The Golden Sieve and The Emerald City
I know that The Emerald City is not on any list of monikers normally associated with Chicago. I know further that there are more iconic eponyms for what Mark Twain called “this American giant.” I know also that the steel frames of this sprawling midwestern metropolis rise from the planar grain fields of Illinois like emerald towers from a yellow brick road. Perhaps this is as should be: some contend that L. Frank Baum took inspiration from the White City of The World Columbian Exposition. In either case, the Wizard is Daniel Burnham and every urban blight of the past two centuries the Wicked Witch.
If ten years I spent in The City Gray, then 28 number my time in or on the shores of Chicago. Again, memory selects a subset of remembrances and herein I used my camera to distill those moments into photographs.
Directly below you’ll see a stylized image of Chicago and a series of thumbnail images – this is an interactive gallery where you can click your way through a virtual lightbox of over 50 images collected from the shinier spots of the city. Just click the image or any of the thumbnails to get started and a inset image will appear on your screen – click on the right of this frame to proceed to the next image or on the left to move backward. Below this gallery you’ll find a several of these images and some words about the Emerald City.
The Windy Pixel and beyond.
When you grow up in the suburbs of Chicago and find yourself asked “Where are you from?” your automatic response is “Chicago.” I was never ashamed of growing up in the ‘burbs or loathed explaining to people where this or that little berg was, but I think I always thought of myself as from the city. St. Louis, Milwaukee and a handful of other mid-sized towns may be scattered here and there, but you have to drive some 800+ miles east to reach the equivalent to Chicago’s brawn and breadth. As a kid, you want to be associated with something as grand as the City of Big Shoulders.
Explaining why I always felt connected to the city is not an easy task. It’s a bit like explaining why you think a rainbow is beautiful (viral videos aside – really explaining why you find it striking is a difficult task indeed!). Suffice it to say that Chicago, like me, is midwestern, seems to revel in the cold weather and loves football.
Perhaps it is appropriate then that it is also quite difficult for me to explain exactly when I started to enjoy photography. My father and mother both had cameras and took wonderful photographs on vacation (I still don’t know how they did that all with film). My grandfather and his father also were avid photographers – there is a very dusty large format Kodak of one type or another on the mantle at home to attest to this fact. Who really cares though – I’m “from” Chicago and I like to take pictures. What more explanation does anyone really need?
For years and years I had a nice digital camera and I loved to take pictures, but I almost only snapped that shutter on vacation – out in the mountains. I returned from some far-flung and wild places in the summer of 2008 and asked myself why I felt the need to stick only to the natural landscapes. Why not start a blog and take my camera into the great american landscape of Chicago and record a few moments here and there? Two friends and I, therefore, decided to start a little blog called The Windy Pixel and use the instrument of photography to put ourselves out into urban landscape and create memories.
tWp drew large audiences and became a great place for the three of us to publish our images and connect with other photographers looking to learn the craft and experience the city. The website has some 600 posts and is still a piece of work of which I am very proud (as I am sure are Annie and Mike).
Like the weather, change comes quick when you’re young and you live in Chicago. Within the course of a year, the three photographers who had started The Windy Pixel were cast onto three very difference courses, photography taking a different role in each of our lives. Three photographers, three states and very few new images of Chicago meant that maintaining what was core to tWp’s success was no longer possible. We branded that website as an attempt to cast aside the long familiarity of residence and see the city anew. I can’t speak for Annie and Mike, but I surely saw the place with new eyes and put my feet into places I hadn’t occasion to go before.
Where to from here?
I wrestled for a while about what to do with the blog, my photography and the web when I learned my days as a Chicagoan were numbered. After a month in California, however, I had it all mapped out. Painful as it might be, I needed a new avenue for photography and blogging and I wanted a totally fresh start – no brand, audience, twitter followers, facebook friends, links, photos, pages, categories – nothing – a clean slate and a brand new build. I had been reading a lot of Galen Rowell over the preceding months and his words and his personal story really spoke to me. Here was someone who really understood what photography was down to his very bones. He may have been paid to produce images and stories for Life, National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, etc – but in reading his words and seeing his images I began to suspect that Galen was a photographer for Galen’s sake; he was only too happy to make a living from doing something he was compelled to do for pay or play.
So then, I shamelessly appropriated one of the most compelling ideas he espoused for the title of this blog and decided to represent my photography and its source as honestly as I could: an attempt to understand my life, the world and my memories. Publishing these images gives the search structure and so I continue to do so. This has the added benefit of connecting me with people on similar quests of their own. I’ve found that I have something to impart on many a photographer (this was not initially obvious to me, and sometimes I still wonder if it is still true) and this website is a forum that I use to spread (what little) knowledge I may have.
In addition to the ramblings and images you can see here on This American Giant and The City Gray, this website features frequent postings filled with lovely HDR photographs and methods on how to produce your own images. Further gallery pages like this one and instructional material will certainly follow – but you can get started learning right now by clicking the “learn how to HDR” link at the very top of each page or by heading over to my Materials and Methods page. I encourage you further to become a member of this website, not only because it helps me keep it running and interesting, but because I donate a portion of all fees to The Rowell Fund for Tibet as a way of attempting to repay Galen’s gift to my photography in kind to the people of Tibet.
Get back to the point, man – Chicago.
So what do I remember most fondly about Chicago? This is difficult as it involves two things – family and friends and photography. All but one or two cohorts of my extended family call Chicago home, as do most of my friends – therefore leaving Chicago is leaving home through and through. I just can’t help but miss the snap of cucumber in an Chicago Style dog.
It would seem hard to miss anything photographically while living in the San Francisco Bay area – there is abundant urban and natural beauty all about. Time, and not location, appear to be the limiting factor here and a fresh slate was much appreciated for someone weary of many similar photohaunts around Chicago. Yet, this place lacks the deep freeze with which myself and my camera were for so long attached. Ice, snow and my breath frozen to the back of my camera are things I do miss about Chicago.
In the end, I suppose you could sum it all up by saying: “You can take the boy of out Chicago . . . .,” well you know the rest.
-Justin Kern, August 2010