Blog

The official photo blog of J. David Buerk Photography.

Christmastime in Chicago - The Complete Jaunt

By now you probably read about my small (read: big) obsession with Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and how ORD decorates it for Christmas, just like in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Terminal 3 is seen in the original Home Alone, but without holiday decorations).  I shared a glimpse of my early-December trip to Chicago before Christmas, highlighting these decorations at O’Hare.  Today you get to see my entire journey to Chicago in December, not just the Christmas portions.

This was actually my second time to Chicago for a photography assignment at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in two months - my personal photos from my ATL-ORD-SFO trip in October are in progress; work assignment photos always come first.  You’ll see the photos from that trip at some point this Spring, so you’re seeing these trips out of order.  In October, due to the logistics of my photo assignments, I only had an evening free in Chicago before flying to San Francisco for the next photoshoot, and I was lucky to even get that.  This time, in December, ORD was my only airport to cover, so I was able to schedule an extra day in case of weather or scheduling issues, allowing me to explore a city I’d never truly seen before.

Day 1: Arrival

All journeys have to start somewhere, and Dulles’ slogan is Your Journey Begins With Us - Steve and his team always deck out IAD with new additions every year.  There was new colorful LED uplighting inside Eero Saarinen’s Main Terminal Building this year, but I never got to see it in person this year, departing in daylight.  Here is Dulles’ Main Terminal AeroTrain station all set for Christmas! 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 1.jpg

I think everyone does this, but it’s always fun to spot places you know or frequent from the air.  Living so close to Dulles, on this pattern I always see a shopping center I visit, but got to see my old high school from the air lit up for football thanks to a banking turn.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 2.jpg

I always prefer a window seat anyway, but by far Chicago is one of the prettiest cities to see from the air at night.  If you ever visit this city, you must get a window seat and arrive at night.  Chicago is the only city I’ve truly been excited to specifically see from the air.  This, my second time taking in Chicago’s sprawl, I was joined by a British Airways flight abeam my plane also on final.  For about 5 minutes until we landed simultaneously I spotted the BA flight appearing and dissapearing in and out through the low cloud-cover above the peach glow of the sea of sodium lights below.

 The Grid; a digital frontier.  Maybe one day I’ll photograph the moonrise along the Chicago skyline in tribute to the masterful work of Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 3.jpg

My flight on United arrived in Terminal 1, and since it was nighttime upon landing and my photoshoot the next day was in the morning, I took an extra hour to walk all the way over to Terminal 3, stand in awe of the beautiful light display, take pictures of it, and walk all the way back to Terminal 1 to exit and claim my bag - this way I was sure to get photos of the decorations during night and daylight. Totally worth it, and a huge airport bucket-list item checked off.  These lights are seen adorning walkways between Terminal 1 and 2. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 4.jpg

Made famous in Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Terminal 3 is where the McCallisters perform the McCallister family travel tradition of springing to their gate. The McCallisters fly out of the K Gates in Home Alone, and the H Gates in Home Alone 2, while Kevin gets separated at the Y-split, boarding his flight to New York out of the K Gates. A fun factoid if you watch the movies closely is the Terminal 3 Christmas decorations only appear in Home Alone 2. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 5.jpg

My travel days mostly only consist of traveling and getting settled in upon arrival.  Before heading to the hotel to settle in, I got to say hello to the O’Hare dinosaur, watching over the silent Terminal on my way back to baggage claim to head to the hotel.  I chose a different hotel this time because I had nothing but logistic problems with the hotel I stayed at in October.  Not only did I get a deal on the room, but this one was much closer, and on the off-chance their airport shuttle didn’t run like the shuttle at my previous hotel, this one has rail service and is only one stop from the airport.  This hotel was much more convenient and gave me reliable and quick transportation.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 6.jpg

Day 2: Photoshoot

During my photoshoot the next day, I got to see Terminal 3’s decorations in daylight; I’d expected and looked forward to this, becuase Christmas lights turn me into a wide-eyed little kid.  It’s beautiful at night and during the day for different and unique reasons.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 7.jpg

