When Music in the City is Silenced

Riverwalk Stairs by Bruce Graham @ SOM (1965), Chicago, 2016 / copyright jeffery c. johnson photography, 2016


The Riverwalk Staircase at the corner of Michigan Ave. and the Chicago River is now just a dimming memory. With the building of the new Apple Store in Pioneer Court, the staircase was demolished, and like an old tune that fades from the public realm, the staircase too is dissolving in to the past.

The staircase was designed by Bruce Graham at SOM in 1965 as part of the construction of the Equitable Building. Mr. Graham’s staircase was built to connect the bustling Michigan Ave. and Equitable Plaza (named Pioneer Court) to what was anticipated as a thriving Chicago Riverwalk that had yet to be developed. Instead, the sweeping staircase landed at a riverwalk that was barren and uninteresting. Leaving critics to often question the need for such a dramatic piece of architecture leading to an uninspired concrete slab along the river.

It was Goethe that said “Architecture is Frozen Music” and as a photographer, I work on the premise that the camera is a recording device, akin to those used to record music, that brings order, time, and, in the case of architecture, structure, together to create a new work.

To me, the riverwalk staircase buzzed with the sparkling piano of Grooveyard by the great Phineas Newborn jr.. Up and down the staircase the piano strolled and deep within there pulsed a pert piano and casual beat that swept people from the swank bustle of Michigan Avenue down to some quiet time by the river.

Of course, the fact that I could hear/see Grooveyard in that staircase had nothing to do with the title of the music, the fact that it was a Carl Perkins composition or the fact that Mr. Newborn’s version of it was released just one year before the building of the staircase. But it does have everything to do Phineas Newborn’s structure of the song and the way it seemed glide, like liquid, through the graceful stretch of the stone steps and tick a beat in the accompanying rails.

The staircase  was a splendid, subtle, composition amongst the more traditional and attention-grabbing tunes that line that part of Michigan Avenue. It seemed a part of the giant ballroom that was the glittering city where one only need to steal away down those steps, to the soft rhythm of Grooveyard, to escape the folly and mayhem and sit by the river. One could exit with sophistication and aplomb to take off your mask, breathe, laugh, or perhaps sneak a kiss under the swirling steps along the river.

But all of that is just a distant memory and Grooveyard has drifted down the river and away to perhaps be resurrected in another structure. And while there is a new beat, a new song, that plays along the river in its place, the memory of the music that floated sparklingly off of Michigan Ave. through the riverwalk staircase will not soon be forgotten.


Documenting the Hometown President

silhouette-of-power-marine-one-chicago-2010-1A Distant Marine One in the Rain, Chicago, 2010

Over the past eight years I have been able to document some of the interesting sights the occurred concerning President Obama during his time in office. As the first Chicago resident to become President, there were many opportunities to come across the  Presidential machinery, and although I did not come face to face with Mr. Obama, my car was once nearly hit by his speeding motorcade.

I wasn’t able to get the up-close and personal photos that White House photographer Pete Souza was able to get. However, I was able to capture some of the smaller ways that the people of Chicago and other places reacted to the President, showing the ways in which they liked or disliked him.

ripped-obama-poster-designed-by-street-artist-ray-noland-chicago-2007Ripped Obama Poster by Artist Ray Noland, Chicago, 2010

 I did make specific trips to get photos in regards to the Obama Presidency such as attending his announcement to run for the office on that bitter cold day (the wind chill was 5 degrees Fahrenheit) in Springfield in February of 2007. I made the 194 mile trip to the State Capital with the idea of documenting an Illinois politician running for President (something I hadn’t experienced and might never again) and he also had a good chance of winning. While it was very cold and I was too far away (and too short) to get a good photo of Mr. Obama I was able to get a good deal of the setting and the exuberant crowd.


llinois State Police Keep Watch, Springfield, IL., 2007 / A Hopeful Supporter, Springfield, IL., 2007

Another trip I made was to Grant Park in Chicago for the Obama Victory celebration. It was an unusually warm day (70 degrees Fahrenheit) and there was an electricity in the air all over the city. It was a very exciting event to capture with my camera although, similarly to the announcement in Springfield, once you staked out a spot in the crowd it was impossible to get anything outside of where you were standing. Again, I went with getting the setting and the crowd but this time I wanted to get the way that it worked visually within the fabric of the city as well.


