Photographer explores hidden side of Chicago landmarks

  • By THOMAS WILMES
  • Medill News Service
  • January 30, 2006 @ 6:24 AM
Crawl spaces, utility corridors, abandoned theaters -- these are the favorite subjects of Dutch photographer Jan Theun van Rees.

Van Rees, who lives in Amsterdam, was invited by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to photograph hidden spaces that are tucked away in some of the Chicago area's landmark buildings.

Van Rees spent three weeks last fall exploring the nooks and crannies of the Chicago Cultural Center, the Uptown Theatre, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Hegeler Carus Mansion in Peru, Ill. -- often contorting his body and improvising with his equipment to capture the shots he was after.

The results are collected in the exhibit "Photographs: Building Dreams in the Bookbinder's Room," on public display through March 19 in the Chicago Cultural Center's Michigan Avenue Galleries, 78 E. Washington St. (The "Bookbinder's Room" in the exhibit title refers to the room's use when the building housed Chicago's central library.) Admission to the exhibition is free, as is a "Gallery Talk" Van Rees will give in the gallery at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 27.

"The initial reaction is surprise," Van Rees, 44, says of his work. People are amazed that the photographs were taken in a building they thought they knew well, then they'll usually try to figure out exactly where they were taken, he said. "I try to find these awkward spaces in the building ... spaces that usually are not supposed to be worthwhile to look at."

For this exhibit, Van Rees squeezed himself into the narrow space above the "Grand Army of the Republic Dome" in the Cultural Center, as well as into the crawl space under the gallery where his work will be shown. Van Rees says that he isn't interested in showing architectural details, but rather in capturing the interplay of light and space in these often neglected, and conventionally unappealing, places.

"I've found that there's a strong connection between the image you're looking at and its relation to where you are," Van Rees said.

The exhibit at the Cultural Center will focus mainly on the hidden spaces within that building, as well as other out-of-the-way interiors. A concurrent Van Rees exhibit will also be on display at the Unity Temple, 875 Lake St. in Oak Park, and will focus on that building.

Van Rees, who uses a multiple exposure technique, relies on natural lighting and minimal spot lighting to "build the entire image in layers of light," he said.

"I have very little control over the final image. I just have to wait to see how things turn out," Van Rees said. "You can never do them again the same way."

He was particularly pleased by the way a sub-level shot at the Cultural Center turned out, "like you're looking out into outer space," he said.

Van Rees began experimenting with this technique in the bare, dusty crawl space beneath his Amsterdam studio. When he first showed people the results they thought it was some kind of "strange archeology site or something," Van Rees said. "Then they were dazzled by the idea that they were looking at the space that they're standing on top of."

Van Rees says he considers his work successful if it causes viewers to "increase their awareness of where they are in a building, to show them that there's more behind the walls," he said. "People are often surprised to realize that there's so much more around them."

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