In 1993, I began photographing Chicago nature as a form of self-expression. Over the years, I’ve grown into conservationist, using photography, writing, and public speaking to help Chicago nature express its beauty and importance to humankind. My hope is to inspire people to discover the great outdoors and to transform mindsets with the goal of fostering a new era of biologists and botanists, nature-minded voters and volunteers, and environmentally-friendly business and political leaders.
Within just fifty miles of downtown Chicago, there is more protected natural area than thirty-six of the sixty-one national parks and more native plant species than any national park. This means that every day, April through September, you can witness a national-park quality wildflower blooming event right down the road from home, work, or school. Unfortunately, most Chicagoans are unaware. And because you can’t love and support something that doesn’t exist, I’ve made it my mission to play “nature matchmaker”—to introduce Chicagoans to the gorgeous nature next door and to spark thousands and thousands of love affairs.
Chicago’s panoramic splendor relies on in its ever-changing displays of wildflowers that decorate the prairies and woodlands throughout the year. Yet, unlike closeup images of flowers and butterflies that emphasize the individual, a landscape photograph has the power to convey the full experience of a place that these individuals call “home”—in a place Chicagoans call “home.”
In 1927, Ansel Adams published his first portfolio of the American West containing images of the High Sierras. His technique used the technology of the day, the view camera, to depict the towering topography by casting the mountain backdrop as the star of the story. Over the years, this long-established method of emphasizing the background has been universally applied to the photography of all types of terrain. However, the approach quickly breaks down when used to portray the visual depth and grandeur of the prairie (or any level landscape). In the little-known and rarely photographed prairie, the story is intimate. It begins at your feet in a flourish of flowers and expands into a distant horizon. In the prairie, the foreground bouquet is truly the star of the scenic show.
Inspired by Chicago’s prairie panorama, I developed The Chicago Style (or The Prairie Style) —an immersive and hyper-realistic system of composition that can accentuate the depth of any vista. It expands the traditional approach by allowing me to also emphasize the foreground, while adding steps for communicating essence and emotion.
Tolstoy defined art as the transfer of emotion from one person to another. A connection of heart to heart. Like a musician’s feelings of joy and despair etched into the mysterious grooves of a phonograph record, I devised an introspective method for recording my passion into the pixels: my feelings on film, my emotion on emulsion, my senses on the sensor.
Unlike children and wide-eyed animals, the landscape has no eyes to its soul, no straight glimpse into its heart. Yet, in a quest to give nature a voice, its mysteries have inspired me to create immersive landscape images that conjure emotion. I have surrendered myself to the wonder of nature and have fallen forever under its spell.
PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE: THE CHICAGO STYLE (or THE PRAIRIE STYLE)
I created The Chicago Style of Landscape Photography to communicate the richness, texture, and dimensional dynamism of the topographically flat Chicago prairie, one that closely emulates the way humans experience the world. I call it “Optical Eye/Mind’s Eye.” At first, we use our optical eye to widely view the scene as a whole, just as a lens takes in everything without discriminating. Then we hone in by directing our full attention on various subjects in the scene. No matter how small, these subjects become magnified in our mind. To recreate the experience, I use a process that fuses the wide perspective of landscape photography with the deep, immersive feel of macro photography. Spacious landscape images are rendered with simultaneous depth and intimacy that give the viewer a hyper-realistic sense of being part of the scene.
By means of focusing at the hyperfocal distance at a large f-stop, I place a (low-magnification) super-wide angle lens just inches from the foreground subjects. This propinquity dramatically restores the magnification of subject matter closest to the camera while maintaining acceptable sharpness into the distance. To further increase the hyper-realistic feel of the photograph, I often take advantage of “glancing light”—the soft, low, side-lighting from an early-morning or late-afternoon sun—to visually separate the subjects and convey fine details. Any softness caused by diffraction is rendered insignificant using digital post-processing.
The Chicago Style also includes a step-by-step introspective process for communicating emotion that embeds the photographers passion into the pixels.
Watch story about Mike & ChicagoNatureNOW! on WTTW Chicago Tonight.
Watch Mike’s interview about his book on WTTW Chicago Tonight.
Watch Mike talk about Chicago nature photography on ABC 7 Eyewitness News Sunday Morning.
Watch Mike give photography tips on Fox 32 Chicago’s Good Day Saturday.
Watch Mike share his love of nature on WGN-TV Midday News.
Watch Mike’ talk about Chicago nature on CBS 2 Chicago’s Sunday Morning News.
Listen to Mike’s interview about winter magic in Chicago nature on WBEZ’s Morning Shift – Jan. 7, 2019.
Listen to Mike’s interview about his book on WBEZ’s WorldView – Feb. 8, 2016.
Listen to Mike’s interview about ChicagoNatureNOW! on WBEZ’s Worldview – Apr. 18, 2017.
Listen to Mike talking about Chicago nature on WBEZ’s Morning Shift – Oct. 17, 2016.
Listen to Mike talking about photography on WCGO-Radio – Dec. 2, 2018.
View some of Mike’s published work:
Outdoor Photographer – March 1997
Petersen’s Photographic – October 1999
UIC Alumni Magazine – July/August 2000
Chicago Wilderness – Fall 2005
Chicago Wilderness – Winter 2006
Garden’s Illustrated cover photo – January 2009
Outdoor Photographer – November 2011