By 6:30am, Justin Kern is already done with the day’s shoot. He sits by Grant Park’s Buckingham Fountain, burdened with a tripod, a large wide-angle lens, and a digital camera with a plastic cover to protect it from the rain. In his pictures, Kern approaches the man-made structures that make up the cityscape the way a landscape photographer would approach a national park. He maintains a blog with fellow photographer Mike Boehmer for people to view one or more of these photographs every day. Their website, the Windy Pixel, receives up to 40,000 views per month.
But Kern says the numbers don’t matter. Even if no one looked, he would still be compelled to take pictures. Photography, according to Kern, is like fly fishing. Fly fishing is partly about catching the fish and photography is partly about taking a good picture, but mostly, they’re about solitude and space. Dawn shoots grant him that sense of isolation. At this hour, even the tourist trap of Buckingham Fountain is silent and deserted. A lone jogger passes on the far side of the courtyard. “I could go to the same place every day and at least amuse myself,” he says. Initially, many of the site’s contributors were concerned that they would run out of ideas and wouldn’t be able to keep posting every day, but Kern says now, “there’s a photographer on every corner.”
Kern’s interest in photography began at a young age. In the blog’s “About” section Kern writes that in photographs from family vacations, “I appear to have a camera surgically fixed to my shoulder.” He began photographing more seriously in high school and bought his first camera using his earnings from his job at the circulation desk at Harper Library while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. The site itself began with a visit to the Grand Tetons, whose grandeur impressed and inspired Kern. “The American landscape is part Chicago and part Grand Tetons,” he explains, though he admits that he mostly takes pictures of the lakeshore, not the nitty-gritty of Chicago’s streets. He adds that in his photographs he tries to juxtapose man-made elements with natural ones “in an aesthetic way.” His heroes, Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, are both landscape photographers. He points out that Ansel Adams traveled the roads of the United States, capturing the country’s natural beauty from the roads that caged it.
Present-day photography is fundamentally different from that practiced by Adams or Rowell. With the advent of digital technology, Kern says we have entered a “Golden Age of photography,” in which everyone has a camera. The Internet has made it more difficult than ever to be a professional photographer. On the other hand, it makes for the kind of free exchange of photos and ideas that sustains the Windy Pixel.
Kern says that the blog presents him with the “challenge of producing a blockbuster image” every day. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s inherently fun and forces him to take more photographs. The Windy Pixel showcases the breathtaking beauty of the city and highlights how we feel when we look at skyscrapers. Our city, our built environment, is part of the American landscape, and the Windy Pixel’s landscape photography shows it that way.