Image taken from Barbara Karant personal website
Two recent articles in Slate and the New York Times have shed light on a new photo project by Columbia College adjunct Barbara Karant, which involves the Johnson Publishing Company's old headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue. After the building was sold to Columbia College in 2010, Karant sought - and received - permission to photograph it. Over the past few years she has been developing an impressive photo archive of the building's vintage interior.
"At a designated time in the morning, Karant, armed with hand sanitizer and a bagged lunch, is let into the building by security and is locked inside for around six hours. She navigates the 11 floors that contain 110,000 square feet of space often with the flashlight on her iPhone. The building is only heated enough in the winter to prevent pipes from bursting, and in the summer there is no air conditioning."
Tenth floor of 820 South Michigan.
Image courtesy of Slate / Barbara Karant
The access Karant has been able to get is remarkable - presumably helped by her position at Columbia, and also her strong reputation as an architectural and design photographer. On her personal website, she describes the project as an effort to capture the company's unique heritage before 820 South Michigan is transformed into a new library and archive centre.
"This project documents the core essence of the Johnson Publishing Company’s historic building in its semi-skeletal state before the final remnants of John Moutoussamy’s architectural design, Arthur Elrod’s interiors and the last vestiges of the original JPC communal workspace vanish."
Image courtesy of Barbara Karant personal website
Maurice Berger has praised the project for encapsulating the "visual dynamism of early 1970s architectural and interior design", with its boldly patterned carpets and African-inspired textiles, lacquered lounges and dramatic hallways. Perhaps more importantly, the publication recognised the significance of Karant's work as a document which addresses the relationship between black cultural politics and modernism - a relationship which was frequently erased from mainstream descriptions of modernist aesthetics and design.
Aside from being incredibly jealous of Karant's access to the building, her work is a fascinating snap-shot into the building's history and decline. Karant's images document the heavily stylised interior which made 820 South Michigan such a popular stop-off for black tourists to Chicago during its heyday. However, many of the photographs also clearly document how the building has fallen into disrepair, with mould on the carpets and walls, collapsing fittings and peeling wallpaper. As Columbia continues to struggle over how to develop the site, it appears that 820 South Michigan is currently trapped in fading 1970s timewarp.
I recently emailed Barbara about her future plans for the project and she informed me that she hopes to develop her work into a book project - hopefully in collaboration with an architectural historian. I'm excited to see this project develop, and look forward to being able to see more of the building's famed interiors.