The city can be beautiful. The city can be ghastly. In this series, inspired by Erik Larson’s bestselling historical book, The Devil in the White City, I examine the urban environment as a physical manifestation of human intentions, both the good and the evil. As architects and planners strive to impose order and harmony, mischief lurks in the shadows. These moody images explore this tension, finding moments of dark, gritty stillness in bustling centers of opulence and optimism. Larson’s book contrasts Daniel Burnham’s master plan for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the machinations of H. H. Holmes, an infamous serial killer who used the fair as bait for his victims. Burnham’s conviction that the urban environment can be a haven of beauty has had a lasting impact on how we perceive the city, even though most of the buildings from the 1893 fair are gone. Finding in present-day Chicago traces of Burnham’s vision, but also haunting reminders of more sordid impulses at work, then and now. In homage to Larson, each image in this series is titled with a quote from his book, inviting us to consider the dreams, sorrows, and conflicts on which the city is built.
The White City Series began with a photo of the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, glimpsed between two towering Chicago buildings. My style is usually crisp, clean, and minimal, but with this photo I began experimenting with a dreamlike graininess evocative of pinhole photography. The combination of this style and this subject — the gritty aesthetic, the iconic architecture — prompted me to recall The Devil in the White City, which I had read years earlier. The book centers on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the original Ferris wheel debuted. It weaves together the story of Daniel Burnham’s design for a magnificent “White City,” and a macabre true tale of serial murder. Interested in Burnham’s lasting influence on the city, I sought out architecture that remains from Burnham’s era, contrasting it with more contemporary structures that manifest his ideals. The result is a series of dreamlike images of a modern city, haunted by a century of big plans, still anticipating a more perfect future that is yet to come.