“Obamanomenon”, Chicago, 2008 / “Change”, Chicago, 2008

In order to complete the three events leading up to the start of Obama’s Presidency, I made sure to make it down to Pioneer Court on Michigan Ave. where a giant screen had been erected in order to show the swearing in of the President. I didn’t have any urge to go to the inauguration in Washington D.C. figuring that I wanted to continue to document it from the Chicago perspective.

inauguraton-day-pioneer-court-chicago-2009Swearing in of President Obama as Seen on TV, Pioneer Court, Chicago, 2009

After those events I made sure to grab any instances that I would see in regards to Obama. And, of course, some of those included the negative views that many Americans had about the President.


Obama Joker Poster, FT. Wayne, IN., 2009 / “Comrade”, Berwyn, IL., 2014

Although Mr. Obama’s years as President are over his complicated legacy is sure to continue to stir people here in Chicago as well as throughout the rest of the country for years to come. I will continue to capture his influence as part of my documenting Chicago history while I also prepare to photograph the effects that the incoming President has on the next four years. (All Images- Copyright, Jeffery C. Johnson, 2017)

dsc_00050001Detail, School Mural, Chicago, 2009

Standing in the Chocolate Factory…And Bedazzled by the Chocolates


“I am the maker of music, the dreamer of dreams” 

-Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)

Lately, I’ve been working on a project where I’m using my photography to capture and interpret some of the unique architecture of Chicago. As it is a project that I’ve been working on for a while, I’ve taken to writing about it here, as well as, including short samples of the photography and writing that make up the majority of the project.

Recently, as a part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s “Open House Chicago”, I decided to visit some of Chicago’s well-known architecture firms. I wanted to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of where some of Chicago’s (and the World’s) buildings are dreamt up and brought to life. I also felt that it would be a good bit of research for my project as a way to see the genesis of an architectural design and, in turn, help to inform how I interpret buildings with my camera.

As someone with a great interest in architecture, especially Chicago architecture, it was an exciting prospect to see the inside of some of these great studios- including Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (som.com), Goettsch Partners (gpchicago.com), bKL (bklarchitecture.com)  and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill (smithgill.com). I felt like Charlie getting a chance to see the magic inside the chocolate factory that created all of those delicious treats.

Yet, as I toured these beautiful spaces and talked with the friendly employees I started to realize that my version of architecture didn’t quite match with their version of architecture. As they excitedly described to me the manner in which they were able to incorporate HVAC systems, or manage the flow of foot traffic, or maximize a floors usable square footage, I found myself listening with interest but not connecting to what it was that excited me about architecture.



Detail, Models, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects, Chicago, 2016

Now, of course, I am a photographer (not an architect) so this disconnect probably doesn’t seem that surprising to you. However, coming from my romantic point of view, this was a bit of a surprise to me, for although I feel like I know a lot about architecture, its history and concepts, I forgot that, in the end, the buildings are there to serve a purpose.

That purpose, no matter the bold style or soaring height, no matter the beautiful materials or historical reference, is to have that piece of land serve people and make money for the buildings developer. And while architects are artists that like to push, pull, and stretch the envelope in to shapes that excite and inspire, they are often hampered by those that are paying for the building to rise.

But there I was, standing in the chocolate factory with all of the imagination and machinery of creation surrounding me and all I could think about was how lovely the chocolates looked. Sure it’s happened before, ask the sports fan who’s hung out with the professional sports team or the movie fan that has sat in on the making of a movie, it’s an old story…some times being on the inside doesn’t meet with your expectations.

In the end, my visiting these interesting places did inform my approach to photographing architecture just not in the way that I thought it might. Instead of being particularly influenced or inspired by the ins and outs of how these buildings are put together it only reinforced my practice of using photography to capture how these buildings make me feel.

So, while I enjoyed and benefited from seeing the how architecture is designed. It made me realize that the visceral way in which I experience and interpret architecture is an approach that I will not only continue but enhance wherever possible.

My current project is all about my gut reactions to the architecture of Chicago. And though I attempted to further inform my work by sneaking a peak in to the chocolatier’s workshop to see the ingredients and the way in which they were mixed. I came away more uninterested in the process than I was in the beautiful end product.

