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Dive In: Living Photo Archive Tackles Chicago's Monumental Bar Culture

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 31, 2017 4:40PM

You don’t have to exactly gather a search party to find folks willing to assemble documentation of their visits to various bars and plaster it on social media. We guess that’s one way to describe photographer Katherine Hodges’ Bars of Chicago project, although probably the most reductive way possible. Truth is, Hodges’ personal, living archive of Chicago’s vast bar culture—she’s been to an astonishing 500 different Chicagoland bars within the last four-and-a-half years—betrays a sense of you-are-there discovery, commitment and curiosity about our city’s boozy third spaces that we don’t often see… and which seriously makes us want to sidle up, too.

Hodges has long chronicled some of Chicago’s forgotten and more curious corners (you might recall her standout “dead” malls series). But she made the conscious effort to, um, dive headlong into bars in 2013, spurred by having read Chicago’s Best Dive Bars and Historic Bars of Chicago, along with a helpful nudge courtesy of the smoking ban and the rise of craft beer. She's averaging a bar-per-day so far this year.

Hodges’ photos are often direct, no-nonsense POV portraits of a beer with the bar in background; and her captions function like capsule histories or miniature testimonies, all of which conjures the sense of place that seems to be the underlying subtext of the project. It’s a resolutely catholic journey, too, but idiosyncratic at the same time: "I’m trying to document as many bars of as many types as possible, but I have a few specialties," Hodges told Chicagoist via email. "Bars with Old Style or other beer brand signs; liquor store taprooms; any bar around for decades; bars that I’ve always wondered about (and maybe been a little scared of) and passed for years and finally get the nerve to go in."

At the same time, you'll find, say, a shot of the Whole Foods bar in Edgewater. Met on their own terms, everything is part of the tapestry.

One of highlights is Hodges' penchant for various series-within-the-series, if you will. She recently documented a spectacularly dive-y Midway-area bar crawl, for example; and she’s trying to tick off each brewery taproom in the city this year (no small feat). Best of all might be the smattering of photos from now-shuttered spots that she adds from her archive, labeled Lost Bars of Chicago.

That threat of impermanence in part keeps her pressing forward into unknown rooms. “I’ve had very few bad experiences visiting unfamiliar bars. At most it might be boring, but I’m only out an hour of my time and a few bucks," she said. "My main disappointment in the years I’ve been doing this is how many places have vanished; so many bars I visited in 2013 are gone. If you’ve always wondered about that intriguing corner bar, visit it now."