Imagining Their Stories

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Photo Credit: Bill Guerriero

Chicago River gulls
When I was reviewing and selecting my favorite city creature photos for this post, my mind kept going back to a quote 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.”

milkweed bug

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.

postman butterfly

eastern cicada killer wasp-2

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.

Short-winged meadow katydid

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 nonhuman 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.

Caldwell lily pond-1

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.

cabbagebutterfly-1

riddle the kitty

“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.

fork-tailed damselfly
All photographs by Bill Guerriero. From top to bottom: gulls near the Chicago River; milkweed bug on butterfly weed in Lincoln Park, July 2014; postman butterfly at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum; eastern cicada killer wasp in the Lurie Garden; young short-winged katydid in the Lurie Garden; Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, Lincoln Park; cabbage butterfly in Andersonville, Chicago; Riddle the kitty; eastern forktail damselfly, Lincoln Park.

For my full set of city creature photos, please visit this site.

  • Bill Guerriero

    Bill Guerriero is a photographer based in Lakewood, Colorado. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Reader, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the book The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. Bill's favorite photographers are Henri Cartier-Bresson and William S. Guerriero (his dad).
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