Because, while I know that a building is made of wiring, plumbing, windows and doors, the only way I can describe a building to you (using my camera as an interpreter) is to illustrate the ways in which its presence moves me, shocks me, thrills me, or baffles me.

So, look for my camera (and some of my words) to be doing its best to conjure the mystery, majesty, and moodiness that I see in Chicago’s architecture and transform it in to something new, something unexpected…it’s coming to you sometime soon.

“I am the maker of music, the dreamer of dreams”

-Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

sampled in Nephatiti (1991) by 808 State









If the Hat Fits…

elegant like a fist (1)

Detail of Design by Jorge Fornes for Jeffery C. Johnson Photography, 2016

It’s been my experience that it takes many minds to throughly and effectively accomplish the goals of a creative project. Even if that project is from the mind of only one person. And although many projects are attributed to only one artist, their work would never have been realized without the hard work and talent of many other people.

I’ve always understood this and have welcomed collaboration on projects. Especially in regards to knowing what my particular talents are, and more importantly, what they aren’t.

The project that I’ve been working on, bit by bit, for months now is a photo book project in which I am taking the photos, as well as, writing short essays. And, while the photos and writings are impressions of what I’m taking in, I also want the project to extend to impressions of my work, and the subjects, of the project by a few other artists as well.These few impressions by other artists, which I am seeking out, may be written or graphic but are meant to enhance and extended the whole project.

The first outside piece for the project that’s been completed is a work by graphic artist Jorge Fornes. Mr. Fornes, who lives in lovely Vilanova, Spain, is an accomplished graphic artist that currently works with comic giant Marvel (working on Amazing X-Men and Doctor Strange: Prelude and many others) but took time out to work on this piece for me.

Jorge and I worked together to create a piece based on one of my essays in which I write that the Sears Tower is “Elegant…Like a Fist.” I think he did a great job and I’m very pleased with his interpretation of my ideas – I look forward to making this exclusive artwork available as a t-shirt and soon a small poster.

While the making of my photo book is still underway – I hope that this art work will get the ball rolling to get my project out there and promote my work and that of Jorge Fornes.

Keep your eyes peeled for more info!

Gliding Feet on a Crowded Dance Floor


Chase Tower (1969) by C.F. Murphy & Assoc., Chicago

“…in a city that is filled with buildings that brood, sneer, and bemuse, Chase Tower manages to strike a chord that is lively and lovely while being firm and friendly.”

-fragment from my book project ‘Muscle & Finesse’…
writing and photo copyright Jeffery C. Johnson, 2016

A Grasp at the Soaring Sky



Rendering of the Miglin-Beitler Skyneedle in the Chicago Skyline, 1988

“Jeff, it was an amazing adventure…” – J. Paul Beitler

A couple of weeks ago I had the the surprising opportunity and the great pleasure to sit down with renown Chicago real estate developer J. Paul Beitler to get the story behind his proposal in the late-80’s to build the tallest building in the world.

At 1,999 feet and 125 floors, with a design by architect Cesar Pelli, the Miglin-Beitler Skyneedle, developed by J. Paul Beitler and the late Lee Miglin, would have been a beautiful addition to the Chicago skyline and still the 3rd tallest building in the world today. The Skyneedle, the first to be realistically proposed at nearly 2,000 feet and an engineering marvel of experimentation and firsts, would go on to inspire and influence Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia which would reign as the world’s tallest building from 1998-2004.

What’s it like to seriously attempt to build the tallest building in the world?

This is what I wondered, and this is why I contacted Mr. Beitler, and after about two hours of breakfast at a lovely Michigan Ave. restaurant, I came away with an understanding of the history and an appreciation of the man.

What started as an interest in one of Chicago’s unbuilt skyscrapers and the desire and ability to the reach the top of the world… is slowly moving in to new and unknown places.

I’m not yet sure how, where, or when this exclusive interview will emerge for it’s become more than I expected but keep an eye on this spot as to where it might go next.


Mine’s Bigger than Yours…


“And while it’s no longer the tallest building in the world, the Sears Tower remains the only skyscraper on earth that is shamelessly self-confident, ruggedly handsome, and goddamned tough.”

– fragment from my book project ‘Muscle & Finesse’…
writing and photo copyright Jeffery C. Johnson, 2016