Barry Butler never would have predicted that a broken collarbone 25 years ago would launch him into a second career. We chatted with him recently about his work as one of Chicago’s favorite photographers and the special place he has in his heart for the Hancock. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started in photography?
I broke my collarbone playing hockey about 25 years ago. With one arm in a sling, there wasn’t much I could do, so I decided to teach myself photography. If I’d had the choice, I would have started by shooting concerts and sporting events because those were my passions, but with only one arm to work with I had to use a tripod and a camera, which led me to landscape photography.
Landscape photography and Chicago seem like a unique combination.
It is! Unlike a traditional landscape, Chicago is ever-changing. When I was trying to teach myself landscape photography, I used Chicago as my lab, going all over the city, setting up shots and learning how to photograph. I shot around Chicago as practice for my trips to Ireland, all over America and around the world. I still like to travel and photograph those landscapes, but my Chicago friends really loved my photos of the city. Eventually, one of my friends convinced me to start posting them on social media, and that’s when things really took off.
You now have more than 250,000 combined followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and Chicagoans have come to rely on you for your daily sunrise and sunset photos. Tell us a bit about how you create them.
Everything in Chicago is weather-dependent, so I plan my shots 24 hours in advance by checking the weather. In the morning, I try to get up about 90 minutes before sunrise – often before 4 am – and then I head out with my dogs to get my morning shot. I’ve already decided where I’m going and what I’m shooting. It’s all about chasing the light, and I’m constantly framing photos in my head. I learned to shoot with film, so I don’t do a lot of editing. I process my images similar to how you used to get your color prints in the day from places like Fotomat. Once I’ve got my shot, it’s up on social media within 30 minutes. I go through the same process at night for my sunset shot. It can make for some long days, especially during the summer, when we have early sunrises and late sunsets.
What’s your favorite time of year to photograph Chicago?
Winter is great because horrible weather is dramatic. My favorite days ever were during the polar vortex in late January 2019. The wind chill was minus 50 degrees for two consecutive days and I was in heaven. I got some great pictures and some really great ones of the Hancock. Fall offers the changing of the leaves, and the beginning spring can be nice, but during the summer there’s just not a lot to work with. It’s a beautiful time of year, but it’s just more challenging to photograph.
Those of us who live at 175 East Delaware Place have noticed that you feature a lot of photographs of our building.
I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos of the Hancock! It’s my favorite building to photograph. If there’s an opportunity to get the Hancock in a photo, I’m there. I’ve got an emotional connection with the building that goes way back. When I was in my teens, I started working for (radio affiliate) Shadow Traffic, which was where the Observatory is now. I also used to fly in the helicopters, and back then the skyline was relatively simple. It was pretty much the Hancock, the Sears Tower and the Aon Building. I was there for about 20 years and I developed a real good idea of the city and its skyline.
But beyond my affinity with the building from my days working there, the Hancock is just such a great building. I love the look of it. It goes wide and it goes in and it has all those diagonals. The sun reflects nicely off of it. And, of course, I’ve positioned the moon between and on top of the antennas. That’s always fun.
Do you have a favorite photo of the Hancock?
One of my favorites is a shot I took recently of the Hancock framed inside a tree. I was out walking with the dogs one day and I saw the shot. I’d been shooting in that area for years, but I’d never seen that composition. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it! I vowed that when the spring buds came out, I’d be there. I waited two months for those buds, but it was worth it.
You won’t be surprised to learn that many of our residents also love photographing the Hancock. Do you have any tips for us about how to get that special shot?
Take photos you love. If I were a photography traditionalist, I would find fault with some of my photos, but I don’t care about the faults. If I love the photo, then to me, it’s a good photo. Also, don’t worry about the gear. Probably one of the most important cameras you have is with you pretty much all the time – and that’s your phone. It works great. As Ansel Adams said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”
You’ve been at this now for well over 20 years while also working full time. Does it ever get old?
Absolutely not! The days can be really long, but when you’re doing the stuff you love, the long hours don’t matter. It was never a plan, but lo and behold a career emerged for me out of shooting photos of Chicago. In fact, every so often I pinch myself saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” The skyline of Chicago changes every year, unlike the landscapes of Ireland, so there is a fresh look developing often and new compositions.
Question: Do you have a photo of the Hancock that you would like to share? If so, please email it to email@example.com and we will consider featuring it in a future story.