In June of 2020, when rioters in the Loop stormed and looted stores along Wabash Avenue, one of the worst hit was Central Camera, which has been around since 1899. The looters set the store on fire and Chicago photographers mourned the loss—Central Camera was an institution, frequented by students and professionals alike. Don Flesch, the owner, released a statement: “Although this is a tough time for the store, it doesn’t compare to the loss of George Floyd’s life and the countless other Black lives lost,” but photographers still lamented. Photographer Chris Kleihege pulled a phoenix from the ashes in the form of 4×5 black-and-white film that had been damaged in the fire, which he used to make the fascinating images in this show. The film, which is created from five different layers, had been heated in the fire and then cooled, causing it to “reticulate,” or crackle into frostlike patterns. Kleihege shot with this film, knowing it was the luck of the draw, and not having any idea how the images would come out until he printed them.
There is an image of Central Camera itself in the show, gated, the windows across the front blown out—the damaged film gives the impression of flames. For the images as well as the series title, Kleihege chose monuments—fitting, as many monuments are being questioned. Kleihege unwittingly erased or partially obliterated the monuments by using the burned film. I found the “General John Logan Monument” image particularly captivating as the image appears to be a shadow of the statue on the ground, surrounded by several ruined areas with a flag held aloft in the General’s hand. The metaphor of black-and-white images in light of the reexamination of history forms another layer in this work. In fact, everything about Kleihege’s “Monument” series is rife with symbolism.
Eric Holubow, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty of buildings falling into disrepair and eventual demise. His image, “Stonebridge, Lake Bluff,” shows a vaulted room that appears to have been a library. Beautiful millwork covers the walls, and a large stone fireplace draws the viewer’s eye. On the floor in the center of the room lies the iron chandelier with numerous lampshades that once hung from the ceiling. It’s a handsome, lyrical room, perhaps more so in its state of disuse and abandonment. The image “McKeesport Bank Vault” is almost surreal, with the vault door thrown open and a dilapidated sofa beckoning the viewer. The metal and glass of the vault is pristine, but everything surrounding it is in a state of ruin.
Holubow says that “Seeing these transitions… reminds us of our own mortality.” Looking at Holubow’s work, I see the beauty of the past, the pride of craftsmanship, the former elegance of places from a time that has slipped away. Humankind has found new, less-refined ways of creating spaces to live, work and socialize in. Personally, I miss the grace and charm.
“Past/Present: Works by Eric Holubow and Chris Kleihege” at Gallery 1871, 1871 North Clybourn, on view through September 9.