Along The Divide
One of the nation’s most heavily traveled and notoriously dangerous expressways, the Dan Ryan cuts a giant swath through Chicago’s densely populated South Side neighborhoods. A fascinating urban ecosystem has developed around the road, an interwoven structure of human and industrial elements. Between 1981 and 1985 I produced thousands of images and traveled thousands of miles while grappling with the representational challenges inherent in this subject. It was an extremely formative body of work, and became as much a vehicle for me as an artist as it has been a conduit for the millions of others who use it every year.
I wanted to examine the road as a massive expression of the urban lexicon. The considerable extent of the Dan Ryan’s influence over its surroundings, as well as the proliferation of adaptations to its unremitting presence, offered me an invaluable opportunity for photographic interpretation and construction. The enormity of its engineering continuously plays the geographical off the incidental. As elements proceed through time and space, scale is measured both physically and historically. The ramifications of driving this expressway may range from total functionality to devastating dis-functionality.
Still, the great subtext underlying all circumstance here is the politic that created the Dan Ryan and decided to whom its construction would benefit most. I have often referred to the Dan Ryan as a linear buffer, which acts as a cushion for those people who want a link to the city, but also want a definable separation from the “realities” of city life.
Ultimately though, my photographs are about the nature of representing such an enormous edifice; I consciously shifted format and attitude to reflect better the diversity of the environment and my understanding of it. A great challenge was to pre-visualize, often months or even years in advance, when and how I could best represent my ideas about this arterial organism. I had to become sympathetic with the Dan Ryan’s cycles and flows, its causes and effects. Many different activities and populations are involved with it at different times, and my approach often depended not only on the good will and cooperation of private individuals and public institutions, but also on climatic and environmental disposition. Many of my subjects, both human and architectural, have since changed, moved, or disappeared, but the Dan Ryan remains as a monolith of urban engineering, and continues to affect the culture and commerce of Chicago and the nation.