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Chicago, Illinois 60616
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Preservation Projects
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Camera on Chicago (1983) and On the Shores of Lake Michigan (1948)

In 2019, CFA received a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to photochemically preserve two short films in our collection: Warren Thompson’s Camera on Chicago (1983) and Julian Gromer’s On the Shores of Lake Michigan (1948). These unique, amateur film productions seamlessly meld elements of the city symphony genre with the travelogue to document and effectively depict Chicago and the surrounding Midwest area as it developed in the Twentieth Century. The project began in 2019 in conjunction with Colorlab, and was recently completed in 2020.

In order to embark upon the preservation project, CFA provided Colorlab with the surviving 16mm Kodachrome reversal workprints for both films. In addition to new answer and release prints being produced, internegatives were created to ensure the continued survival of these important works on film. Besides their close affinity in terms of genre, Camera on Chicago and On the Shores of Lake Michigan share another key similarity in the ways in which they were produced. In both cases, the original film material was cut and edited into the final product, so no other elements or copies exist.

Both films can be classified as City Symphonies, a genre that reached its height in terms of popularity and artistic prowess during the 1920s, but has since petered out. Films belonging to this genre are known for borrowing their structural beats from the movements of orchestral symphonies rather than traditional narrative pacing. They are also identified with the avant garde, in the purely cinematic ways the films depict major metropolises and their citizens, featuring a great deal of abstraction further animated by energetic camera movement and montage. The most famous versions of these films are Manhatta (1921) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Camera on Chicago, described as “a love letter to the city” from filmmaker Warren E. Thompson, was the result of a continuous effort to record some of the major events and defining characteristics of the city of Chicago, which Thompson called home for over fifty years. Shot during 1940-1983, the film highlights the cultural diversity of the city’s residents, both rich and poor, its various industries, and key events like Queen Elizabeth II’s visit, and the Chicago International Trade Fair in 1959. With close attention to the city’s distinctive urban landscape, Thompson presents a vivid portrait of an ever changing metropolis, documenting the construction of now-famed landmarks juxtaposed alongside parts of Chicago that no longer exist such as scenes of the John Hancock Center and the old Maxwell Street Market on Chicago’s near south side.

On the Shores of Lake Michigan is a two-part travelogue featuring tourist and industry highlights around Lake Michigan. It begins in Chicago but then traverses other parts of the Midwest, to a steel foundry and peach farm in northern Indiana,  as well as footage of cheesemaking in Wisconsin, and the American Passion Play in Bloomington, IL. Throughout, Gromer captures his subjects with a unique sense of humor and occasionally makes cameo appearances in the film himself. Gromer was especially enterprising when it came to his admiration of travelogues, and produced twenty of them throughout his career, presenting them more than 200 times a year to various audiences, providing live narration.

Both Camera on Chicago and On the Shores of Lake Michigan are warm, funny, and singular films that reveal indispensable portraits of Chicago and the Midwest.