Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station by Jack Delano
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We’re gearing up for another rotation around the sun. If, like us, you’re keen to kick off the new year on an optimistic note, our newest Vintage Edition just might be your magic bullet. No, it’s not all cheery colors (instead, it’s classic black & white brilliance) and it doesn’t have a motivational maxim, but there’s something even more compelling about its subtlety. Jack Delano’s Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station will effortlessly enchant and enliven you. And keep you looking ahead...
This cinematic scene isn't just an excellent example of the elegance of black & white photography—it’s a slice of history with irresistibly timely intimations. Delano created this image in 1943, while on assignment for the Farm Security Administration. It depicts Chicago’s Union Station, one of the biggest transportation hubs in the country, and a visual marvel in its own right. Designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham, the station was immediately lauded as not only an outstanding achievement in railroad facility planning, but one of the great interior public spaces of the United States.
In Delano’s dynamic, expressive photograph, we see what the artist refers to as “the waiting room”—really the station’s Great Hall. This Beaux-Arts style space features outsized wooden benches arranged centrally for travelers to rest on between connections, presided over by a cathedral-like cluster of windows. Though the space itself was stunning, only Delano could have captured it quite like this.
The photographer’s background in painting served him well throughout his time at the FSA, but it comes across especially clearly in this striking composition. Delano’s talent for portraying transformative moments of light is the central axis around which the image rotates. Sun streams in like a spotlight, a stark and sanguine contrast to the rich darkness in the rest of the frame. It sets the station air aglow. Ordinary commuters are elevated to actors, spears of light dramatically penetrating the scene and silhouetting them.
While it definitely feels like a nod to film noir—an air of mystery, faceless figures, mostly in the shadows—Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station lacks the pessimism of the genre. The idea of being in “the waiting room” can be a curiously terrifying one, particularly in trying times. Train stations are a metaphorical stand-in for limbo-esque liminal zones, but Delano’s planted clues that this intermediate area is en route to positive prospects.
Which brings us back to the history: Delano was not only documenting the railroad industry, he was making photographs of a nation in the middle of war. The prominence of the arrows in the foreground, the churchlike charge of the light, seem to outline an optimistic future for the common man waiting below.
In that same vein, Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station lays bare Delano’s gift for making art from the everyday. In his hands, this quotidian commuter hub becomes a hallowed place, a sacred transitional space, the people pictured in the station spiritual travelers of sorts.
Blame it on the upcoming need for new calendars, but this edition reminds us that we’re entering the unknown, another year on the horizon. And though so much of the photograph is shrouded in darkness, the beams of light breaking through from above feel hopeful, the bright pop of the neon text and arrows a directive to keep moving forward, to keep on keeping on. We’re looking for a little direction this time of year, and forward feels right.
With art for everyone,