Smile Politely

Urbanizing the undiscovered country, part one

Photos have a way of dredging past memories and stirring within us visions of a new possible future. When piecing together our impressions of the places we call home, somewhere in our consciousness, we inevitably will harken back to the smoky historical images we’ve come across throughout the years. The photos of downtown with horse-drawn carriages and sharply-dressed mustached men. Shopkeepers proudly guarding their wares. Ghostlike characters that exist only on yellowed paper. Whether intentioned or not, when we find ourselves photographing our city, we are freezing on film our own impressions and creating a framework by which future generations will understand our times.

And so it goes with Brian O’Neill’s photographs of Champaign-Urbana. Brian, unlike myself, wasn’t born and raised with the backdrop Champaign-Urbana ever-present. Instead, like so many others, Brian was drawn to the area by the university; moving to the area to study sociology as grad student three years ago. Brian’s photos, out of necessity of schedule, are mostly taken at night, further cementing the work as the photos of a curious onlooker: a part of the community but also separated from it by darkness and history.

Influenced by the literary work of Ray Bradbury, a Waukegan, Illinois native, Brian’s photos flesh out Bradbury’s idea of an “undiscovered country.” Bradbury saw a uniquely midwestern vision in the evening mist, grounded in a mysterious night. Brian noted in his third year in the area that this vision was, “enticing, but perhaps, increasingly fading away.” It is with this acknowledgement of urban change in the community that O’Neill’s photos take hold. In the photos, we see something like Bradbury imagined in his stories, but also something new: an urban landscape filled with new construction and flashing lights. Not the neon tavern signs of old, but instead, the speckled window lights ascending to the sky, higher than we could have imagined. In Brian’s photos, we see these two realities existing not necessarily in harmony, but in acknowledged inevitability. The classic university boarding houses stand in the foreground, while the high-rise stands behind, impressively.

Brian lists photographers such Thomas Struth, Peter Bialobrzeski, and Eanna de Freine as influences, but in his his commitment to the photographs, Brian has created a set of photos undeniably his own. Despite the friction caused by the intersection of old and new, in Brian’s photos we also sense the joy of discovery and possibilities of renewal. Brian describes his night walks punctuated by “the crisp night air, best experienced when dense with fog and mystery.”

The mystery is ever-present in Brian’s latest photographs, a series of images revisiting some of his most interesting and evolving cityscapes. In these images, Brian has taken the theme of change and illustrated it quite literally through a method of composting two images from the same area. The technique creates a new, even more powerful image that perfectly encapsulates the themes of urban change already so rooted in his work. These works give us an opportunity to see the past and future simultaneously, without looking away or pausing. The new creation exists outside of reality yet rings true through the authenticity of the individual images. As the landscape changes, it’s easy to forget what was; through Brian’s photos, our foggy memories are rekindled and the puzzle of the past is reconstructed.

In some photos, we are shown bits of the past quiet night in busy contrast to new construction, with all its cranes, wires, and beams. A promise of new future filled with premium, often pricier housing and infinite opportunities for commerce. In another image, a steely night sky above a quiet single-family house becomes a high-rise: complete with reflective glass and modern styling cues.

While the loss of older structures and a quieter way of life is inevitable and newer isn’t necessarily better, Brian’s photos document this change and offer up new ways of looking at transition. There is an excitement in the night sky and the blur of automobiles and movement of people between apartments and their favorite haunts. While we only have a small idea what the future will look like, through photos we can remember the past while boldly looking forward.

This is the first of a series of articles written by and about members of the local photo collective, Elective Reportage. 

Elective Reportage
July 5th, 7 to 9 p.m.
129 N Race St, Urbana

Photos courtesy of the artist

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