Day 3: Downtown Chicago

The day after my photoshoot was free for flexibility or inclement weather, so I decided to go downtown and explore some of the places I didn’t get to in October.  This time I had a few destinations in mind, but was content to explore without a rush.  In contrast to having only a handful of hours beginning at sunset in October, I had an entire day, which let me explore in daylight.  The sun did nothing, however to counteract the single-digit temperatures I was braving this time around.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 8.jpg

A few blocks from the subway, my first planned desination was the Christkindlmarket Chicago; a German Christmas market serving German food and selling German Christmas wares.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 9.jpg

After eating some bratwurst, a stuffed pretzel, and some hot chocolate with Krampus, I set off toward Navy Pier, and decided to stop by Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate along the way; I’d photographed Cloud Gate at night in October (one of only three stops I had planned and successfully squeezed in in October), but decided to see it in daylight as well since I wasn’t too far from it. 

My impression of Cloud Gate is that it is more beautiful on a clear day like this one, but the experience is more enjoyable at night due to much fewer people.  Millenium Park also had sections blocked off for Christmas light displays which hadn’t been present to obstruct some views whe I was here in October. 

The reflection of the skyline is mesmorizing.  Going underneath “the bean” absorbs all the city din, only reflecting echos of gabbing passersby. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 10.jpg

Obligatory selfie reflection on “the bean.”

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 11.jpg

I noticed the fancy scroll architecture in October, but didn’t wander over to see what it was; I imagine seeing a concert here is like across between Wolf Trap and Merriweather Post Pavillion.

Also of interest was stumbling onto the NBC building in Chicago; I didn’t know they had one, but it’s interesting to me since I’ve been inside 30 Rock and toured sets of some of their shows including The Doctors, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live. 

If the Maggie Daley Ice Skating Ribbon had been open while I was there, I’d have actually considered trying a few laps on it.  (Ice is how I dislocated my knee and tore my MPFL requiring reconstruction in 2017, so this is quite the statement).  I’ve only been ice skating twice in my life, and I’ve alwyas wanted to try it again.  Doing so alone in a city you don’t reside or even know anyone in would have been pretty risky, so in reality I probably wouldn’t have done it.  But maybe I would have.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 12.jpg

I’d been reccomended visiting Navy Pier; a contact from my photoshoot the day before, a life-long Chicagoan, told me there was lots to do at Navy Pier, likening it to Pier 39 in San Francisco (which a life-long San Francisoan from my photoshoot at SFO reccomended I visit).  I was also recomended a few specific hot dog joints, but none of them were convenient to visit along my path. 

Arriving at Navy Pier, it was completely deserted - it was single-digits out after all.  It looked like the building itself was locked up to me, so it wasn’t until I’d walked halfway down the pier that I saw a small group come out some doors, showing me there actually was an interior I could get to (and more importantly, warmth!).  I warmed up and continued to the end of the pier to see what was at the end; all I found was a kids’ Santa Claus event - Navy Pier had been made out to me to be a lot more with a lot more going on than it actually was; during the Summer I’m sure that’s the case, but not in early December.

I stepped outside at the end of the pier just in time for sunset. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 13.jpg

Now that I knew there was an interior to Navy Pier, I backtracked in warmth, and found out there was a small mall section I’d completely missed.  Staying warm a few minutes longer, I got my first bag of Garrett Mix.

Ready to brave the cold again, I head back West to Michigan Avenue.  Given that I was cold and doing a lot of walking, I’d sworn off shopping this trip, but The Magnificent Mile is still a Chicago staple, nothing is stopping me from window shopping, and it was a direct route to the pizza shop I had planned this time around.   That, and I wanted to see the Christmas lights along Michigan Avenue; this was the Christmas parade route, after all.

