Chicago, or the Windy City as it is nicknamed, is the third most populated city in the United States of America, fighting on the shores of Lake Michigan. Known for its impressive architecture such as the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, Chicago also has an illustrious history of art, being home to the many works of the iconic Ivan Albright among many others.
Back in the 1940s, Chicago was the very lifeblood of American industry, creating the worlds first nuclear reaction in 1942 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project that would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb. Becoming a pivotal part of the American war effort, the steel mills of Chicago accounted for 20% of all steel production in the United States, producing more steel than the whole of the United Kingdom throughout the war and surpassing Germany in 1943.
A busy city that bellowed with smoke and encouraged vigorous energy from each of its citizens, Chicago became a vibrant hub of activity, famed for its industrial power as well as its entertainment district and diverse creativity thanks to The Great Migration that saw thousands of black Americans arrive in the bustling city. Back in the 1940s, there were few cities in the United States that truly captured the true beating heart of American ambition and industrialism.
As a young burgeoning creative, Chicago was the perfect hub of activity for the photographer and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick who was still learning his craft in the industry when he started working for Look magazine. As one of his very first outlets for creativity, the iconic director became more trusted in the industry the longer he worked at the magazine with the variety of his work broadening as he was sent across the USA to capture each corner of the country.
Publishing the photo essay Chicago-City of Extremes, Kubrick manages to capture the bustling nature of the frenetic city, focusing on the industrial heart of the city as well as the entertainment scene that occurs once the factory’s had paused bellowing fumes. Well reflecting the directors own cinematic visual style, Kubrick shows a stark atmosphere behind his monochrome shots of the Windy City.
This collection of photographs was accompanied by an essay from the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet that looked into the social and economic contrasts that defined the city during the 1940s. Such can also be seen throughout Kubrick’s excavating photography, contrasting shots of poor black American families with the needless excess of the entertainment world in all its facets.
In a simple ethnographic study of Chicago during the 1940s, Kubrick told Michael Ciment in an interview at the time, “I worked with Look Magazine from the age of seventeen to twenty-one. It was a miraculous thing for me to get this job”. Despite being only at the start of a long and flourishing career, Kubrick’s technical creativity was truly impressive, adding: “This experience was invaluable to me not only because I learned a lot about photography, but also because it gave me a quick education in how things happened in the world”.
Truly a filmmaker who always had his eyes open to the wider world around him, the influence of Kubrick’s own photographic style on his later film career is quite clear, with each wonderfully composed image speaking to a deeper truth about living in 1940s America. Eternally interested in existential questions and enigmatic characters, Stanley Kubrick’s curiosity is self-evident in his fascinating exploration of Chicago.
See a selection of the images, below.