Ken Hedrich Palmolive Building (1930)
18.0 x 12.0 x 0.0
University Club of Chicago

Ken hedrich board of trade 150

Hedrich-Blessing was founded in 1929. It is one of the largest and best-regarded of firms specializing in architectural photographs. Hedrich-Blessing was started in Chicago by Ken Hedrich and Henry Blessing (who left after only a year).

Ken Hedrich brought his brother Bill in to serve as an apprentice, and was later joined by two other brothers, Ed and Jack. Ken's son Jim Hedrich still runs the firm. Hedrich-Blessing became a success because of the quality of their work, both a matter of intellectual approach and attention to detail.

Ken Hedrich dedicated his career to the complex negotiation of using a two-dimensional art form, photography, to capture a three-dimensional art form, architecture. His practice pushed architectural photography from documentation to an original interpretive artwork.    

Ken Hedrich (1908-1972) grew up in Chicago and studied at the New York Institute of Photography. After school, he returned to Chicago to work as a photographer and salesman. In 1929, The Great Depression took hold of the nation. At age twenty-one, Hedrich faced the Depression head on and opened his own commercial photography studio and quickly partnered with Henry Blessing and his brother Bill Hedrich. The company completed their first large photography project in 1933, capturing the Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition. In the 1930s and 40s, architectural photography was generally executed with a wide-angle lens to capture the most space in one image. Alternatively, Ken Hedrich and the company elected to use normal or long angle lens, which demanded that they move away from the past frozen macro images and focus on interpretive micro details and dynamic angles of the spaces. In 1933, Ken Hedrich was hired to photograph for the Chicago World’s Fair Chrysler pavilion. Architects and developers admired Hedrich’s approach to portraying an “essence” or architectural intent of the building, and the company became highly sought after by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Their work is known for capturing idiosyncratic viewpoints, dramatic lighting, high contrast, and photographing at night. By the 1950s, the photography firm adopted a more clinical style of photography and worked predominantly in color, but by the 70s and 80 this gave way to a revival of their earlier well-known dramatic and stylized approach. In Chicago art history, Ken Hedrich’s artistic imprint shifted the role of architectural photography from static documentation to a dynamic art form full of seductive, energetic, and modern images. In 1991, the Chicago Historical Society acquired the company’s 500,000 photography collection, and Hedrich Blessing Photographers is still operating.

 In Palmolive Building (c.1930) a hazy darkness surrounds a Chicago street scene as the Palmolive building towers above in the background. An early work of Hedrich Blessing Photographers, it portrays Hedrich’s iconic style of dramatic lighting, compelling angles and viewpoints, and a keen sense of detail. Hedrich captured a distinct vantage point that fills the foreground with varied lines and shapes, which adds a bustling contrast to the isolated towering geometric architecture behind. Beginning at the right side of the composition, spindly tendril-like branches of the wispy tree curve across the open night sky with an organic linear chaos. Below the bending branches, the cars hastening along the curved street are paralyzed in motion as illuminated bands of light. Hedrich used a long exposure to freeze movement by visualizing the blurred car lights on the city street. Light and contrast add drama to the scene and denote the grandeur of the building. In the background, the surpassing Palmolive Building is comprised of setbacks that become narrower as the building transcends upwards. Each setback of the building is dramatically lit from its base with spotlights whose opaque rays are affected by the hazy dark sky. This is further enhanced by the beacon of light that sits at the top of the building, highlighting it as an illustrious structure in the horizon. By employing light to accent the skyscraper amongst an urban street scene astir with activity, Hedrich is not concerned with visualizing every detail of the building, but instead encapsulates the building’s essence. There is also a foreboding quality to the image. While the viewer cannot see into the many lit windows, at the bottom edge of the work one silhouetted small-scale person stands alone in the darkness, leaving one to wonder what happens along the street sidewalks or inside the windows at night. In Palmolive Building, the spot lit towering skyscraper in the background looks down as a modern protector over the active city and slight pedestrians living in the fast-paced urban world.  

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