The Art

1953–Kansas City from Habitat

Carl Corey’s photograph 1953–Kansas City reveals a brief moment on a street with no passing people or cars. Morning light is developing but a streetlight is still lighted, its radiance illuminating a small space on the still-darkened road below. The lamppost dominates the center of the photograph, its column echoing the vertical divisions of the segmented wall behind. The pole’s shadow creates a fifth vertical line traversing the horizontal wall. The white and yellow lane dividers in the road parallel the length of wall and the base of the wall segments. With these intersecting verticals and horizontals, our eyes are drawn immediately to the middle of the photograph and up the post to the lamp. Its rays appear to extend outward, as in a child’s drawing of the rising sun. Our view beyond the wall is obstructed except for tops of trees and bushes, their curves echoed by curving shapes of clouds. Colors help guide our gaze upwards from the browns of the road to reflected yellows of the lighted wall, and then to violet clouds and cobalt and aqua skies, interrupted only by the dark treetops.

What is the meaning of this image? 1953–Kansas City is not a traditional landscape image with emphasis on nature as it is discovered and experienced. In fact, the blocked view both minimizes importance of the landscape and magnifies the mystery of what it contains. The image might even playfully hint at the historical tradition of portraiture, in which a person is closely observed in a standing pose before a distant landscape. The vertical column with the lamp at its summit echoes the shape of and “enlightenment” of a human and its head.

Despite our awareness that the familiar and ordinary streetlight is actually a very small segment of this larger place, it has acquired a commanding presence by the choices the artist made in photographing it. Carl Corey framed it in the middle of his shot, thus creating symmetry and balance in the composition as well as drawing attention to the object. He chose this moment in the dawning day when lamplight was still competing with sunlight to illuminate the scene. He employed a long camera exposure to balance the artificial lamplight with the naturally brighter sunlight, resulting in the intensification and apparent extension of the lamp’s “rays.” He felt the mood of loneliness at the scene and, in order to convey it, selected a moment when no cars or people would enter the picture frame to claim the viewer’s attention. And he chose a vantage point that would not only balance the scale of the light post with the wall but would also impart a sense of isolation and mystery because we can’t see around or beyond the central focal point. With all of these choices the artist influenced the meaning we might derive from the photograph, but he has not given us one answer or confined us to only one interpretation. He has said “A picture without meaning is synonymous to a book with a nice cover but no words. A good picture has an aesthetic that draws the viewer in so that the artist’s sentiment can be conveyed.”

The artist has said this picture, the second one he made for a series of photographs called Habitat, represents his inquiry into the mystery of scale and light. His intent is to “present an exploration of the dimension of space we create.” The phrase “space we create” is a clue to the artist’s interest in humans who aren’t evident in the photograph. The image implies human activity even though there is none currently occurring. We can guess that someone attached the wires that extend from and support the pole. While we don’t know who is offered guidance or safety by the bright light, or how soon or often they may pass by, we note a sense of isolation because they aren’t present. We recognize that the light pole is of recent vintage rather than an elaborate cast iron or glass-globed post from the past. The photo was taken in Kansas City, not a remote or thinly populated location but rather a city, with a warehouse and street lighted by a city streetlamp. Carl Corey found the location and imagined the shot while walking in a pre-dawn morning carrying his camera bag and tripod. He likes to walk around towns and cities looking for the right picture. It took him about ten minutes to shoot 1953–Kansas City.

The Artist

Carl Corey is an artist who enjoys a good joke and admires humorist Mark Twain for his satire. He has said he would like to have a cigar with the renowned (but long-dead!) writer. Many of Corey’s photographs contain a hint of his own humor, and Corey considers this picture in which the lamplight mimics the sun’s rays an example of his satirical humor.

Corey grew up in Chicago. His memories of his childhood are strong and influence his work. Some of his best memories include picnics at Lake Michigan, riding his bike around the neighborhood, and his family’s road trips. He has said, “I always remember the special feelings those road trips gave me. The opportunity to explore, see new places, meet people, and make friends. The wonder at what’s around the next corner, where will this road take us? As I matured I realized some of those trips were closer to home than my memory had made them, but they were still full of excitement and anticipation.” Corey has said that his decision to become a photographer evolved from his desire to experience again the emotions, particularly curiosity, that he felt when traveling with his parents in their 1959 Chevrolet Impala. Corey always likes to know what is “around the bend” and makes his photographs to satisfy his curiosity about the surrounding society, its historical and cultural aspects.  He believes there is no better medium than photography “to capture life, document the landscape, and share a vision.” Like the streetlight in 1953–Kansas City, curiosity is a beacon that lures Corey in his explorations.

When Corey began his college studies at Northern Illinois University he planned to major in instrumental music as a drummer but flunked the required voice key test. He remembers that he “liked a girl in the Art Department” and therefore shifted his course work to art. He began to enjoy his explorations there and, as he had a hobby of taking photographs with a Polaroid camera, he gradually became serious about pursuing an art career. Corey earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Southern Illinois University in 1976 and began his career as a photographer in 1979. Since then he has received more than one hundred awards for his artworks and has also instructed a variety of photography workshops. Some photographers whose works were influential for him include Robert Frank and Stephen Shore, both of whom made “on the road” images in ordinary American locales; William Eggleston, who advanced the use of color photography as a legitimate art medium; William Christenberry,  who explored personal memories of his childhood experiences; Irving Penn, whose use of simple grey or white backdrops brought a sense of drama to his portraits; and Diane Arbus, who photographed people on the margins of society.

Corey uses a Hasselblad single reflex camera with a digital back (that is, a device that attaches to the back of the camera containing a digital sensor to capture the image). He processes his pictures digitally and prints his images using large-format Epson printers and pigment inks on rag paper. He chooses not to alter his pictures in any manner other than what he can do in a darkroom. He does not title his images, another way that he refuses to assign meaning onto his photographs. He gives them each a number in the order that he shoots the pictures. 1953–Kansas City is the one-thousand fifty-third photograph that he has archived into his collection.

Key Ideas

  • Exploration of “what is around the bend”
  • Examination of human-made spaces
  • Inquiry into mysteries of scale and light

Discussion Questions

  1. Carl Corey made choices about what would be included in his photograph. What do you notice about how he framed, or arranged his subject, within his camera’s viewfinder?
  2. From what position, or vantage point, did he take the photograph? From what other vantage points could he have taken it? What helps give the image the impression of depth? What do you notice about a balance of light and dark tones? What rhythms does this contrast suggest?
  3. What feelings does this photograph cause you to experience?
  4. How might the photograph have been different if it had been taken with black and white film?
  5. In what ways might this image look different if the artist had been a painter? What do you think is special about making photographs?