Photo Copy: the remote edges and unknown corners of O'Hare | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Photo Copy: the remote edges and unknown corners of O'Hare 

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At first glance, "O'Hare--Airport on the Prairie: Photographs by Robert Burley" is an unsurprising exhibition. We recognize in big, sumptuous Ektacolor prints the crowded terminal buildings, the waiting passengers, the traffic jams--the sort of frustrating airport tableaux we've all had parts in. Then jets taxiing, accelerating down a runway, or landing just beyond patches of cattails, wildflowers, headstones.

Cattails? Wildflowers? Headstones?

Burley--a Toronto native and now a professional architectural photographer there--was a photography graduate student at the School of the Art Institute when he discovered O'Hare. He already knew the public places, used by 50 million visitors a year, the terminal buildings and parking lots; and he knew the rest of the airport from above, but only in passing of course. What might the more remote parts of the airport, he wondered, look like from the ground?

Burley's new exhibition--his master's thesis, now on display at the Chicago Historical Society--is the answer to his question and the result of some four years of work. "I was initially interested in the airfield as a kind of landscape that hadn't been explored before," he says. "I began with recording the kind of transition that takes place between the wooded area at the edge of the airport--and the manmade, very managed terminal area that you see as you walk in."

Burley's greatest challenge initially was getting access to those remote parts of the airport. "There wasn't all the paranoia about airport security that there is now," he says. "But my first requests were met with a blunt no. Airline officials said forget it. City officials were much more interested because their billion-dollar expansion project was going on--a lot of changes were going on--and they thought this way they could get someone to take pictures for free."

Burley surveyed O'Hare from what he calls "an almost 19th-century point of view." He used a four-by-five-inch view camera mounted on a tripod--a method that's inherently laborious since the photographer has to change the film for each shot--and slow shutter speeds, "rather than trying to keep up with the hustle and bustle of the airport."

He found some surprisingly pastoral areas just beyond the runways. In Runway 4R Approach Lights, 1984, the landing gear of a rushing jet seems almost to touch the cattails that grow amidst the runways lights; in another photo, a ditch overgrown with lush wildflowers lies not far from more than a dozen airliners at a terminal building. The slow shutter speed turns the moving jets into blurs of color.

Also colorful--garish, even--are the often bizarre man-made structures that line the runways. One of Burley's prints depicts light poles that look like lollipops, while another shows a small circular building painted in large red and white squares. It houses a directional beacon transmitter for landing jets, but it looks more like a merry-go-round. "A lot of those things have a sculptural beauty to them," says Burley. "I wanted to approach those things like we approach Stonehenge or the stone circle in Avebury, England: we maybe have some idea what they were used for, but we approach them as sculptural objects in the landscape."

Some of the equipment that Burley photographed early on has since been demolished in the O'Hare expansion, a fact that gives his work a documentary facet. But in December 1985 a 60 Minutes expose that revealed grave flaws in O'Hare's security system put Burley's project in jeopardy. Suddenly airport officials didn't want anybody snooping around.

"After that I was banned," says Burley. "But by then I had a body of work together, and I could go to the airlines" for permission to photograph their operations. The fact that the Historical Society was by then underwriting his project also helped open some doors. With the cooperation of American and United airlines (the latter provided major funding for the exhibition), Burley was able to photograph work areas and the interiors of hangers. Some of his photos show the mammoth scale of airport architecture: even the largest jets are dwarfed by the cavernous hangars. Other images reveal touches of humanity tucked into the gargantuan spaces, like the pinups plastered on an equipment box.

He had moved from the airport's perimeter to the runways and then to the hangars, and Burley completed his project by photographing O'Hare's public areas: the ticket counters, baggage claims, concession stands, and waiting areas. The exhibition moves, as Burley did, from the airport's far reaches to its interior: the final section consists of portraits of people Burley met there: hustlers and firemen, cabbies and cops, stewardesses and businessmen.

"I was interested in the uniforms of people who work there, and the uniforms of the people who walk through," says Burley. "The businessman has his suit and tie, his briefcase, his Wall Street Journal. Couples on vacation have their luggage, their casual clothes."

Though some people, hurrying through, refused Burley's request to pose, his prints show that a remarkable cross section of people did stop. "A lot of them thought it was weird," says Burley, meaning his project, "because most people have such a dislike of O'Hare. But they don't see all the areas I was seeing."

"O'Hare--Airport on the Prairie: Photographs by Robert Burley" runs through February 6 at the Chicago Historical Society at Clark and North. Hours are 9:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is free through October 31; after that, $1.50 for adults, 50 cents for children and senior citizens, and free on Mondays. Saturday curator Larry Viskochil will lecture on the exhibit at 11:30 AM and noon. For more information, call 642-4600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Burley.

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