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Capturing Chicago And Community Building Through Instagram

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 20, 2015 8:00PM

Credit: Kyle Buckland

This weekend, photographers of all experience levels will congregate around the globe to participate in Instagram’s Worldwide InstaMeet. On March 21 and 22, Instagram users will connect to take photos together for the 11th worldwide edition of the event under the #WWIM11 tag. Yet less formal InstaMeets are happening all the time; Instagram estimates over 1,000 in more than 70 countries over the past year. For Chicago photographers, InstaMeets are an opportunity to connect with the community, sharpen their skills, and showcase exciting perspectives of the city they have an eye for.

Last month, I found myself at an InstaMeet scaling a frozen planter on Michigan Avenue in ten degree weather. Balancing my backpack and bulky SLR camera, my fingers had lost too much feeling to nimbly catch the shot. Yet I was far from the only one investigating the icy outline of the river walk. Dozens of strangers toting tripods milled around the Michigan Avenue traffic divider and leaned over the frozen river. Shifting from one foot to the other, they warmed their hands as they extended introductions.

This arctic assembly of acquaintances had just come from an Apple Talk event led by the founders of Chitecture (@chitecture), an Instagram tag community featuring photography of Chicago architecture. It’s one of the countless communities that have sprung from the photo-sharing app and social network since its 2010 launch. Around 130 attendees gathered for a presentation by the account’s moderators on its progression as well as photography and post-processing tutorials.

Chitecture co-founder Tim Hara at February's InstaMeet. Credit: Jessica Mlinaric/Chicagoist

“Chicago’s architecture was really the huge inspiration and shooting Chicago in different conditions,” Chitecture co-founder Kyle Buckland (@kbucklandphoto) told Chicagoist. “Starting out the #chitecture tag was just a way for people to find all those photos and find all the other people who were interested in doing the same kind of things we were doing.”

A lot of people were interested in doing the same things. Currently, Chictecture’s Instagram feed has a following 21 thousand strong. “It’s pretty cool and still surprising to see how strong the community is in Chicago, that it’s based through the platform of Instagram, and how powerful that has become in bringing people together,” said Buckland.

Chitecture showcases two outstanding photos per day, ranging from helicopter views of the urban canopy, to alleyway puddle reflections, to the Rookery’s oriel staircase. Since 2012, a team of Chitecture moderators has rotated curating a photo they feel best captures Chicago on any given day. New users who are just starting out on Instagram are featured alongside established photographers with thousands invested in equipment.

Credit: Kyle Buckland

“We’re looking for the best shot that kind of captures the mood of what that day felt like,” said Buckland. “If there’s a really cool sunset and people are out shooting it we’re going to look for the best photo to highlight that. If there’s some sort of event going on we’re always keyed into finding someone who is capturing that in a really cool way.” Rather than simply a photo sharing app, he views Chitecture’s feed as a kind of historical account for documenting what is happening day-to-day in Chicago and the photography world.

Instagrammers Chicago (@igerschicago) is another local tag community with featured images chosen by a team of moderators. Fayth Koga (@relaxocat) founded the group as part of the global @igers community network in 2011 as a means for users to meet up and shoot together. The group has held monthly InstaMeets ever since.

The IGers Chicago moderator team aims to showcase a broad spectrum of photos to represent the community as a whole and offer inspiration to users. “We look for creative, original photos, taken and edited with care,” said Koga “Because the team itself is diverse in their interests and shooting styles, so are the photos we choose to feature.”

One of Koga’s most extraordinary experiences with the local Instagram community occurred when the NATO conference came to town in 2012. As she waited to greet InstaMeet attendees on Michigan Avenue, she complimented the zoom lens of a photographer on duty to capture NATO for Crain’s. Koga invited him to the IGers Chicago meetup and was astonished that the photographer recognized her. “Among the thousands of people on the street, randomly meeting a stranger who knew me from Instagram was definitely the most surprising experience. It was great too. He joined the small InstaMeet, and we got to hear his interesting interviews with some of the more lively people in attendance.”

Chicago’s photography savvy has a reach beyond Instagram. Last month, Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism site, named professional photographer and lauded Instagrammer Nick Ulivieri (@nick_ulivieri) the 2015 Artist of the Year. “It's truly an honor,” said Ulivieri. “I love this city, so being able to work with 'it' is pretty amazing.” Ulivieri’s official duties will include creating imagery that will help Choose Chicago promote the city as a world-class destination. He’s also looking forward to collaborating with Choose Chicago’s social media team to plan unique InstaMeets and photo related events.

