Gallery Tripping: inside the city's water wonderland | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Gallery Tripping: inside the city's water wonderland 

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Photographer Stephen Szoradi started his ongoing series on industry and infrastructure as a student at Bennington College in the late 80s. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where "there's not a single smokestack," he says. "In Vermont there was a whole blue-collar workforce that I'd never seen." Szoradi began taking pictures of New England quarries "to understand how things were made....I thought it would be a project I might be able to sustain for the rest of my life."

He moved here in 1991 to get an MFA in photography at Columbia College, and over the last 11 years he's shot steel plants and coal mines in Illinois and Indiana, salt mines beneath Lake Huron, and fabrication shops in Chicago. His work's not nostalgic, he says, because the industries are still functioning. "I'm not looking back and saying, 'Oh, remember when this steel mill was a great thing?' It's still producing steel."

Szoradi started taking pictures of the area's vast water processing system four years ago. After "writing letters and asking nicely," he got access to pumping stations, mazelike filtration plants, cement-and-stone tunnels, and a football-field-sized cistern where purifying chemicals are mixed into the city's drinking water. He also visited a section of the city's massive Deep Tunnel sewer project, which he describes as "big and dark and not exactly easy to photograph."

There aren't any people in most of his black-and-white images, and water appears only occasionally--usually as an unrecognizable shadow. "They're not really telling the whole story--just giving ideas of how I perceive [a structure's] function," he says.

After September 11 his access to public utilities was sharply restricted, so he turned his attention to reservoirs and other less sensitive areas. In the future he hopes to document shipping via land and sea, the timber industry, and power plants, although "timing-wise it's probably the worst time to start power and electricity," he says. "Nuclear power plants are not exactly open to being photographed right now."

"Water," an exhibition of Szoradi's filtration-system photos, opens January 9 at the Water Tower's City Gallery, 806 N. Michigan, and runs through March 31. For more information call 312-742-0808.

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