Since night fell, and the Christmas lights were on, I went into full Kevin McCallister mode and set out hunting Christmas trees.  In doing so I passed The Wrigley Building, a huge Apple Store, and Tribune Tower, which has a fascinating history.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 14.jpg
20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 15.jpg

Finally, toward the North end of Michigan Avenue (and after a short trip through Water Tower Place), I hit the motherlode. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 16.jpg

What I didn’t realize until I turned the corner is what building I was standing in the shadow of.  I’d photographed it twice now already; Chicago’s iconic 875 North Michigan Avenue, more ubiquitously known by its former name, The John Hancock Center. 

Visiting this tower wasn’t part of the loose plan I’d assembled, but that’s the point of having a loose plan - unplanned fun.  Two months prior I’d gone up the 110 story tall Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower; the first and primary stop I had planned in my October jaunt downtown), but I found the view from the 100 story tall John Hancock Center more impressive.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 17.jpg

And there is Navy Pier from 94 stories up; remember, I walked all the way from the end of that pier (and further to get there, actually; my only subway usage this jaunt was to get to downtown and to get back to my hotel in Rosemont). 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 18.jpg
20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 19.jpg

Far and away the dumbest thing I heard was while photographing the Eastern side; two girls, about my age, were also taking pictures on their phones, and upon rounding the corner to the East side one exclaimed, “Oh my God, something happened! Something’s wrong with the city!  This side of the city is has a complete blackout!”

You could hear she was scared; I didn’t say anything - I wanted to hear how deep this well of stupidity went.  The other girl was confused at first too, but took about 60 seconds to realize, and explain to the first girl that, “I think that’s the water.”

Without missing a beat, she replied, “but where are the lights?!” 

“I don’t think people live on the water.”

”But, shouldn’t there be boats?  What happened to the boats?  Look, everyone’s trying to get out of the city.” 

No folks; it’s Winter, and sunset was around 4.30 - it’s just rush hour on a Friday in Chicago. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 20.jpg

After that astonishing display of naivety, and walking the city all day with only light fare in my stomach, it was time to finish the last few blocks and hit my last planned stop: dinner at Lou Malnati’s.  I needed food, and I needed it quick, becuase my cue to leave John Hancock Center was a quickly forming migraine, and I didn’t have migraine meds with me downtown.  I was hoping food would stave it off, since I’m sure it was caused by dehydration and poor diet.

The pizza was fantastic, by the way. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 21.jpg

And to finish my day off, the food did nothing to slow the migraine, and after 45min waiting to get into Lou’s, an hour and a half eating, 15min waiting for the train, and an hour ride back to Rosemont, my migraine was way beyond any intervention.  It was the first migraine I’d had in over 2 months, and the worst migraine I had all year.

Day 4: Departure

I only managed about 2 hours of sleep; after at least 8 hours of excruciating pain in my pitch black hotel room, I managed to fall asleep, and woke up with the post-migraine haze I experience when the pain has passed, but I still have cognitive fog while the tail end of the migraine clears up. 

The killer headache the night before meant I hadn’t packed, so after a shower I rushed to fit what is usually a 1hr organized exercise into a 20min disorganized frenzy to pack and catch the hotel airport shuttle... hopefully.   Luckily I was right on time to catch it.  And although I was arriving to the airport a full hour later than I normally would prefer, I still had a half hour to safely get something to eat near my gate.  Among other things, I finally got my Chicago-style hot dog since I never got one the day before.

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 22.jpg

The snow-dusted Shenandoah mountains was a fitting sight to end my trip; I’d spotted snow flying over the Sierra Nevada mountain range on my return trip from San Francisco two months prior. 

20181205 - 20181208 - Christmastime in Chicago 23.jpg

Total Lunar Eclipse Supermoon - January 20th, 2019

Did you see tonight’s supermoon total lunar eclipse?  I braved the 4ºF wind chill and got you a few photos, and was reminded of the last eclipse I watched: the total solar eclipse, from Niota, Tennessee two years ago. Unfortunately I had some clouds start moving overhead during totality, and I couldn’t feel my fingers anyway, so I was happy to call it a night and warm back up.

If you’re interested in prints or wall art of my astrophotography, you can order by clicking here.

