Esthetic Lens is happy to bring you the December (and final) 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 December of 2020, Ryan spends his first Christmas away from is his family so that he can see this project through to the end and reflect on the year and all of the images that he has made.
“Chicago is a town, a city that doesn’t even have to measure itself against any other city. Other places have to measure themselves against it. It’s big, it’s outgoing, it’s tough, it’s opinionated, and everybody’s got a story.” —Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef, and author
With a month left, I couldn’t help to think to myself, “Am I happy with what I’ve captured, and what am I missing?”; “Did I tell the story of Chicago in 2020?”; “Did I make the city proud and is it even my responsibility to make the city proud?” I kept a detailed list of every neighborhood, every image, color, concept, mood, etc. I entered December wanting to fill in the gaps, however, I knew it would be difficult without creating holiday-related images. This inspired me to capture holiday-related images in neighborhoods I don’t frequent often; West Englewood, Beverly, Auburn Gresham, Archer Heights, Albany Park, and Austin.
On December 2, due to a backlog from the Thanksgiving holiday, Illinois reported 238 COVID-related deaths, most of any day since the pandemic began. Another 192 deaths were reported on December 3, the second-highest count since the pandemic started. City residents were once again asked to social distance through the holiday season.
On December 14, the first COVID-19 vaccinations start in the United States. The first doses are expected to go to front-line healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, followed by other at-risk groups. Also, on this day, the electoral college confirms Joe Biden’s victory over President Trump.
Chicago shines during the holiday season. The lights, the spirits, the good cheer is truly special to me. This year was particularly interesting; every day felt like Christmas or New Year’s Day. The streets remained empty, Michigan Avenue was not bustling, there was no annual tradition of lighting the Christmas tree at Daley Plaza or Millennium park, and inflatable Christmas lawn ornaments were more likely to be deflated. On a personal level, 2020 was the first year in my life I didn’t visit my family for the holidays, instead, I was determined to see the project through.
Starting on January 1, 2020, and every day following, I thought about the final image. I struggled to find the perfect photograph or metaphor. Ultimately, I went with a location in Edgewater, with a large sign reading “Everything will be okay.” With a new president, a vaccine on the way, people finally feeling a sense of hope, I thought that this image was the best way to end the project.
Photography is the catalyst for my cycle of understanding. I take a deep dive into a subject, explore, listen, empathize, make pictures, and then sit with the images. If successful, I will learn a great deal about myself through the process and the images I create, finding things I may not have known or understood while creating the work.
My approach to each neighborhood was to drive up and down every street; although I’m sure I missed a handful, I’m confident that I covered 75-85% of the city. It was not my intention to tell Chicago’s story or try and accurately describe each neighborhood through my images. I originally sought out the city’s character and responded to what spoke to me; as the year unfolded, I found my emotions guiding me. I was determined to stick to the project’s integrity even as layer after layer of complexity piled up as the year rolled on. I expected the project to be a challenge, but not in the way that it was; I feel that it was the perfect year to accomplish my goal. Coincidentally, what I had hoped to learn about myself, actually happened because of the kind of year 2020 was. It pushed me to understand more, heightened my empathy, my awareness, and inspired me to take risks. Thanks to 2020, I felt as though I grew more in one year than I did in the previous 20.
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.