Armed with a camera and 27.3 miles of material, a Logan Square photographer shot Western Avenue five blocks at a time.
Since March 2004, WNUA-FM 95.5 radio-show producer Bob Kessler has been braving crappy weather and putting in long hours to fulfill his dream of shooting the entire stretch of Western Avenue. He finished the mammoth undertaking in January, and we recently caught up with him to talk about his three-year journey.
Why did you start this project?
I was looking for some greater purpose behind my work, other than just pretty pictures and pictures of stuff. A lot of the themes I’d worked on were finding beauty in everyday Chicago. There’s a lot of stuff that focuses on the skyline, or lakefront or the ballpark. You know, pretty stuff. And that’s great. I mean, that’s been well documented. And I thought, Well, Western Avenue is the longest street in the world. I thought Western was a perfect exhibit of real Chicago. Most people don’t drive the whole thing…. But it’s like the backbone of the city. Literally. Physically. I thought this would be a great way to capture what life is like in Chicago.
Was there anything you saw that was especially memorable?
The Toys for Tots ride [pictured, left]. It’s an organized motorcycle ride where they shut down the whole street one Sunday in December. And all of these bikers parade and drive from way far south all the way up to like, Foster, and drop off all of these toys for the Salvation Army. And I’d heard about it for years and seen the story on the news. So I stood up by Addison Street. It’s Sunday morning at 10 and nobody’s on the street. And then all of a sudden—it was like out of Mad Max—there’s one guy standing on a bike, with his arms up, driving up the street. And then the others followed, it was like that for miles…just the roar of the bikers. And they all had teddy bears.
Any other quintessentially Chicago experiences?
Yeah, right around that time, it was the day before Thanksgiving and there was going to be a big sleet storm. And the local media is freaking out, pretending it’s the first time this has ever happened and telling everyone to get a snow shovel. Usually, going out during something like that would suck. Like, it would just be a really bad experience. The day before Thanksgiving, really busy roads. And it’s sleeting, raining, cold and dreary. But I would get out there [on those kind of days]. I just went out and drove as much as I could. I got all of these shots that night. Like people at the bus stop [pictured, top right], in the brutal elements. And that to me…that’s Chicago right there.
Did you purposely seek out bad-weather days?
Yeah. Other times it was just when I was inspired. I’d just do it whenever I had time, on afternoons and weekends. I’d go five blocks on one side of the street and then the next five blocks on the other side of the street. And I’d just progress my way up.
What did you learn about the city?
A friend once told me that Western Avenue looks the same wherever you go. And it’s true: It looks the same. The people aren’t the same, but each little piece is representative of the larger whole. It goes through all these neighborhoods. And there are white, black, rich, poor—mostly poor, probably—neighborhoods. There’s some kind of consistent Chicago essence there. It’s like…it’s kinda ugly. My cousin thought I’d take pictures of all the buildings. But it’s not really about buildings. [Western] is like this main artery of Chicago and we don’t really consider it as such. Most people would be like, “Oh that’s Lake Shore Drive.” You know, some people use Lake Shore sometimes, but most people drive Western all the time. It’s a street that’s about Chicago. This is our street, man.
When you finished in January, did it feel like a huge accomplishment?
Yeah, it did. I was sort of expecting some big finale shot to occur. But it doesn’t work that way. Actually, I ran off to New Mexico, to an artist’s town, to do my editing. I brought my computer and worked on it for a week. When I got back, I was like, Now here it is. Here’s my photo essay.
And now what?
Now I’m seeking to publish my essay as a book…. I’m looking for somewhere to exhibit it.