Subscribe Today - Starting at $4.95

City Of Extremes

City Of Extremes

City Of Extremes

Examining Stanley Kubrick's View Of 1940s Chicago.


Words Jordan Benik   Images Stanley Kubrick


In 1949, LOOK Magazine published an essay by Irving Kupcinet called “Chicago: City of Extremes” which featured photographs by a young Stanley Kubrick. In Kubrick’s hands, what could have been a simple series analyzing the obvious differences between rich and poor (“Here is a poor man! Here is a rich man!”) became much more. In an ingenious shift from routine juxtaposition, Kubrick focused instead on the unified undercurrent of the classes by highlighting the tenacity of 1949 Chicago. It was a bold left turn from a man who became known for bold left turns.


In the City of Broad Shoulders, no one was interested in leaning on anyone else. The delight Kubrick took in declaring this independence is addictive. Young Kubrick had established himself as a sleepless man of action during his early days as a photographer, and it’s hard to ignore the way his lens gravitated towards the rainbow of hustlers that made up post-war Chicago. He sought extremes, not in the differences between paychecks, but in the depth of the necessary sacrifices Chicagoans made to push forward. In this way, Kubrick emphasizes the shared drive of the citizens of Chicago instead of the differences between them.

In one photo, pro wrestler Gorgeous George stands in the ring before a fight, his thick face glowing in the lights as he strikes a victorious pose in royal garb. In another photo, an unnamed butcher stands in a meat locker looking casually off camera, a Mona Lisa smile gently painted across his lips, a slab of beef cradled in his arms. Though the settings are radically different, both men show great swagger. Neither man is afraid to get physical, and one could easily see Barry Lyndon standing alongside them, six tickets to the gun show.


In 1949 Chicago, women worked to keep the independence given them during WWII. In "(Woman Model, standing in an office, smoking while modeling undergarments)," Kubrick captures two such women. One stands in her underwear, forcefully exhaling a cloud of smoke, cigarette held waist-level as she leans against a desk. Behind the desk is a second woman, dressed with professional modesty, sketching the model. Though they work different jobs, both are in control. Both demonstrate the same confidence shown by the butcher and Gorgeous George. The composition of the photo is classic Kubrick, and common to his post-"Lolita" work.

Though the women are in the same room, ostensibly part of the same project, they are not working together, but for themselves. In Kubrick’s Chicago, tenacity is accompanied by isolation. This "alone, together" sentiment carries over from the women to Gorgeous George and his poor opponent, and then from the wrestling ring to the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade where a crowd of men stand braying and pointing fingers in all directions. In these images of the CBT, the chaos boils over with a comical frenzy not far removed from the war room fisticuffs of "Dr. Strangelove".


Kubrick also included several images of young children which capture their exhaustion with non-stop city life. At home, a table of stern children crowd around an empty dinner table. At school, children struggle to keep their eyes open at their desks. The world of children at the time seems as ruthless as the world of adults. Eventually, in "The Shining", Kubrick explored the effects of the overwhelming nature of the ruthless modern world on parents, as well as the toll it took on their children.

No director has ever displayed more depth than Kubrick, whether in his three-dimensional dolly shots or in breaking down the complexities of what it means to be human. In his films, he was able to present two seemingly contradictory views of humanity, the red and blue lenses that allowed us to see who we really are as a species. He is often credited for the first — his view of the great human race as a fluid whole, whirling and churning through history.

But it's in the application of his second view that we arrive at the double-edged genius of Kubrick: his view of humanity as a divided sea of isolated individuals, single souls burning brightly, colliding one against another, the wills of individual hearts pulling at human history like the moon against the tide.

In these photos of 1949 Chicago, the young Kubrick has already developed his ViewMaster. The Butcher and Gorgeous George are tied together through their kinetics. Through the tired eyes of children, the defiant faces of women in the workplace, and the men of industry, we see a multitude of things — post-war America rising; the unspooling energy of a victorious nation that believes nothing is out of reach; thousands of souls colliding in one place; Chicago — rising together into a tsunami. This wave eventually collapsed upon itself two decades later at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the same year Kubrick presented his masterpiece on the tumultuous ladder to enlightenment, "2001: A Space Odyssey".

This article was originally featured in Issue 019 of Iron & Air Magazine. 



*$9.95 per quarter