Home Feature Articles Chicago: Season by season, a change in the weather

Chicago: Season by season, a change in the weather


Growing up in West Africa and then Yorkshire, I became fascinated by the weather. If you have ever seen the towering cumulus clouds off the coast in any tropical country, then you have a front-row theatre seat. They’ve always reminded me of freighters off the coast, waiting to come into port.

In Yorkshire, the clouds seen offshore in the North Sea from my Grammar School in the seaside town of Bridlington, always supplied plenty of dramatic range. I was fascinated by the “Shipping Forecast” and enjoyed mapping out all the weather details on a map of the shipping areas around the UK, transcribing the solemn tones of the radio announcer as if he were conducting a prayer reading. I grew up thinking that one day I might become a meteorologist, but a twist in the narrative took me into advertising and a career that spanned two continents and six cities.

Adopted home

Chicago has now been my home for 28 years, and you quickly learn to live with the weather, rather than against it. By the way… the “Windy City” epithet has nothing to do with the weather, but stems from politicians who earned a reputation for being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Chicago in some shape or form has been around since the 1780s, so only four years after the Declaration of Independence. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable was the first non-indigenous settler. He was a fur trader with a house at the mouth of the Chicago River. Trading has been a massive part of Chicago’s history, with an enormous rail system converging on the city. Chicago is described as “The city of broad shoulders” and “The Hog Butcher to The World”. It has been home to major retailers and mail delivery companies, food companies and breweries. It’s been the home to major Blues, R&B and Jazz artists, and on and on.

Flow change

And here’s another small fact: the Chicago River until 1900 flowed north into Lake Michigan. But to aid commercial river traffic and improve Chicago’s sanitation, the river’s flow was reversed, sending both traffic and effluent down to St. Louis. There are clues to the importance of the river if you look closely. That little “Y” in the photo below is a symbol of the river as it divides between the north and south branches: the southern branch taking everything we can make money from, down to St Louis and eventually to New Orleans.

Living 10 minutes’ walk from the lake makes it easily accessible every day, as is the 18 miles of lake shore bike path that extends north and south of where I live. You are both on the edge of a city but also on the edge of lake-influenced nature.

Chicago is a city of dramatic views – affected by skies and the lake, which can change colour from Emerald Green to Slate Gray and every colour in between, minute by minute. You might describe it as “weather-genic”. Whatever the weather, Chicago always captures the dramatic. The lake is really an inland sea that is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide, and that at times is too large to comprehend as a “lake”.

What I shoot is distinctly influenced by the paintings of Joseph Mallord William (JMW) Turner. I have always admired his sense of drama and can see some of that in the skies over Chicago.

According to Chicagoans, the city has only two seasons: “Winter” and “Construction”. I still think there are four, but Spring is fleeting as can be Autumn, but all produce dramatic skies and landscapes.


Autumn arrives when you’re not looking, while taking that last sunset sail, to the “gate” that overlooks the lake, to crisp Autumn walks and then leaves before you know it. The light changes from that summer brightness to the golden glow. It’s also the end of baseball season and dashed hopes for Chicago’s two baseball teams reaching the World Series. “Ah well!” as they say: “there’s always next year.” American Football seasons starts and that means wrapping up warm and tailgating in the parking lot of the Chicago Bears, Soldier Field stadium.


Winters here are legendary. Temperatures can often get well below -10℃ in winter and then add wind chill to make it feel like -20℃ on the skin. Very low temperatures and the odd “Snowmaggedon”, that once trapped me on a bus for 18 hours until rescued, are things you should expect.

Dressing for winter is a major occupation, particularly when frostbite is a real risk. You also discover that space on the bus seems to shrink, with everyone wearing puffy down coats to keep out the cold. Even the legendary “Bean” gets in on the act, pretending to be a glazed donut. And it’s the blue light season where the lake and sky seem to reflect each other, and you have hours of piercing bright blue light.


But winter eventually fades, with ice melting reluctantly before the skies and lake change colour. Spring seems to last five minutes in Chicago. One minute the trees are bare; the next minute they’ve turned green and summer starts to rush in with the crack of baseball bats and the smell of grilled hot dogs. And of course, baseball fans dream that this will be the year when they go to the World Series. And all the while, the light changes quickly from blue to the colour of the palest straw.


There’s much to relish about Summer life here, even if we quickly grumble about high temperatures that can go above +30℃ and deliver high humidity. It’s an outdoor life to be savoured, with bright light, cloudless skies, and sharp shadows, days of play in the lake-front parks; all to be stored as memories until Spring returns.

