What We Do Here is Magic Foreword

| back to images |


During late spring of 2010, I received a call from Barbara DeGenevieve, Chair of the Photography Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She told me about an overture that the Palmer House Hilton Hotel in Chicago had made to the school with regard to a photographic project it hoped to support. 

The hotel was searching for what it called “the next Monet.” 

Bertha Honoré Palmer received the hotel in 1871 as a wedding gift from her husband, Potter Palmer. Bertha was a socialite from Chicago who loved Impressionism and collected work by Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet, among other esteemed artists. Most of the Art Institute of Chicago’s French Impressionism collection was donated by the Palmer family.

In keeping with the tradition of supporting the arts, the Palmer House offered a stipend to the SAIC student photographers who enrolled in the class. In exchange, the students would be asked to create work exclusively in the hotel and for the hotel.

Barbara asked if I would be interested in teaching a class around this proposition. I said yes right away. My wife, Annie, who guided me through much of this project, told me at the time, “When you meet with them at the hotel, you better tell them what kind of work the students make, so they are not surprised later when they see the first wave of pictures.” 

This was the best advice I could have received. It set the stage for creative collaboration with an honest admission up front so there would be no surprises later. When I met with the hotel’s manager, Todd Temperly, he seemed to understand when I told him, “These are art school students and not marketing students. They will want to see the bad along with the good. I cannot keep them from their desire to see it all. So you may not get exactly what you expect when all is said and done.” 

Todd told all of us at our first meeting, “What we do here is magic,” and he asked us not to compromise that vision. The rules were simple: No shooting on the roof; no shooting on the fire escapes; no nudity or obscene images; no obtrusive involvement with the guests; no portraying the hotel in a bad light; and, above all, be courteous as you go about your business. This all seemed very fair, and we got to work.

The class of advanced and graduate-level photography students met weekly for one full day during the class year in the Palmer House. We were provided a room on the seventh floor in which to hold class. The students were expected to make photographs to go in biweekly exhibitions, which began in December 2010. The photos were curated by Annie and displayed in the hotel’s lobby, its entrance hall, or on the wall across from the hotel’s bar, Potter’s Lounge. In May 2011, a collection of the images was then exhibited in the Sharp Building at SAIC and in the Stephen Daiter Gallery in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. And, in November 2011, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel selected photographs from this project by Austin Fuller, Younghak Kim, Kelly Morrison, and Hyounsang Yoo to hang in the hallway leading to his office at City Hall.

Throughout the class, each photographer found her or his own unique way of discovering the breadth of the hotel. Having twenty-four-hour access to the hotel enabled the photographers to explore and document not only the spaces and places of the hotel that are open to the public, but also many areas that guests and visitors do not see. Some students were able to incorporate their self into their photographic work and rise above the mundane and predictable images that begged to be made. 

The class was fortunate to have Anna Wolak involved as the yearlong editor of the essays and analyses that were assigned. That role grew, and, in the end, she became the editor, writer, and designer of this monograph. The thirteen others who made their way into the book each incorporated a piece of the Palmer House into their personal methodology as to how the images were constructed.

The following photographs in this book were selected by Anna Wolak for the quality with which they were made and for the stories behind them. Her accompanying essays allow us to explore the various reactions to the photographs, whether from the subjects, the hotel’s workers, the distinguished guests to our class, or the hotel’s management. What one sees as an artist and what one sees as a business executive is often quite disparate, but we actually have the same goal in mind: to project the image we have decided is most fitting to our respective brand and vision.

If Bertha Palmer were alive, I wonder what she would think about the photographers’ work. If she were to have visited one of the exhibitions or to have come upon a copy of this book, would she recognize that these images and essays emanated from her quest to give the city of Chicago her collection of Impressionist paintings, a gift of art that would put Chicago on the world’s cultural stage? I suspect she would struggle with some of the ideas conveyed by these photographs. 

She might find them too ordinary or mundane and wonder whether the grandeur of the Chicago landmark had disappeared. Would she feel the same conflicting struggle that our class encountered in making the pictures: of finding so much to see behind the veneer? Could she separate the life on both sides of the hotel’s house, the front and the back, what the guests see and what they don’t see?

Bertha’s eyes might see things the same way that many who now administer this distinguished establishment came to view our work. They, too, sometimes asked, “Where is the magic?” But, ultimately, they came to see the value of the work and how the magic can be found here in the book, in the vision of those student photographers who participated in this creative partnership. I would go so far as to say that those who run the hotel, who took the biggest risks with us, helped to create the magic once again. One might think the bond formed between a corporate hotel giant and a class of art students would not form and gel so quickly, but it did, and what we have to show for it is the work put forth in this monograph.

Who would have thought that Bertha Palmer’s world of 1870 could meld so well with the acute young minds of 2010–2011? The times blended splendidly, given their distance. Each student’s work speaks in vivid photographic language. In many cases, being energized and immersed in this project matured these young artists. It is also clear that, through their fortitude and tenacious application, I became their student, as they taught me so much. What a year!