The Museum of Contemporary Photography, housed by Chicago’s Columbia College, has just opened the doors of Public Works, a comprehensive and diverse showing of built infrastructure captured by mid-20th century to contemporary photographers. If you ever wondered what Hoover Dam Bypass looked like mid-construction, this is the place to see it in striking detail.
The show begins with extremes, kicking off with Armin Linke’s photographs of vast infrastructural projects at all ends of the world. For example, the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan is the first and still the largest operational space complex, leased by Kazakhstan to Russia until 2050. Though in reality the Cosmodrome is a bustling spaceport with an active launch schedule, it appears otherwise in Linke’s photograph—more like a bizarre relic of a time gone by, left untouched. In stark contrast is another Linke piece, a photograph of the Grande Dixence Dam in Switzerland, the tallest gravity dam in the world. The dam creates its own stunning landscape that looks almost natural: an extremely still mountain lake has pooled behind its concrete wall, with winding trails leading up the mountain to its edge. Next, comes an image of the 2001 Maha Kumbha Mela, a massive Hindu pilgrimage that takes place only once every 144 years. In the photograph, a sea of pilgrims flood the network of temporary pontoon bridges built over the Ganges river in Allahabad especially for the event. With 60 million in attendance, the 2001 gathering was the largest in recorded history.
Eirik Johnson and Alejandro Cartagena
Linke’s images set a tone for the show: that infrastructure, despite its often massive proportions, is human. The motivations behind its construction may be spiritual as much as logistical, and it can be occupied at the scale of the human body even while it creates marks as large as the landscape. The Cosmodrome is a point of exit from the earth; the pontoon bridges serve primarily a religious purpose; and the Grand Dixence hydroelectric dam impacts domestic life as much as it does the scenery.
The potentially damaging effects of infrastructure on both land and culture are also addressed. Images like Alejandro Cartegena’s Suburbia Mexicana series depict how fast growth, with little consideration for urban planning or resource allocation, results in the drying up of rivers in the otherwise scenic landscapes of Monterrey, Mexico. With a similar documentary spirit, Sze Tsung Leong’s capturing of Ciqikou in Chongquing, part of the History Images series, depicts the clashing of an old culture with the new infrastructure of China’s rapid economic boom. In it, temples and gardens sit atop concrete platforms that look more like the interstate of your nightmares than public meeting places. While Cartegena’s images are unmistakably critical, Leong seems intent only on capturing a still frame of an intense transition.
An unexpected favorite is Greta Pratt’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, where local Pennsylvanians reenact the famous crossing by dressing up in revolutionary garb and marching across the bridge named after the same event, rather than clambering into boats and rowing across the river’s breadth. The show is full of surprises like this, picked from the repertoires of artists who may not necessarily be known for their love of infrastructure. The images chosen illustrate all the scales of its use, construction and interpretation. In the case of Washington Crossing the Delaware, a warped sense of US history is superimposed onto a bridge that’s otherwise relatively unspectacular.
The only complaint is that the show is rounded out with too much of a nod to American nostalgia. As important as Lee Friedlander, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans may be to the documentation of early American infrastructure, there are too many images of this ilk included, weighting the show largely towards the early United States and undermining some of the more bizarre, contemporary pieces. Even so, among these, Berenice Abbott’s The O-Line, Pier 11, East River, 1930 is a stunning reminder that ports with passenger ships used to be as much a part of our international infrastructure as airports and their fleets of airplanes are now.