi truck is an abstract blur.

After South Archer Avenue we sped to South Loomis Street, the first cantilever bridge on our journey, then to South Halsted Street. Next we parked in front of Lawrence Fisheries that, according to Davis, sells the best fried shrimp in Chicago, and proceeded to shoot the bridges at West Cermak Road, South Canal Street, and West 18th Street. To briefly summarize the experience of walking among these three bridges I think of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil from 1985—industrial, eerie, and abstract. Standing on the South Canal Street Bridge we faced north to view Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge 458 which is almost 100 years old. This bridge is the essence of actual visual abstraction. Instead of comfortable, balanced looking angles the two main legs of the bridge are trapezoidal, perplexing, and look unsteady, as though your vision is obscured. On top of the bridge is a small, rectangular house balanced in the center. At the point where the base of the house and the top of the bridge meet, blue, green, and white light shines through in bright star-like shapes. Extended reflections of the glittering light shine in the river below.

Despite the fact that the Chicago River is naturally occurring, man has plucked and pulled the natural space—building bridges, inserting artificial lighting, creating the canal, and even reversing the actual flow of the river. “I try to emphasize this unnaturalness in my images”, Davis says “but honestly, because of the typological style I pursue—I trust that the river will reveal itself over the course of the images. The most I do to facilitate the unnaturalness is to deliberately shoot at night.” The meandering bends and curls of the Chicago River reveal the evidence of man’s hand on nature.

Zane Davis, “Chicago River (South Branch) at West Roosevelt Road”, Chicago, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

The last bridge on the southern leg of our tour was at West Roosevelt Road. Facing north, one observes a wonderful sampling of eclectic architecture the Chicago River slips by. In the foreground of Davis’s photograph, stands the Union Station Power House to the left—the structure is a large cube basked in golden light with two massive black smokestacks thrusting out of the roof, proudly piercing the night sky. The front and side of the structure have three sets of long, dark, rectangular, stripes imbedded in the rigid form. In the background, echoing the dark, sinewy forms in the foreground, the notorious Willis Tower juts above the horizon line—its two piercing white spires accentuating its stature. One hefty and understated, the other glittery and glowing; both structures proudly boast long shapes penetrating the sky.

After West Roosevelt we climbed back into trusty Rosa, and jumped on the highway headed for the northern most bridge crossing the Chicago River. Between bridges, Davis and I chatted about the greater meaning of Towards Wolf Point both in the world of photography and more generally in the art world as a whole. Educating me a bit on other photographers, Davis explained in a distilled fashion, “So Ansel Adams makes beautiful things, beautiful to the point of myth—to the point of deliberately omitting anything that wouldn’t be beautiful. [Edward] Burtynsky makes ugly things beautiful, so much so that he’s been criticized for glorifying environmental horror.” I asked Davis where Towards Wolf Point lies on the Adams/Burtynsky spectrum. He replied, “I’d say I’m near Burtynsky: risking glorifying the city, but I’d also say that I’m more interested in showing the spectrum itself.” To further explain, Davis brought another photographer into the conversation, “Which might be why I like Robert Adams: because he expressly wants to show the impact we’ve had on the landscape.”

Zane Davis, “Chicago River (North Branch) at West Devon Avenue”, Chicago, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

When we arrived at West Devon Avenue it was well into the early hours of the next day. In a quick car ride the scenery transitioned from urban-industrial landscape to suburban forest. The views from the northernmost bridges are quite similar—dim water covered with a mixture of dark shadows and streetlight reflections. Trees hover above, sticks and mud underscore where water and land meet. Far north, though the manmade structures are not present in the images, evidence is there—shadows and reflections of light. The progression towards the city is subtle but noticeable. Due to the long exposure time there is an artificial glow from the street lamps that tints the photographs. At North Cicero Avenue one can see the tiny light peaking through the trees; at West Foster Avenue the shadow and reflection of the bridge are perceived. Working further south, at North Pulaski Avenue, manmade structures are just a stone’s throw away—a street lamp, the road, road signs, the concrete wall along the river. The photograph from the last stop on our journey, the second bridge on West Foster Avenue crossing the river, is unique among the rest taken that night in a Where’s Waldo style—along with a building peaking through the trees, a fence in the distance, and a floating duck, a photographer, his friend, and his camera linger in the shadows.

Towards Wolf Point can be seen as documentary or art photography. Davis calls the series a typology, and treats it systematically. As we went from bridge to bridge, repeating the same process, I thought of my middle school science lab and learning the scientific method. Despite the scientific air of making Towards Wolf Point, I cannot help but look at the work as a creative process. Davis’s trained eye directs each image. He guided my experience by encouraging me to view my regular surroundings as works of art. Simply taking the time to pay attention transforms the landscape from mundane to distinctive. In On Photography Susan Sontag states, “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty… So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of beautiful.” As I followed Davis along on this nighttime photo journey, his action of taking a photograph changed my view of our surroundings (for this insight I am grateful to my colleague and friend, photographer Elizabeth Nelson).

Zane Davis, “Chicago River (North Branch) at West Foster Avenue”, Chicago, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Davis is in the process of completing Towards Wolf Point, chipping away at the many bridges that cross the Chicago River between 35th Street and Devon Avenue. Along with creating his handsome photography, Davis also maintains a noteworthy blog, Plane of Focus, featuring his photos, his reviews of other photographer’s work, a good dose of Chicago, and a dash of his cat Pynchon and wife, writer Julie Davis.

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