Downers Grove photographer earns spot in Sierra Club calendar
Sprawling oak savannas, prairielands ticked with bursts of wildflower color and spring fens alive with new growth are the stuff of Mike MacDonald's photographic ambitions.
To capture such images, MacDonald doesn't spend time on planes winging his way to exotic locales. Instead, he focuses his efforts near his home in the Western suburbs.
For the past 25 years, the veteran Downers Grove nature photographer has traversed the landscape in and around Chicago to chronicle the natural beauty that he says too many natives and visitors overlook.
“In Chicago, our claim to fame is our biodiversity,” MacDonald says. “Within 50 miles of downtown Chicago, we have more native plant species than any national park.”
The beauty of the area's natural vistas long have held a fascination for MacDonald, who recently learned that one of his photos has been given the prestigious honor of gracing the 2019 Sierra Club calendar.
“That was one of the first pictures I ever took as a photographer,” he says, referring to a composition he titled “Passage into Autumn.”
The shot was taken in Spears Woods in Willow Springs and features the russets and golds of autumn reflected in wetlands framed by overhanging branches.
MacDonald says he is something of an accidental photographer.
“I just started taking pictures because my bicycle club asked me to. They asked me to take pictures of our big ride. When I was done with the ride, I was so pumped,” he says.
He discovered how photographs can tell stories when he gazed upon his fellow cyclists lounging during a break from the midsummer ride.
“They were lying on their backs in the shade. Bicycles were strewed all over. It looked like a war zone,” he says.
Then he began observing nature with a fresh eye.
“In every moment in nature, there's surprise. There's very little surprise in the man-made world. Everything in the man-made world has been calculated, predicted. Even when traffic lights change, they're all timed.
“When you go into nature, every moment offers an opportunity for wonder,” he says. “Chaos is what makes nature so beautiful, in a way. It's what makes it come together.”
MacDonald has been back to Spears Woods many times since that day. He's a frequent visitor at places such as Bluff Springs Fen in Elgin and Black Partridge Woods in Lemont. One of his favorite photo hunting grounds is Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion.
“It's the most biodiverse ecosystem in the state. It has many different habitats,” he says.
His photos take in all of nature, from the plants to the animals, to the horizon and the multihued skies.
“You never know what you're going to find. Nature is random. Things are happening all the time,” he says.
In 2015, MacDonald self-published a book titled “My Journey Into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland's Startling Natural Wonders” that features full-color photographs along with essays and poems, and with forewords by journalist Bill Kurtis and conservationist Stephen Packard.
MacDonald says he wants people to notice and appreciate the abundance of natural beauty surrounding Chicago. He says he hopes his photography brings people closer to it and sparks a curiosity that will inspire people to get off the couch and visit these places. Thirty-two locations are featured in the book.
“There's a connection with nature people miss out on. They are never going to go unless I help them,” he says. “As human beings, we ignore most things we look at. Our goal is to survive, so we focus on what it takes to survive.”
MacDonald says his photographic style is designed to draw the viewer into the scene.
“I came up with this approach. I push the lens very close to the flowers and I use a super-wide lens. Because you're using such a wide-angle lens, you're capturing all the scene around it. My style is a cross between landscape and close-up.”
MacDonald said he submitted several shots to the Sierra Club in the hopes one would be selected for the 2019 calendar. “Passage Into Autumn” will be the featured photograph for September.
“The hardest part is taking images that are powerful, that tell a simple story. Composition is the most important thing,” he said. “You have to be in touch with your emotions. You have to be in touch with everything around you. It's a very personal approach.”