Esthetic Lens is happy to bring you the February installment of Ryan Bakerink’s monthly photography series, Chicago 2020. The genesis of the project came about as Bakerink entered his 20th year of living in Chicago, having moved to the city at the age of 20. He’s traveled and photographed on 6 continents, and in 40 countries, but had never focused his photographic work on the expansive city that he lives in.
This project’s original intention was to be a journey of self-exploration throughout the city to learn more about myself, who I was, and who I came to be. This journey was not merely a tour through every neighborhood; it was also meant to be an examination of Chicago’s people. I hoped to capture the city’s vibrant culture through festivals, events, and classic portraiture.
For the portrait portion of the project, I set up a white background in different neighborhoods to photograph people I would meet on the street. The purpose of my approach was to remove the subject from any preconceived notions of the neighborhood they reside in. I sought to illustrate the uniqueness and personality of the individual just as they are. I wanted the portraits to be the exact opposite of the neighborhood images.
I started making the portraits in February, thanks to some exceptionally warm winter days. Chicago has a reputation for bad winters; however, in 2020, the city experienced one of its warmest winters. In 2020, Chicago experienced the city’s 35th least snowy year out of 136, dating back to 1885. In hindsight, this unusual winter was an early sign that 2020 would not be a typical year. I had a brief opportunity to photograph the snow-covered ground in mid-February while shooting in Englewood, West Englewood, and Douglas.
I originally intended to create images on Chicago’s south side and work my way north. The southside is the largest of three sides of Chicago that radiate from downtown — the others being the West Side and North Side.
The South Side has a varied ethnic composition and a significant disparity in income and other demographic measures. Although it has a reputation for a high crime rate, the South Side ranges from affluent, to middle, to low, as far as income goes. Southside neighborhoods like Armour Square, Bridgeport, New City, and Morgan Park host more blue-collar or middle-class residents, while Hyde Park, Kenwood, Beverly, and Mount Greenwood feature more affluent upper-middle-class residents. Neighborhoods such as Englewood, West Englewood, and Fuller Park generally carry the weight of high crime and a negative reputation. I sought to photograph on balance across this disparity.
I initially felt nervous in some neighborhoods due to my lack of familiarity with the area and the reputation that preceded them; however, as the year progressed, I eventually felt more comfortable making pictures throughout the neighborhoods regardless of reputation. As someone who grew up in a farming community in southwest Iowa, working this way offered an enormous amount of personal growth for me. My photographs are generally an examination of sociology and my motivation to better understand humankind. To truly understand something, especially other people, or cultures, I aspire to experience them firsthand. I do not want to just know about something; I need to feel it, touch it, smell it, hear it. I came to understand that the neighborhoods with difficult reputations often flourish with culture and personally, leaving me craving more.
By mid-late February, I started hitting a stride in the project. The massive amount of work I decided to take on had dawned on me and put an enormous weight on my shoulders. I wanted to spend more time in some of the communities I was just getting to know, but a feeling of urgency forced me to move somewhat quickly through each neighborhood. I wanted to also have time to photograph events and more portraits, in the later months. In just three short weeks, my feeling of urgency would cease; the world (and this project) was about to endure a massive change.
Ryan Bakerink is a photographer in Chicago, IL, his work focuses on social issues, counterculture, travel, music, and portraiture. Ryan’s work can regularly be seen throughout the music industry, has been widely exhibited, and was recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly.
His Chicago2020 site can be found here.