How Chicago Photographer Barry Butler Shoots “The Greatest City in America”

His new book “Chicago: A City Above All” is available now

September 4, 2020 11:02 am
Barry Butler's take on Chicago.
Barry Butler Photography

It all started with a collarbone shattered in a thousand pieces. After suffering the fateful injury from a brutal check while playing hockey 25 years ago, Barry Butler decided to teach himself photography while he recovered.

Butler never planned on becoming one of Chicago’s most sought-after photographers, known for consistently producing some of the most beautiful images of the city ever seen. In the beginning, he was a hobbyist like any of us, posting photos of Windy City landmarks on social media alongside shots of national parks and international destinations. 

Despite the overwhelmingly positive (and organic) response to his work, though, Butler has never published a book — until now. Fresh on the heels of the release of Chicago: A City Above All, we caught up with Butler to discuss his latest project, his thoughts on the city that inspires him, and why you should never take photos for “likes” alone. 

Millennium Park
An iconic Chicago scene.
Barry Butler Photography

InsideHook: You have said that Chicago is the “greatest city in America.” What is it about the city that you find so inspiring, particularly when it comes to photography?

Barry Butler: There’s so many different views of the city. I love the lakefront, but I kind of changed my mindset, to be truthful. I turned the skyline into my mountains … Instead of being excited about the fact that I’m gonna be out at the Grand Tetons along the Snake River, here I am along the Chicago River and there’s these “mountains” called the Hancock and the Sears Tower. And the nice thing about this “mountain range” is it changes, lately, almost every year … It presents different challenges.

And that’s the thing I probably enjoy most about photography, is that every day brings a new challenge. Which is, where would be the best spot to be based on the weather conditions and also what possibly could be topical that day? I just enjoy putting that puzzle together every day. And I typically start the puzzle-making about 24 hours ahead of time, so all the shots are planned. I don’t just show up somewhere and say, “God, lets hope its gonna be really nice in this spot.”

"Chicago" book cover
The cover of “Chicago.”
Barry Butler Photography

What are some misconceptions people might have about photography? And what are some things people might not know about working as a photographer and some character traits or habits of a successful photographer?

What’s probably the biggest misconception is that you have to have a really nice camera to take a good photo. That’s probably the biggest mistake that most people make. I often get people who ask me, “Hey listen, I want to get into photography. What would be the best camera that I can get?” I usually say, “You probably have it in your hand right now, which is your smartphone.” It’s not from the standpoint of the quality of the photo. Whether it’s a smartphone or a camera, the quality is there … The thing that is the challenge with photography is the composition. Is it something where someone looks at it and says, “Wow, I wish I was there” or “Oh, what a moment.” Often it’s the composition that creates that.

The biggest mistake that people make in the social media world is that they take photos because they’re worried about getting “likes.” I can tell you that every photograph I take is because I enjoyed it. There’s nothing in my mind that says, “Boy, I wonder if they’re really gonna like this today.” That doesn’t enter my mind. If I’m gonna get up 90 minutes before sunrise, it’s because I’m gonna get a kick out of it. I’m just very fortunate that people like it. But if I start saying, “I’m worried about my follower accounts, so I better start doing these type of photographs,” I can tell you that my photographs won’t be that good — because I’ll be taking photographs of things that are really not that interesting to me. 

When you have a passion for something — no matter what it is — you take tremendous care and put a lot of thought into what you do. And that’s really what makes up what I do on a day-to-day basis. I’m shooting the things that I enjoy and because I enjoy it, I put a lot of work into it … I probably put five hours into a photograph that might only last one thirtieth of a second. And I think all of those hours are worthwhile. That’s the passion. That’s what makes you get up early and allows you to stand there for a half hour and wait for that thing that you’re hoping will happen to happen. 

What are some of your favorite places to shoot in the city or locations that inspire you the most, or maybe spots that people wouldn’t be aware of or think of?

I like situations … and it’s usually bad things. I like the Polar Vortex. That’s awesome. When it’s minus 50 degrees, that’s Christmas. I love a good lightning storm. Basically anything that’s bad is good for photography. And it’s really what I try to do every day, which is to take a negative and turn it into a positive. That’s really the foundation of photography, anyway. 

Why did you choose now to release your first book after all these years?

Because I finally found a way to do it myself … I’m very blown away by the response and the reaction from people. It just makes me really happy when someone says, “Oh, I love it — on my cocktail table now,” or, “It’s in my family room and I’m picking it up and I love the views of the city.” Knowing that I might have made someone’s day or moment or allowed them to escape from whatever is their challenge that day — and the book is kind of creating that — that’s worth more than anything I could ever make on the book.

Chicago at night.
Barry Butler Photography

Why do you think your photos resonate with so many people? Why do you think people identify with them so strongly?

I think because it’s authentic … In this day of constant manipulation of photographs, I think for people, they’re like, “You know what, this is real. This is what the city looked like and that’s what the sky looked like.” It’s not manipulated … There’s definitely tons of warts in my photographs. There’s warts in every one of them. But I think that’s what people like. What they’re seeing is real. They know Chicago looked like that in the winter, it looked that way in a storm … And I think people do feel that I love the city and they just see the passion in the shots that I take.

Fireworks over Chicago.
Barry Butler Photography

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a tough year for Chicago. Do you think your photos help people feel more positive about their city by enabling them to look at their environment in a new way?

Well, I hope it does. Every city has challenges. There are bad spots; there are real bad days. But I try to look at this city as a whole and the 365 days a year that it’s here. And we have a lot of great days, and we have a lot of beauty in this city all over the place. Doesn’t matter if you’re on the South Side, the West Side, out on the lake, the North Side — everywhere there’s something interesting to view. It’s never-ending how pretty it is. I’m looking at it right now. I’m looking at the Sears Tower … How could you get bored by looking at the Sears Tower? The Hancock, too. That’s another cool building … that is my favorite. It’s just another building that’s so cool from all different angles. You never get tired of it.

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