Monthly Archives: October 2014

Chicago by Camera

by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer

Award-winning photographic artist Larry Kanfer’s colorful photographs glow in nearly three-dimensional relief in his new book, Chicagoscapes, a collection of images of our fair city.

Kanfer, who earned a degree in architecture from University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has teamed up with Alaina Kanfer to assemble a fine collection here, images that capture slices of the city from north to south. Readers will find images of iconic Chicago attractions, from Navy Pier to North Avenue Beach, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Field Museum, from The Berghoff to The Wiener’s Circle. (Unfortunately, many readers won’t know what they’re looking at because there is a dearth of caption information. A list of illustrations at the back of the book provides some details, but many of the descriptions are merely catchy phrases rather than helpful information.)

chicagoscapes 9780252034992More than a hundred photographs are in these pages, a slim volume fit for giftgiving or the coffee table. Some of the images show the expanse of the city in impactful two-page spreads, some encourage the reader to look more closely, diving in to an array of smaller images assembled on a single page.

Kanfer has captured the city in a unique way, focusing his lens on familiar sites but revealing them in a new light. Although the images are lovely, it’s the colors and post-production techniques in them that captivate. Kanfer often uses soft focus to draw the reader’s eye to particular details: a column of balconies on one of the city’s residential high-rises, a bunch of skaters on the ice at Millennium Park. Many of the images focus tightly on details, rendering a common site abstract. Bridges, “L” staircases, and the Marina City parking levels become a collection of color and light and shadow and lines and angles. As such, Chicagoscapes is atmospheric and moody—quiet somehow despite the fact that Kanfer has photographed one of the busiest cities in the world.

Indeed there’s something almost anathema about this collection when one contrasts this subtle quietness with the verve that is Chicago. In his short introduction to the book, “Our Chicago,” Kanfer writes about the “big city, with all its noise, hustle, and bustle,” and, yet, many of the images were clearly taken at odd hours, rendering Chicago something of a ghost town devoid of people and traffic. For instance, an image of Devon Avenue appears to have been taken very early in the morning: Only one car prowls the street—a street usually so packed with cars and pedestrians that it can take forever to drive just a few blocks in either direction. An “L” stop reveals no one waiting for a train. A lone little boy playing at the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park belies the fact that the area is usually jam-packed with children and adults all summer long. Plenty of images do, though, capture areas of the city full of people—beaches, parks, the lakefront trail. Even so, the Chicago in these pages feels quiet. Sleepy. Dreamy.

While some readers will find these images moody and magical, photography purists might well rankle at the post-production techniques used here. Some of the images are rendered in such a way as to appear as illustrations or paintings. One image in these pages has been pointillated à la Georges Seurat; it’s a beautiful, interesting look at the city, but it’s also a bit jarring as it is the only such doctored image in the collection.

Kanfer’s approach isn’t so much photojournalism as it is art photography. Most of the images here capture the beauty of the city, the pretty parts. Even a photograph of a graffiti-covered wall is colorful and artsy rather than gritty and edgy. A handful of black-and-white photographs grace these pages, but those that do are innocuous and safe. Readers will find no images here of the gritty South or West sides, no images of street upon street of foreclosed houses, no photographic insight into run-down CHA projects.

But that’s not what this book is about. Chicagoscapes is a love letter to what is magical and romantic about the Windy City. Kanfer has in these pages captured this beautiful city through atmospheric lighting, interesting angles, intriguing composition, and great timing. Although some readers might find some of the images a little snapshot-y or postcard-y, Chicagoscapes is full of great moments in a great city.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, University of Illinois Press
Photography/Local Interest
$34.95, hardcover, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03499-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Wry, Wistful, & Witty ‘Wisconsin’

CBR_Logo2Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin
(And Other Delusions of Grandeur)
by Scott Jacobs

Scott Jacobs has that not-so-uncommon perspective of someone who grew up in the Badger State and now occasionally motors up I-94 as a tourist from Chicago.

Jacobs’s Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin (And Other Delusions of Grandeur) is a comical compilation of thirty short essays that reflect both of those worlds … and then some. Wryly humorous and often historically wistful, the essays were originally published between 1995 and 2012 as columns for Jacobs’s online Chicago magazine, The Week Behind.

famous ski hills coverA Wisconsin native born in 1950 and raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Pewaukee, Jacobs reminisces about summer youth baseball, gently pokes fun at Wisconsin’s audacity to calls its ski resorts “mountains,” and remembers sledding on local hills and golfing on Milwaukee’s public links.

His deadpanned truisms smack dead-on: “An astute observer of the Wisconsin scene would notice that there are no mountains in Wisconsin, but the state is indeed blessed with an abundance of snow. So the task of forming a downhill ski industry in Wisconsin falls into the category of drawing blood from a rock.”

As a modern-day tourist who has lived in Chicago for four decades, Jacbos reflects on the decline in of waysides in Wisconsin, antiquing in the Northwoods, the ultra-fattening holiday goodies still sold by the Wisconsin Cheeseman, and on taking his son to The Wilderness, a mega indoor water park in the Wisconsin Dells.

He nails the essence of the love–hate relationship between Illinois and its neighbor to the north. “Every summer,” he writes, “along with about half the population of Illinois, I find an excuse to go up north and sit by a lake in Wisconsin annoying the natives with my presence.”

