The Great Chicago Fire in Focus
Chicago Cultural Center, Landmarks Gallery, 1st Floor West
Part of a citywide commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire
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Following the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, commercial photographers descended on the city to record its devastation.
Photographic equipment of the era had quality lenses, and the glass-negatives inserted into the camera had the capability to record intricate details. But the paper-based prints offered for sale by the photographers lost much of the negative’s sharpness.
Over time, original paper prints fade and discolor, further reducing their clarity. Between the poor quality of the 1870s prints, and the degradation over time, the power of surviving Chicago Fire images have offered only a diminished imagery of the horror.
For over fifty years, historian and photographic collector David R. Phillips sought and discovered the long-forgotten glass plate negatives that photographers inserted into their cameras 150 years ago. When combined with today’s digital reproduction technologies, these rescued 1870s glass negatives provide detailed imagery of the Chicago Fire’s devastation with a dramatic clarity never before possible.