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Meet The Man Who Braved Chicago’s Polar Vortex To Share Photos Of Its Brutal Beauty

“Bad weather is great for photography,” photographer Barry Butler said.

Navy Pier amid the polar vortex, taken from a helicopter.
Courtesy of Barry Butler
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RIVER WEST — Few people ventured outdoors as the polar vortex rattled through the Midwest late last month, but critically acclaimed landscape photographer Barry Butler reveled in the extreme weather.

While most Chicagoans hibernated as temperatures plunged to 23 below, Butler grabbed his Nikon camera, dressed in multiple layers and boots meant to withstand minus 100 degrees and headed toward the lakefront.

“Bad weather is great for photography,” said Butler, a River West resident. “It’s like Christmas for me when something like the polar vortex comes through. … That’s one big difference between shooting during winter versus the fall or spring: The landscape changes hourly. You have the blowing, drifting snow. All of a sudden things start icing up. … I could be out all day during a polar vortex because it will constantly change throughout the day. It makes it more challenging.”

Photography and weather go hand-in-hand for Butler, who meticulously digs into weather and climate data so he can gauge how the morning or evening sky will appear and predict the ever-changing temperatures and winds along the Chicago lakefront.

“My first stop was Montrose on day one of the polar vortex, and it was the right spot because you had that steam coming off of the water, and it just looked like a scene from ‘Game of Thrones’ or something like that. It was pretty amazing,” Butler said.

Butler, who began posting a daily Chicago shot on his social media six years ago, is no stranger to extreme weather. He’s taken photos in Iceland and parts of the Arctic in northern Alaska, where he captured the northern lights, and experienced temperatures of minus 30 without the wind chill — which the city came close to last month.

“Fortunately the buildings that are along the lakeshore create a little bit of a barrier at times,” Butler said. “Not at all the spots, but sometimes you can position yourself to avoid an onslaught of the wind, because that day the wind was around negative 50.”

Butler loves winter and one day wants to travel to Antarctica to document its icy glory. Butler has also photographed landscapes in China, Tibet, Africa, the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and Ireland — where he was born. A trip to Patagonia in April awaits him but Antarctica is his biggest goal.

Butler taught himself photography about 20 years ago after he was sidelined from contact sports for eight months, a result of a hockey check which shattered his collar bone.

“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t drive for three months. I was bored and had one arm to work with and was thinking about all the things I could possibly do,” Butler said. “So I thought: ‘OK, photography.’ Because I could buy a tripod and put the camera on top. And the rest was history.”

It was only 10 years ago that Butler began taking his new craft more seriously. At that time, his Chicago photos were just practice for the nature landscapes that awaited him in Yosemite, the Grand Tetons and Ireland.

“I love Chicago, but I was more enamored of having wide landscapes: mountains and waterfalls — the beauty that most people appreciate about landscape,” he said. “Then I started putting my stuff up on social media just with friends and people loved them.

“I’ve noticed anything that I love I do a real good job of capturing the moment because I take a lot of care in it. I do love this city; I think it’s absolutely spectacular.”

Butler is still genuinely humbled people enjoy his photographs of Chicago but admits his 11-year-old labradoodle Ajax, who accompanies him on his daily outings, is usually the first to be recognized as somewhat of a newfound local celebrity.

“Ajax is out there all the time with me, although I didn’t have him out with me last week in the cold,” Butler said. “He’s a great companion and makes me laugh a little bit. When I’m sitting there waiting for stuff to happen, he’ll always find ways to crack me up.”

Butler’s favorite photo is one he shot of the skyline along the lakefront at Fullerton Avenue on a lovely fall day. He was waiting for the light to be just right, and when the ideal moment began to approach, a man walked into his shot.  

“He’s walking back and forth and I am saying every awful word in the world under my breath, cursing left and right. I was like, ‘Please leave. Please leave. You’re killing my shot.’ He was just walking back and forth and stretching. Then all of a sudden, he sits down. 

“I’m like, ‘Oh My God. That’s the shot.’ He literally sat down for about 10 or 15 seconds and then got up. So I have one shot of that guy sitting there. I have no idea who it is but that shot just screams of patience.”

Barry Butler was waiting for the perfect moment to snap this skyline photo, when a mystery man walked up.

“Whether it’s photography or a variety of things in my life, I always remember that shot because it reminds me when things are not working out, just take a little time, be patient, and it will eventually work itself out.”

While photography is obviously an art form, Butler said it doesn’t have to be overly complicated and you don’t need a fancy camera to capture a perfect moment.

“Shoot the stuff you love,” Butler said. “If you love what you’re taking a photo of, it will reflect in what you produce. The Chicago shots that I do … are something I get a kick out of and if someone else likes it, that’s wonderful. If not, I still like it.”

Butler graduated from Notre Dame College Prep in Niles and Columbia College Chicago. He’s been in the radio business since he was 18 and is currently vice president of sales for the Total Traffic and Weather Network.

He still finds the time to shoot every day, lead private photo tours and lessons on weekends, and, of course, cheer on his beloved Blackhawks.

 “I’m very fortunate I have two things that occupy a good part of my day that I really love. As the old saying goes, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,’ and I feel like that.”

You can join Butler’s nearly 50,000 Facebook followers here.

Check out more of Barry Butler’s polar vortex photos:

Barry Butler and Ajax.

Barry Butler’s Chicago and Ireland photographs are available for purchase. Find more information on his private lessons and upcoming events at BarryButlerPhotography.com.

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