In 1993, I began photographing Chicago nature as a form of self-expression. Now, I’ve grown into a conservationist who helps Chicago nature express its beauty and importance to humankind. My hope is to transform the mindsets of current and future generations by helping people discover the great outdoors and, thereby, 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, there is more protected natural area than thirty-four of the fifty-nine national parks and more native plant species than any national park. This means that every day, between mid-April and mid-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 matchmaker—to introduce Chicagoans to that gorgeous neighbor next door and to spark thousands and thousands of love affairs.
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.” And Chicago’s panoramic splendor relies on in its ever-changing displays of wildflowers that decorate the prairies and woodlands throughout the year.
In 1927, Ansel Adams published his first portfolio of the American West containing images of the High Sierras. His technique for depicting the towering topography made the mountain backdrop the star of the story. Over the years, this long-established approach of emphasizing the background has been universally applied to all types of terrain. However, it quickly breaks down when used to portray the visual depth and grandeur of the prairie (and other level landscapes). In the little-known and rarely photographed prairie, the story is intimate. It begins at your feet in a flourish of foreground flowers that fade to a distant horizon.
Inspired by Chicago’s prairie panorama to solve the problem, I developed The Prairie Style—an immersive and hyper-realistic system of composition that can accentuate the depth of any vista. It inverts the traditional approach by putting the emphasis on the foreground, while also adding steps for communicating 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 passion into the pixels: my feelings on film, my emotions on emulsion, my senses on my 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 inspired me to create immersive landscape images that hope to conjure emotion. I simply surrendered myself to the wonder of nature and fell forever under its spell.
PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE: THE PRAIRIE STYLE
In an effort to capture the richness, texture, and dimensional dynamism of the topographically flat Chicago prairie, I created a system called The Prairie Style that gives the viewer an immersive visual experience. It is an intimate and deeply engaging style that fuses landscape photography with the immersive feel of life-size macro photography. Using this system, landscape photographs are rendered with tremendous detail and dimensional depth, giving the viewer the hyper-realistic sense that they are 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 Prairie Method also includes a step-by-step introspective process for communicating emotion that embeds the photographers passion into the pixels.
Watch Mike’s interview on WTTW Chicago Tonight.
Listen to Mike’s interview on WBEZ’s WorldView.
Listen to Mike’s interview about ChicagoNatureNOW! on WBEZ’s Worldview.
Listen to Mike talking about Chicago nature on WBEZ’s Morning Shift.
Read Mike’s Biography.
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