The beauty and purpose behind those pointless, boring photos of Lake Michigan you keep taking

·7 min read

The other day, I was down by Lake Michigan early in the morning, sitting by the water and reading a book, when I noticed a woman take a photograph of the lake. She held her phone sideways and turned herself toward the horizon and snapped. As far as I could tell, considering where she stood, there would be nothing in that image but a lot of water and sky. No beach, boats, birds, people, planes, a water crib or even the Chicago skyline.

I have watched people do this my whole life. As a child in New England, the body of water was the Atlantic. As a Chicago resident in middle age, it’s Lake Michigan.

Somewhere there is proof on faded ‘70s Polaroids that I did this myself once or twice. I took a picture of water, sky, horizon and nothing else, not even sunset or sunrise. But even then I thought what I thought as I watched that woman photograph Lake Michigan:

Why?

Go down to the lake right now and you’ll see this phenomenon: Someone is there pointing their camera at nothing, at a wild expanse of lake that stretches into even more lake. I’m guessing they are struck by the beauty and immensity of the nature before them and assume the picture they are capturing will reflect the wonder they are feeling. I also guess they will eventually realize that their awe didn’t translate to the photograph. I assume they will never look at that empty blue-on-blue-on-gray-on-blue image again.

So on a whim, I asked that woman why — why was she taking a photo of Lake Michigan itself. And it was as if she had been waiting for someone to ask. Her name was Maureen McLaughlin, an acupuncturist from Evanston, and she told me: “Throughout the pandemic, I got into a routine where I would walk down to the lake. And now I do it five days a week. I take pictures of the lake because the pictures are often serene. So this has become my serenity, to stand here like this and just look and take a photo. The lake doesn’t judge. The lake is unconditional. And also, it is never the same lake twice.”

Her eyes went misty. It was the morning after the Highland Park shooting.

“These days, serenity seems important. But the lake is there to absorb the moment, the shooting, the country — just everything. I’m reminded there is still peace in this world.”

For whatever reason, I had never connected people taking photos of the lake to long traditions of wellness and urban health. Victorian physicians would prescribe “sea air” as just the thing for city dwellers nursing a host of ailments. Kind of like how, whenever I had a boo-boo as a kid, my family would tell me to hold it in the ocean. The salt was magical. Or at least a placebo. For the past few years, BlueHealth, a research project funded by the European Commission, has studied the benefits of blue space on public health — taking a cue from the countless studies that have cataloged the benefits of green space. They gathered information from more than 18,000 people in 18 countries and found that even the most modest body of water (a public fountain, a small creek) had positive effects on our well-being. Similarly, a decade ago, the European Centre for Environment & Human Health asked thousands of research participants to randomly record both their immediate environments and how they were feeling. The study eventually correlated stress levels with the amount of water found in images on 20,000 smartphones. It’s hardly news if you’ve ever had a day at the beach, but coastal spots were the happiest.

Beyond that therapeutic self-help, though, you could also link Chicago’s Lake Michigan photographers to the important, even longer tradition of “pictures of nothing” — as a critic once called the impressionistic oceans of English painter J.M.W. Turner, whose indistinct colors blurring into smoky skies revolutionized the idea of landscape as a kind of mutable abstraction. Of course, the allure of nothing much at all has a rich history — think of the prosaic images of Ed Ruscha’s self-descriptive “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963) and its riveting sequel, “Thirtyfour Parking Lots” (1967). Still, in those photos, there is something. Even in Turner’s work, there is often a hint of landscape.

Comparably, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Lake Michigan, Gills Rock” (1995) — part of his ongoing, 40-plus year “Seascapes” series — really does show nothing. Just sky, water, a bisecting horizon. It’s Rothko-like in its elemental simplicity.

And again, not exactly nothing.

Which brings us to Lincoln Schatz, a lifelong Chicagoan whose own Lake Michigan project should enshrine him as the patron saint of anyone taking a seemingly pointless lake photo. In 2015, on a whim, he went down to the lake and decided that every day for a month, he would take a photo of the lake, the sky and nothing else. In fact, if anything extraneous — even a bird — inserted itself, he would edit it from the completed image. One month became two months. Two months became six months. Seven years later, it’s now a daily ritual, resulting in at least 28,000 images of Lake Michigan — at a glance, every one a variation of the same image of lake, horizon, sky and nothing more.

His subject, he told me, is the passage of time and the way we understand our time. The tonal range of the colors in his images can look so narrow, you struggle to see where sky and water connect. But there are “always three basic elements in these pictures: Sky and water and time. Out of those comes everything you see when you look out. So the more I shot it, the more the lake beguiled me. I think of it now as a form of wilderness, one not controlled by humankind. You could argue with locks and other things, it is. But essentially this is Chicago’s mountain range. You stand there before it and you are presented with a raging bit of nature that reifies your inconsequentialness.”

Days blur into days, the landscape looks the way it looked yesterday.

Yet no two days are alike.

As Virginia Woolf wrote, “Each wave of the sea has a different light, just as the beauty of who we love.” That could be the motto of the small community of like-minded artists that Schatz has met while photographing the lake every day. Such as David Travis, who established the department of photography at the Art Institute (then ran it for 36 years); he’s a lake photographer, too. And Louise LeBourgeois, a North Side artist who for decades has painted landscapes of Lake Michigan water and sky, sometimes with waves, sometimes perfectly calm, sometimes with clouds releasing curtains of rain.

If you live in Chicago, what all these people share with everyone else who lives here is this constant picture — a vast rectangular horizon and beneath it, a blue carpet of water.

Naturally, we take it for granted.

Schatz said he’s always surprised at how many people buy his work who already live in a house or apartment where they can see the lake by just looking out of their windows. But then many of us keep photos of the people in our lives we see all day, every day. Maybe taking a picture of that big body of water just east of Chicago and then keeping it is a bit like that?

I asked Maureen McLaughlin of Evanston to look at the image that she had just taken. She turned her phone and showed me something I hadn’t expected, a lake and sky I hadn’t expected. The water was placid, the clouds dark but between the darkest escaped rays of light. She and I were looking at the same thing, but I hadn’t seen that.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com