While Ulivieri is a great admirer of Chicago’s built environment, the city’s notoriously varied weather inspires him most. “I really appreciate Mother Nature's architecture. I'm a self-proclaimed weather geek, so I try to take any chance I get to shoot the city under a really interesting sky like storm clouds, lightning, or fog,” he explained. “We get the best and worst of all four seasons so the same vantage point can look vastly different as the seasons change.”

Credit: Nick Ulivieri

Yet Instagrammers are no longer limited to photographs. In June 2013, the app expanded allowing users to post brief videos (between 3 and 15 seconds) to their feeds. A few months later, photographer Craig Shimala (@cshimala) began posting time-lapse video captures from around the city under the Time-lapse Chicago (@timelapsechicago) account.

Shimala dedicates anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours to film subjects ranging from cars on the Kennedy Expressway to passing clouds above the cityscape. “My subjects are a mix,” he said. “Some take inspiration from other photos I’ve seen on Instagram, while others are special events or happenings around town. Most are random that I just stumble upon while exploring the city.”

Credit: Craig Shimala

Chicago photographer Michael Salisbury (@msalisbu) also engages video and music to connect artists across the world through his Create & Explore (@createexplore) project. Salisbury teamed up with beat wizard Ta-ku to co-found Create & Explore, which pairs a photographer or filmmaker with a producer to develop a short video. “Something magical happens when audio meets visual, and we wanted to facilitate that creative process between people,” said Salisbury.

Salisbury collaborated with ESTA on Create & Explore’s first release, which featured the architectural grids and gleaming elevated tracks of Chicago. Outside of these releases, the account features photography from around the world and invites photographers of all followings to take over the account and curate its imagery.

With Create & Explore’s Instagram following topping 40 thousand in less than a year, Salisbury looks forward to finding new ways to bridge the digital to physical including possibly hosting an event in Chicago. “Mobile has become a huge tool not only to share and edit photos, but to interact with other like minded people as well,” said Salisbury. “Through Instagram, I've had countless experiences connecting with photographers in Chicago and other cities. It's really a cool way to easily meet people that share a common interest.”

Credit: Michael Salisbury

Community is at the core of the InstaMeet movement. “Any given user on Instagram through the communities that have been established on it can say, ‘Hey I’m going to go shoot the sunrise in -10 degrees. Who wants to come?’ And you’re going to get responses from dozens of people,” said Buckland. “It’s pretty crazy seeing how many people there are in the Instagram community in Chicago and how supportive they are of what everyone’s doing.”

Nick Ulivieri agrees, “At first it seemed like just another social media outlet to share my work, but it turned into much more. I've met a ton of really cool, creative people and collectively I think we've all raised the bar in terms of how the city of Chicago is portrayed through the photography medium.”

Back at February’s chilly InstaMeet, I found that many of Chicago’s most ardent Instagrammers are new to the city themselves. User Nick Crawford (@_ncrawford_) explained, “I moved here from California and now I’m at an event photographing a partially frozen river. I’ve only been shooting for six months yet I’ve become obsessive.” He laughed, “I’m always looking for inspiration wondering ‘where’s the shot?’”

Czech transplant Radim Svoboda (@czechinchicago) has found photo meetups to be a great way to explore a new city. “I’ve discovered things through the community that I wouldn’t have learned on my own. What better way to learn about locations and lighting at different times of the day than from people who know the city?”

This weekend’s Worldwide InstaMeet offers an abundance of unique opportunities for new and seasoned photography enthusiasts to capture their surroundings. See below for information on local Instameet events, or simply follow Kyle Buckland’s advice: “It’s a really picturesque city and if you stick your phone or your camera up in the air you’re going to have a pretty good shot of something that’s worthwhile.” We’re waiting to see Chicago through your lens.

Chitecture Sunrise InstaMeet - March 21 from 6 - 9 a.m.
THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT - For the first time ever, the observation deck of the Hancock Center (875 N. Michigan Ave.) will be open to the public during sunrise. The sun will rise at 6:53 a.m so you are encouraged to come early with your camera equipment and tripods to catch some early morning light from 360 CHICAGO and TILT.

Igerschicago & Threadless InstaMeet - March 21 at 2 p.m.
Meet at Threadless (1260 W. Madison St.) for surprises including a giant photobooth, a photo challenge, and a photowalk. The walk will explore the West Loop, head onto CTA toward downtown, and gather again to photowalk Millennium and Maggie Daley parks.

#Loganmeetupeatup - March 22 at 11 a.m.
This photogenic food crawl will start in Bang Bang Pie’s garden (2051 N. California Ave.) with a few stops including Gaslight Coffee Roasters, Owen + Alchemy, and end at Emporium by 1pm. Meandering through Logan Square is included.