Chicago Illinois, alley capital of the USA, It’s my favorite city in the world to photograph alleys. Whenever I’m in Chicago, I always bring my gear, a Sony A7r3 camera + 3 legged thing tripod and at least 2 lenses with me. One wide angle for mainly alleys and a zoom lens for some street stuff. Chicago is an urban heaven for photographers. Great architecture, best skyline in the world and not to forget the Chicago Loop.
As soon as I leave the hotel and start exploring the city, I get a big smile on my face. I don’t have to do anything for it, it’s just there. The smaller the streets, the bigger the smile. Old buildings, lot’s of bricks and of course not to forget, the metal fire stairs hanging against the walls in the Chicago alleys.
Sometimes I have a plan were to go and what to shoot in the city but sometimes I just follow my feet and see were it goes. From that moment I fully trust my senses. The advantages about not having a plan is that you are very flexible and you can adapt to the circumstances like, weather, light and other situations which occur spontaneously.
Normally it won’t take long before I find my self in an alley. At this moment, while I’m writing this, I ask myself why I’m always attracted to them? I guess there are a few things which make me wanna go there. First of all, we don’t have them were I come from (The Netherlands). Sure, we have some small backstreets but it doesn’t come close to what you find here in Chicago (and other big cities in the USA). 2nd…well it’s random order but you always find lines everywhere which are great to get some perspective in your shots. Another thing which I really like about exploring alleys is the quietness, especially late at night or early in the morning. No rush, no hectic. It’s like stepping into another world. The only people you’ll find here are delivery employees, homeless people, people who work in the stores / shop / restaurants with a backdoor and early in the morning the people who keep the city clean and tidy and me of course with my camera. The metal fire stairs on the walls give the alleys another dimension and look great on the image together with the brick walls and garbage / waste containers. One more reason for me to enter the “other” world is the tension, especially in the dark hours.
At daytime, the tension isn’t there but early in the morning, when I’m awake because of the jet lag, I start exploring the city and it’s alleys around 3 or 4 AM. Well yes, there’s a lot of tension entering dark alleys in Chicago (and other big cities in the USA) at this time but it doesn’t stop me to do my thing. Many times after entering an alley, I see rats running away, trying to hide for me. Oh yes, my heart rate goes up when I see them and also when I see people sheltering in dark corners of the alley…. but until now nothing has happened to me. I just love the atmosphere inside the alleys at night. Just a small light, a waste container or even better: some smoke coming out of the ground or pipes from the wall. It’s like a movie set and I’m in it! Catching this atmosphere in one frame is my goal as a photographer and it is so nice to show it to other people. The first reaction is always: “Wow! I never saw this when I was passing an alley”, followed by : “Is this safe to do?” Well I don’t know if I can conclude that dark alleys at night are safe (night or day) or that I am just lucky all the time.
So next time when you’re walking in downtown Chicago, “try an alley” and you won’t be disappointed!