Review: The Photography of Monica Kass Rogers Captures Abstract Views of Chicago Alleys

One of the most underappreciated features in Chicago is the extensive network of alleys. According to statistics from the City of Chicago, there are approximately 1,900 miles of alleys (about the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles), providing access to garages, back entrances to buildings, garbage disposal and pickup, and loading docks. 

There was a time when alleys acted as a playground of sorts for kids, particularly in neighborhoods where there weren’t any nearby parks. For many kids growing up in an inner-city neighborhood with no parks nearby or any organized sport activities, alleys were a playground for basketball, touch football or baseball. Because alleys weren’t under the watchful eye of parents or other adults, they also provided a place for kids to hang out and create mischief by blowing off fireworks, smoking that first cigarette, sharing a joint, or having a fistfight in order to settle a disagreement.

Monica Kass Rogers, Forestdream
Monica Kass Rogers, Forestdream, 2022. Archival Pigment Print on Canson Rag Photographique. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the latest exhibition, The Alley Project: Beauty in Entropy, at Perspective Group and Photography Gallery, photographer Monica Kass Rogers displays works from her three-year exploration of alleys in Chicago and some of the surrounding suburbs. During a three-year period that began at the height of the pandemic, Kass Rogers captured more than 1,000 images. While she worked on this project, she gave herself some self-imposed guidelines: she would only capture what was there without disturbing the scene in any manner; she would avoid taking photos of graffiti because she considered that to be another artist’s work; and she would not manipulate an image after taking the photo.

On display are 26 of her works that provide incredible abstract views of various alley scenes. Many of her shots are of garage doors, fences, dumpster bins, patched-over pylons, and painted-over graffiti. She shows us decay in process through shots of rotting wood to peeling paint. In each photo, Kass Rogers zoomed in tightly to create a desired composition that emphasized the colors and the textures that she found most compelling.  Her scenes invite the viewer to consider the symmetrical as well the asymmetrical lines, the white and gray tones, and the vibrant bursts of color that create not only a painterly look, but also an abstract expressionist perspective.

Monica Kass Rogers, Pink Nudes
Monica Kass Rogers, Pink Nudes, 2022. Archival Pigment Print on Canson Rag Photographique. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When looking over her shots, the viewer may not be able to identify the image that they are seeing, but perhaps that sense of unknowing allows the viewer to let their imagination take flight. Her photos also allow one to experience a sense of mystery as well as the whimsical side of life. In many ways, her work reminds us that we may not always have a clear-cut perspective about life and that we can’t always accept what we see at face value. Another important aspect of Kass Rogers’ work is the element of play where we can experience a sense of pareidolia. Experiencing pareidolia in her work takes us back to our own childhood when we took delight in seeing images of animals, human faces or other objects in cloud formations, a slice of toast, or even in a mud splatter on a sidewalk.

Some viewers may feel when looking at Kass Rogers’ work that they would like to know exactly what they are looking at. And that raises the question, should Kass Rogers reveal on wall text what she had photographed for each individual work? Perhaps by revealing exactly what she had photographed would in the end strip away the magic and the mystery that makes her images so compelling. The abstract nature of her work creates a profound visual impact that in the end allows us to look at the world with a fresh perspective.

Monica Kass Rogers, Abalone Dream
Monica Kass Rogers, Abalone Dream, 2022. Archival Pigment Print on Canson Rag Photographique. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When asked what drew her to this project, Kass Rogers said, “I feel there is an element of truth to alleys. When you look at the front side of a city block, it may look perfect, but it’s the back side, the alley behind those same buildings, that is far more interesting because you get an unvarnished view. There is also a timelessness to alleys. Streets can get gentrified, but alleys don’t change as quickly or as much. In many alleys, you can still find old fences, garages, and the backside of warehouses, that are still standing like they once did 50 to 100 years ago.”

The Alley Project: Beauty in Entropy will run through December 31. Perspective Group and Photography Gallery is located at 1310-1/2B Chicago Avenue in Evanston. Hours: Thursday thru Saturday: 12pm-6pm and Sunday 12-5pm. For more info, visit their website or call 224-200-1155.

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Tom Wawzenek
Tom Wawzenek
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