For You: Winter of 2018
For You: Winter of 2018

The New York City Empty Sky Memorial

All photos from this post, and more, can be viewed fullscreen here.

View photos of my 2015 visit to The National September 11th Memorial & Museum here.

September, 2000

In September, 2000 my family had gone on a trip making its way North along the Eastern seaboard.  One of the stops was in Liberty, New Jersey to see The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island - we never went into Manhattan proper much to my disappointment.

This was WAY before I knew anything about photography - I just liked taking pictures on my little Kodak Advantix.

This is a picture I shot at age 12 in the year 2000 from the Northern side of Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey - now the current site of the Empty Sky Memorial.  I remember my parents bickering over whether "those two tall buildings are the Twin Towers or the World Trade Center."  I said I thought they were both; the same thing.  Fast forward a year, and everyone in the World knew the answer without a doubt.

It's incredible to me that I even have this picture, that I shot it myself.  I was 12.  The majority of my life has been post-9/11, working at IAD and DCA.  My entire aviation related career arc has directly resulted from that day in 2001.  This photo is a relic of a time before that; before the TSA and DHS existed, before all the post-9/11 security and societal changes that resulted.

Here is that photo I unwittingly took at age 12.

20180811 Empty Sky NYC 1.jpg

September, 2018

This August I travelled to Rhode Island to visit my friend Alyssa on her birthday, however due to a need for flexible scheduling, I made the journey by car rather than flying this time. It occurred to me by doing this I could make a quick stop at Liberty State Park in Liberty, New Jersey and see the Empty Sky memorial, which I’d only learned of its existence about a year prior thanks to my friend Natalie (who happens to live just 5mi away in Weehawken - I got to visit her on my stop as well :-D). I knew it was the same spot I’d taken that photo as a 12 year old, but it wasn’t until the night before leaving I realized I could try and replicate that photo and compare the New York City skyline across 18 years of history. Before going to bed, I printed a scale copy of my 18 year old photo of the New York skyline (the original print would stay safely at home).

Remarkably, the weather was visually similar to that day in 2000. Textured overcast, but no fog obscuring skyscrapers’ upper floors. Inspecting the original picture, I counted 12 light poles visible, which would give me a good starting point to get me close to the same spot for that matching perspective. To my surprise, the park benches and even the trash cans hadn’t changed in all this time. In order to fit all 12 light posts in-frame, I walked back parallel to 13th light post from the end, and incredibly the perspective aligned almost perfectly - even the park benches lined up, though some trash cans moved, as you’d expect they would over the course of 18 years.

20180811 Empty Sky NYC 2.jpg

I’d come here with a purpose, and to my surprise it took me longer to walk to this spot from my car than it did to fight the wind in correctly lining up my photograph in the shot. Next, I wanted to capture a modern view of the same angle. Taking these photos even required me a lower my camera a little bit to account for my shorter 12 year old stature.

20180811 Empty Sky NYC 3.jpg

And here are the photos, 2000 and 2018, side-by-side. History in both pictures; the Twin Towers visible in 2000, and One World Trade Center erected adjacent to the empty sky where they once stood. Many other buildings have also sprung up across the skyline, and the freshly planted trees in my original picture are all grown up today.

Continue reading for more views of the New York City skyline later in this post.

Empty Sky

Next stop was the Empty Sky memorial, just steps away, visible in the righthand side of the photos above. Empty Sky was dedicated on September 10, 2011, the day before 9/11’s 10th anniversary. Designed by Jessica Jamroz and Frederic Schwartz, Empty Sky is comprised of twin 30ft tall walls spanning 208ft 10in engraved with the names of all 746 victims of the September 11th attacks; on one side, I beams from the Twin Towers stand solemnly - on the other, directly across the Hudson, lies Ground Zero, and the empty sky in the New York skyline where the Twin Towers had stood. The memorial is impressive at all times of day.

