When I was reviewing and selecting my favorite city creature photos for this post, my mind kept going back to a quotation about people-watching in Found magazine’s interview of musician Willis Earl Beal:
When I’m watching people, I feel like I develop this powerful, almost God-like understanding of them. I can see deep within them. Of course, really, they’re becoming an extension of who I am. I don’t know what their story is, but imagining their stories is a way of exploring yourself.
The quote struck me as revelatory and I immediately wanted to try to apply it to photography. Willis’s idea makes sense in the context of street photography or portraiture, but I wanted to see if I could apply it to what I was working on—photos of herring gulls on the Chicago River, and close-up photos of butterflies and wasps.
This past summer, I made many early morning photo trips to Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk and Lurie Garden. Every morning, when I geared up to explore, I was overcome with delight and anticipation. Hard to express in words, but it came from knowing that I had plenty of morning sunlight ahead of me and a garden full of beautiful subjects.
My feelings might sound like those of a bona fide tree-hugger, but I haven’t always been interested in nature photography. My entry into photographing non-human scenes and subjects came a few years ago, when my friend Tom Dyja was putting together a wonderful book called The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream and asked me to get a photo of the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool (also known to native Chicagoans as the Rookery) in Lincoln Park. It was one of my first professional assignments and I wanted to do a great job, so I put a lot of shooting hours into it. I would wake up early, bike down to the lily pool, gear up and feel that same near-ecstatic feeling. My experiences at the lily pool led me to welcome other nature-related assignments and prompted me to seek out pathways of my own.
I’m especially interested in close-up photos of eyeballs—though I’m not exactly sure why. The eyes of insects fascinate me—they’re complex and beautiful. I want to make my macro photos look like portraits, so I try to get sharp focus on my subject’s eyes. Eyeballs are important.
“I don’t know what their story is, but imagining their stories is a way of exploring yourself.”
I love Beal’s understanding of storytelling. So I have to ask: (1) If I take a portrait of a milkweed bug, does the milkweed bug (and the photograph) become an extension of me? (2) Do I see myself in this photo of an eastern forktail damselfly? (3) Do I feel a connection with a garden full of beautiful and interesting subjects? (1) Yes. (2) Maybe just a little bit. (3) Most definitely.
All photographs by Bill Guerriero.