A new book features 170 photographs, drawings and maps of the people, places and events that make up Illinois, from prehistory to the present.
Seeking a visceral connection with the past — whether through pictures or place — can be tricky.
Have you ever walked through a place of historic significance and had the feeling that past events were somehow resonating across time? Lincoln might have put his boot on this very spot, you think. But such landmarks are rarely as they seem.
Last year, when actor Daniel Day-Lewis was in Springfield researching an upcoming role as Abraham Lincoln, he’s said to have stood on the rostrum at the Old State Capitol’s Hall of Representatives and marveled at how close Lincoln would have been to the men he was addressing.
One imagines Lewis felt a sincere connection to Lincoln. Would it have mattered to him that the building in which he was standing was merely a representation of the place where Lincoln once worked?
The Old State Capitol was taken apart and rebuilt in the 1960s. At best, it represents historians’ and designers’ best idea of what the building was like in the mid-1800s, with imagination and guessing filling in where the historical record fails.
The same holds true with photographs and drawings of historical events. The perspective of the artist or photographer is inescapable in the way historic events are recorded, and therefore becomes inseparable from the way events are remembered.
This is a theme that runs through Gerald Danzer’s new book, “Illinois: A History in Pictures.” Published last week by the University of Illinois Press, Danzer’s book has 170 photographs, drawings and maps of the people, places and events that make up our state, from prehistory to the present. (The Springfield, Ill., State Journal-Register contributed one photo from its archives: a Statehouse demonstration in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.)
Danzer, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, annotates each image, placing it in context of the state’s history.
There are side-by-side images of Grant’s triumphant return to Galena in 1865. A photograph was taken but rarely seen until the 20th century, when widespread reproduction became possible. Contemporary audiences had to settle for a drawing based on the photo.
“Comparing the two images shows the advantages and limitations of each format,” Danzer writes.
In many ways, the drawing is more clear: American flags are neat and recognizable instead of the sagging blurs in the photo. But the size of the crowd was greatly exaggerated in the drawing, robbing the image of some measure of verisimilitude.
The importance of perspective can also be seen in the many maps throughout the book, which make for some of the most interesting browsing.
There’s the first map of Illinois, drawn in 1818 by John Melish and containing as much blank space as land filled in. Another map, from 1982, shows the importance of the suburbs in the Chicago metropolitan area by placing O’Hare Airport at the center and Lake Michigan, east of the city, at the top.
In recounting the first encounter between the Illinois Indians and French explorers Joliet and Marquette, Danzer notes that no contemporary artist was around to record it. Since then, successive generations have impressed their own imaginations — and biases — on the event.
In a drawing from 1856, an Indian holds a box of tobacco — “a plentiful supply of the vile weed,” an accompanying article put it.
By the late 1930s, a seed company was showing its representation of the event on the cover of an almanac. An Indian is seen giving some sort of plant to the explorers, “presumably some of the same botanical wonders that could be purchased from the firm,” Danzer writes.
Danzer consistently challenges our perspective of the past, urging us to look critically at each image.
It’s a worthy exercise: Sometimes the details say as much about us as they do about the events being depicted.
Brian Mackey can be reached at 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.