Between Street and Skyline: Photographic Impressions of an L Train Transient

PHOTOGRAPHY by Stefanie Etow


ARTIST’S STATEMENT: The beat of Chicago’s urban heart is the elevated rapid train system, known as the L. The means of transportation for more than half a million commuters daily, the eight branches provide indispensible channels of movement and intersection throughout the city. Suspended between street and skyline, this elevated site of public transit navigates socio-economic and spatial segregations, transporting a spectrum of diverse community members and visitors. While the intricate details in Chicago’s urban fabric often sit unobserved among the distances between its neighborhoods, the L is a conduit into these intricacies and a catalyst for urban movement.

This elevated mode of transit allows a comprehensive intake of streets and plazas, buildings and blocks, the view from above and the translation of the space below. The way commuters engage with this intermediary space reflects the roots of its etymological foundation, derived from the Latin word transire and defined as the act of passing through. The sentiment of most L commuters is precisely that: we are simply passing through. In my architecturally oriented photography, I attempt to creatively consider this otherwise overlooked and underappreciated aspect of the Chicago urban experience through a refreshing approach.

Described as “impressions,” these photographs are views subjected to my experience and interpretation of the space as an L commuter and urban participant. The value of photography as documentation is often debated given the inherent bias of the photographer, but the L experience is by its very nature subjective: the views change and the experience is distinct for each rider. My series represents an experience of the L enriched by an appreciation for the space itself. The L’s democratic qualities of socio-economic assemblage and community crossing are features mirrored in most public transit systems. What makes the L unique, and worthy of such visual celebration, is the emblem it carves into the visual landscape of Chicago.

To commute is to foster a routine in a provisional space, an intermediary between origin and destination, thereby developing an informed perception of the city. My experience of the L informs my perception of the city, and my perception subsequently influences my photography. The train itself does not appear in any of the photographs in order to capture the transience of the spaces. The essence is not the scene depicted, but that which is not pictured: the act of viewing itself. These photographs take something familiar, ordinary, and taken for granted – the L – and transform it into something unfamiliar, extraordinary, and aesthetically palpable.

Stefanie Etow (MAPH ’12) is an art historian by education, a cultural nomad by spirit, and a photographer by some innate curiosity for beauty at its most simple. Always rocking to her own beat, she seeks the thrills of the unknown or otherwise unseen, and has called some of the most architecturally rich cities in the world her home. She’s finally dropped anchor among the ocean breeze and auto fuel of Los Angeles, where she works at an interdisciplinary architecture and design firm. 

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