Esthetic Lens is happy to bring you the April installment of Ryan Bakerink’s monthly photography series, Chicago 2020. The genesis of the project came about as Bakerink entered his twentieth year of living in Chicago, having moved to the city at the age of twenty. Ryan has traveled and photographed on six continents, in forty countries, but had never focused his photographic work on the expansive city that he lives in. In April of 2020, the city became much quieter and at the same time, a lot stranger.
By April 2nd, 2020, the number of coronavirus cases worldwide had passed 1 million, and more than 6.6 million workers had filed for unemployment in the United States. On April 3rd, the CDC recommended that everyone consider wearing cloth or fabric masks in public.
This project, as you can imagine with everything happening and so much unknown, had been idle for a few weeks. I knew I’d be breaking the city’s shelter-in-place rules if I continued to shoot but felt that as a photographer making a body of work about Chicago in 2020, it was my responsibility to go document the city during this time. I often laughed at myself throughout this project (and the practice of photography as a whole) due to what I consider “photographer’s existentialism.” I define “photographer’s existentialism” as the idea that the work we create not only gives us (photographers) purpose, but our work is also essential to humanity, even if no one ever sees it. The latter half of that is nonsense, but it’s what drives me. So, on April 5th, with a mask on my face, I gathered up the courage to continue the project.
I was compelled to visit downtown Chicago, it felt like a ghost town. The streets were empty, parking lots vacant, and businesses were boarded up to prevent looting while they were forced to be closed. The mannequins in the windows of a local Art School were left hanging, waiting for the fashion design students to cover them with their midterm assignments. My favorite restaurants and coffee shops were all closed. It was the first, but not the only time this year, that downtown Chicago felt post-apocalyptic.
I wasn’t abiding by the city’s stay-at-home order, however, I found my rhythm again, all while practicing social distancing. I’d arrive in my target neighborhood before sunrise, avoid people altogether, and practically bathe in hand sanitizer multiple times a day. I came to terms with the fact that many of the images that I had hoped to make for this project, concerts, events, street fairs, etc., were not going to be possible. It was at this time that something else had dawned on me; these circumstances were not an obstacle in the project. Even though my content and point of view would change, nothing was preventing me from focusing on creating work like this for the first time in my life. The lack of obstacles allowed me to slow down, spend more time in each neighborhood, and make pictures as I’ve never done before. The project truly started to take off, at least from my own point of view.
I went to photograph the far west neighborhood of Austin, the largest Chicago neighborhood in square miles. On Easter Sunday, I visited Austin’s neighboring community, Montclare, one of Chicago’s smallest neighborhoods. The majority of the Easter decorations in the front yards included references to the coronavirus in some way. I then focused my attention on the southwest neighborhoods of South Lawndale, North Lawndale. Archer Heights, West Town, the Near North Side, and Lakeview.
In late April, the Chicago Theater marquee read “We Love Chicago”, a sign that represented my exact feelings as I navigated myself around this beautiful city. On April 26th, 2020, I made my way to the Chicago Theater to make an image of the building’s famous façade; this is when I ran into a lovely woman named Jasmine. I told Jasmine what I was working on and asked if I could make a portrait of her. She enthusiastically agreed, and I realized I could continue to make portraits for the project to add yet another layer to this body of work.
On April 28th, 2020, at approximately 12:14 pm, while I was out on a walk, making pictures for the project, on the 4800 blocks of N. Magnolia (Uptown), a small group of men walked past me. When they were roughly 20 feet away from me, gunshots rang out; a rival gang had cut them off, coming from the opposite direction. Two adult males shot at each other on the sidewalk. I was caught in the crossfire as bullets ricocheted off a fence near me; I was miraculously not injured. A 23-year-old male was shot in the back of the head during this incident and was transported to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he later died.
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.