Collection Spotlight: Chicago, Ill., Charles Swedlund

Artist: Charles Swedlund (American, born 1935)
TitleChicago,Ill.
Date: 1958
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 9 × 5 in.
Creditline: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Steve Nordman, 2018.12.2

Photographer Charles Swedlund was a student at the Institute of Design (ID) when he made a series of photographs using Chicago and its inhabitants as subject matter. In Chicago, Ill., the composition is divided almost vertically in half.  A woman stands in a doorway on the right side of the photograph. The left half of the photograph is bright light, interrupted only by a broken handrail, without any identifying details to situate the subject or the photographer.

The woman in the photograph stands, in profile, in a doorway. It seems as though she has stopped to pause and take in the moment. Dressed in a sweater and skirt, she is smiling and appears calm and serene. While the woman seems to greet the day with hope and promise, the contrast of darks and lights is also the subject of the photograph. Chicago, Ill., may be considered a transitional piece, shifting between representation and abstraction. It shows the photographer’s interest in strong exposures and figural abstraction, altered with formal manipulation and technical experimentation. With the woman barely visible on the right, the strong light contrast dominates the image and in a sense, begins to free the image from narrative and descriptive context. We only know it is Chicago because of the title.

A few years after this photo was taken in 1961, Swedlund was one of several students from ID featured in Aperture magazine. In an article titled Five Photography Students from the Institute of Design, Swedlund’s work was shown alongside that of fellow students, Ken Josephson, Joseph Sterling, Ray K. Metzker, and Joseph Jachna. Swedlund’s spread of seven photos, under the heading “In Search for Form: Studies of the Human Figure,” shows a series of abstracted female bodies, defined mainly by contour, shadow, and light. In his introductory text, Swedlund wrote: “I worked in a completely “unclassical” way , using, as instruments of discovery, many of the facets of the camera and the photographic process—multiple exposure , high contrast film , slow shutter speeds and out-of -focus images….”

Swedlund’s interest in process and visual experimentation perhaps begins with Chicago, Ill., with its obscured figure, stark lighting contrasts. The work combines Swedlund’s early interest in the city as theme—one he shared with many of his ID colleagues (including his teachers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, as well as students Wayne Miller, Ray Metzger, Barbara Crane, and Richard Nickel)—with his growing interest in the technical possibilities of the camera and in representing the world in a non-objective way. 

–Contributed by Corinne Granof, Academic Curator with research from Essi Rönkkö, Associate Curator of Collections



Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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