Often, it’s the little things that illuminate Jacobs’s Wisconsin roots. Along with “hearts, poker, bridge, gin rummy, pinochle,” and spit in the ocean, he actually knows how to play sheepshead. The card game was once, but no longer so much, a ubiquitous Northwoods cabin and farm table pastime.

Then, donning his Chicago hat, Jacobs laments the long-losing record of the Chicago Cubs and shares a holiday story about riding the CTA Santa Train with his preschooler.

Some of the essays speak more generally to the book’s “delusions of grandeur” subtitle, dredging up along the way some interesting bits of history. There are essays, for instance, on the origin of paperclips, sort of the antithesis of grandeur; rock collecting; men’s cologne; the modern-day war between Barbie and Bratz fashion dolls; and tributes to 1950s Life Magazine and to the songwriter who composed “Over the Rainbow,” for The Wizard of Oz.

The book also often speaks to mundane but universal experiences: family reunions, home movies, and fishing.

And some of the essays were simply were born out of questions that clearly dogged Jacobs enough that he finally researched the answer and turned it into a column for his magazine. What, for instance, was a plank road and why were they of vital importance to turn of the twentieth-century Milwaukee breweries? What does it mean that Budweiser beer is beechwood aged and why should we care? And who wrote our college cheers?

Pulling the University of Wisconsin into the college cheer fray, Jacobs muses that in its two beloved songs, “On Wisconsin,” and “Varsity,” “Wisconsin can rightly claim it is so enthusiastic it has two fights songs: one for when they win and the other for when they close the bars.”

Although the essays are generally timeless, one that originally appeared in 1997 on the Cubs’ long losing streak, a piece from 2009 on library internet services, and a 2006 piece about the five days its took to restore the author’s lost internet connection, do feel slightly dated today.

And while Chicago, Wisconsin, and family are the common themes, the reason for including some of the essays in this collection is not readily transparent. While interesting and as well-written as the rest of the book, “Jesus Has a Bad Day,” nevertheless hits a bit out of the blue. In modern language, it retells the Biblical story of Passion Week, culminating in Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. Of the Last Supper, Jacobs writes “Simon the Leper threw a private party for Jesus and his entourage. From all accounts, it was a pretty wild night.”

And although the book’s cover features a Wisconsin-brewed can of Miller Lite, Miller beer is really only mentioned in passing in the discussion of plank-road breweries. One entire essay, meanwhile, focuses on the beechwood-aged brewing process of St. Louis-based Budweiser.


Author Scott Jacobs

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is not all about Wisconsin. It is not all about Chicago. But wonderfully engaging, wickedly funny writing, and an authentic Midwest lens make that okay.

Mostly, Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a nostalgia trip that reflects on a simpler, bygone era, and weighs how advances like the paper clip and the Internet have—and have not—changed our lives.

Family reunions, home movies, and Northwoods cabins pretty much look the same as they did two generations ago. Kids still outgrow Santa too soon. The Cubs still lose. And University of Wisconsin alumni still belt out “Varsity” at bar time—with the gusto one exhibited by their parent and grandparents.

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a lighthearted view of where we’ve been and where we’re headed, a perfect cabin read for anyone who’s ever lived in or loved the Great Lakes region.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, Dead Tree Press
$27.95, hardcover, 173 pages
ISBN: 9781879652040

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

Listen to the author discuss his book with Rick Kogan.
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A Handy Guide That Hits the Highlights

CBR_Logo2Wisconsin’s Door County:
Moon Handbooks
by Thomas Huhti

Door County, Wisconsin, is sometimes called the Cape Cod of the Midwest, but it is smaller, less crowded, and less expensive. The Door is a popular vacation destination, with some two million visitors annually (compared to a permanent population of about 28,000) who mostly come during summer and early fall. Many of those vacationers travel from Chicagoland, which is just a four-hour drive away along the western shore of Lake Michigan.

cover_wisconsinsdoorcounty1eThe Moon travel guide to Door County is highly recommended. First-time visitors will get all the vital information they need to make the most of their time. For returning vacationers, the guide will remind them of all the sights and places they missed during past visits that they’ll want to catch next time.

Similar to a Frommer’s or a Fodor’s—neither of which offers a guide to Door County—Moon’s travel guide provides good, standard coverage of Door County and hits all the highlights of the area. The reader will get reliable, basic advice on sights, activities and recreation, food, lodging, getting around, and entertainment. The book is on target in emphasizing the county and state parks, which are truly outstanding, as well as the area’s iconic fish boils. The guide also gives a good serving of relevant history and culture.


Door County at sunrise. (Photo by Patrick Ryan)

The glossy opening section provides a great overview of what to do and where to go. The closing part in back covers history, culture, climate, and geography. The back section also has the essentials of travel, information and services, and practical resources. The crescent moon logos for recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging are very helpful. This handy guide, written by Wisconsin native Thomas Huhti, also includes maps and photographs.

Door County is charming and certainly merits a travel guide, but the Moon Door County travel guide is padded with extra sections on Milwaukee and the stretch north of Milwaukee to the Bottom of the Door and Green Bay. While the including the Bottom of the Door is worthwhile, the rest is mostly not useful unless visitors from Chicago want to stop off for a day in Milwaukee for a little sightseeing. It would have been nice if the guide covered a bit more of the (admittedly small) interior of Door County, along with a bit more on fruit picking, arts, and wineries. But these are minor quibbles in an overall truly handy guidebook.

Four-Star Review

February 2014, Avalon Travel
$14.99, paperback, 200 pages
ISBN: 9781612387536

—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs

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