20180811 Empty Sky NYC 4.jpg
20180811 Empty Sky NYC 5.jpg
20180811 Empty Sky NYC 6.jpg

New York City

New York’s sky today is still beautiful, just different. New buildings have sprung up, and One World Trade Center now watches over the city, with the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and 432 Park Avenue all overlooking the city uptown. The last five times I’ve been to this city, I’ve been in the city, so this was also happened to be my first opportunity to photograph New York’s cityscape since I was here at age 12.

20180811 Empty Sky NYC 7.jpg
20180811 Empty Sky NYC 8.jpg
20180811 Empty Sky NYC 9.jpg
20180811 Empty Sky NYC 10.jpg

Royal Air Maroc at Washington Dulles International Airport

This past Thursday, September 8th, 2016, Royal Air Maroc, the flag carrier for the Kingdom of Morocco, began non-stop service between Washington, DC, USA and Casablanca, Morocco. Royal Air Maroc's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner will make the 7hr journey between Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) Mohammed V International Airport (CMN) three days each week.

Events at Dulles began with a reception for passengers at the gate waiting to depart, and the main festivities began when the inaugural flight landed at 9.55PM on R/W 19L.  The aircraft was greeted at the gate with a ceremonial water arch.

Moroccan Ambassador to the United States Rachad Bouhlal was made inaugural statements marking the occasion before a ribbon cutting ceremony prior to boarding of the first departing flight.

The new 787-8 Dreamliner flown on this route features 18 Business Class seats and 256 Economy Class seats, with an updated layout that allows for more legroom and space for passengers throughout the cabin.

Departing passengers were presented with gift bags containing a commemorative challenge pin, certificate of inaugural flight, Royal Air Maroc USB drive, and a pair of Moroccan tea candles.  The 787-8 Dreamliner lifted off for Casablanca twenty minutes before midnight.

Press

My photos from this event have been featured on the front page of AirlineGeeks.com and have been distributed via PRNewsWire, a New York based newswire agency.

Behind the Scenes

I was fortunate enough to speak a bit with the departing Captain, who showed me around the Dreamliner's cockpit for a few moments during his pre-flight.  What a cool guy!

For the photo and avgeeks out there reading this, airfields are extremely dark at night; this is especially true for Dulles since the runways are so far away from the ramp's sodium lights.  All landing photos on the runway were at ISO 25,600, f/2.8, 1/125th in order to have just enough shutter speed to stop motion, but still have enough light to make the capture, and I still had to boost exposure by +⅔EV in post.  The 1D X handles these kinds of conditions very well; extraordinarily well for press usage as is the purpose here.

Photos on the ramp were at ISO 12,800, f/2.8, 1/250th, mainly because I am photographing while walking during water arches; the ramps are lit by orange sodium lights which can be counteracted with manual White Balance set to 2,100K; this setting shifts their amber light white, but will shift the 4,300K incandescent bulbs illuminating the Main Terminal a deep cyan.  You can see this same effect in my inaugural photos for Brussels Airlines, and a few of my weddings and portrait sessions where I purposely use this mixed-color-temperature situation for dramatic effect.

Departure photos were at a more sensible ISO 6,400, f/2.8, 1/60th.  In general I won't drop my shutter speeds below 1/125th unless dark lighting conditions or creative need arises, and I usually prefer to stay at 1/250th and above if I can help it without going crazy with the ISOs.  That said, I'm not afraid of pushing into high-ISO because I know the 1D X handles them very well (although this post isn't the best example of it).

Senior Savannah - Portraits in Virginia Horse Country

For the longest time horses have fascinated me, but I've never had the chance to go riding (yet).  So, each time I am near horses I am some combination of awestruck by their majestic nature and jealous of the people who get to ride them frequently.

Savannah takes that a step further, since she not only rides horses, but has several years of training under her belt so she may compete in equestrian show jumping and dressage events.  As we waited for a missing part of her riding uniform, Savannah showed me how she grooms and prepares her horse before a ride, and told me about what the high school is like these days - Savannah will be a Senior at my (high school) alma mater beginning this September, and is a member of the Class of 2017.

We didn't photograph any jumps because it was becoming too dark to safely perform any.