There’s a lot more to Chicago, from outstanding architecture, to an obsession with great food, to a deep musical culture to enjoy. It’s definitely worth a stopover.

All of these shots, bar one, were taken on a mixture of Leica DL-109, Leica CL with various lenses, and Leica Q2.

More Macfilos takes on Chicago

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  1. I could really hear your voice in the writing and the shots are also amazing. You really captured the loop and lake adjacent parts of the city throughout the year very well. I am looking forward to reading and seeing more of your work!

    • Many thanks Mike! It was wonderful to spend time gathering up the images and also contemplating writing something that captured Chicago while facing the “anarchy of white space” when committing on screen.

  2. Great Images and write up on Chicago seasons, Jon. Were you stuck on Lake Shore Drive on the bus during Snowmageddon? I wisely stayed home rather than going to work, and went out to shovel several times that day just so I wouldn’t be barricaded in.

  3. I didn’t catch Ian’s exhibition at Saltaire but I am familiar with his work. It makes me wish I had documented my career in Telecommunications from Strwager mechanical exchanges that covered five floors to digital housed in a suitcase! Oh the wisdom of hindsight.

  4. Thanks for sharing your views – the great shots and your promotion of Chicago It’s certainly whetted my appetite to visit I too am “exiled” from the North East but not quite as far and agree the sea and clouds give inspiration to us creative people You can see why the Belgian and Dutch painters were so inspired

    • Thanks Mike,
      One of the hardest things when you live somewhere for a long time is seeing it with fresh eyes. Sometimes it’s finding the most mundane thing and walking around it to see a different view – like a row of electric bicycle rentals all charging up. You can spend all day here finding those incidentals.

      • Hi Jon we visit Saltaire Mill regularly with our grandsons. It’s a great place to browse books. The bookshop is a good place to find unusual books and there is a good selection of photography books as well.

        • BTW. Mike, did you happen (or is that ‘appen?) to catch the Ian Beesley exhibition at the Mill last year? Wonderful work of both the joy and sadness of working lives that no longer fitted into the modern world. I know that also had his book for sale there at that time.
          Best jon (not a chef)

  5. Really enjoyed your article Jon. I’m a Yorkshire lad (Leeds) and can envisage the clouds building off the East coast. Your references to the light changing really set the atmosphere of your excellent pictures.
    Thankyou Mike

    • Thanks Mike,
      A couple of years ago my wife and I visited Saltaire which was a really impressive experience. In the mill, which is now an arts center, was an exhibition by David Hockney called “Woldgate” in which he tracks the seasons as they change. The location of his paintings felt familiar, and it was: my old bike ride along the Roman road from a small village called Kilham to Bridlington and my grammar school is where David Hockney was painting. Wherever you are – Pennines, Peak District, Dales, Moors etc there’s always something changing.

  6. Thanks, Jon – or should I say Le Chef! That was a terrific article. I really enjoyed both reading it (especially the reference to the shipping forecast) and looking at your photos. I do not know Chicago that well, having only visited a few times, but my daughter now lives there (Lake View?), and so I expect to be a much more regular visitor. Sounds like Spring and Summer are the times to pay a visit! I hope we see more articles from you, now that you are off and running. All the best, Keith

    • Thanks Keith – Lake View is where many of my photos are taken and your daughter would no doubt be able to have a good guess where I live. I happen to like all four seasons – just dress appropriately! If you are here and have time PM me. Cheers!

      Jon (not a chef after all)

  7. Beautiful pictures! The last time I visited Chicago Bill Clinton was still president and I was staying in the same hotel. It has been a while…

  8. Very nice article. As a lifelong Chicago resident, I do appreciate the 4 distinct seasons we have compared to other places in the country or world. Chicagoans like to say we have two seasons, Winter and Road Construction.

    • Thanks Bill! It’s a great city for simply walking around neighborhoods to see changing architecture, food and cultures.

      • The variety of cultures and foods we have in Chicago is hard to beat. The architecture is amazing as well. Unfortunately, public safety is a huge concern lately. We visited the Dreihaus mansion a month ago, which was amazing. Normally I would have had my Leica along, but I left it at home and used my iPhone. I felt safer in New York this past spring, and just last week in Munich and Cologne than I do at home now.
        I have hosted two LHSA/LSI annual meetings in our home town over the years, but would be very reluctant to do so now.
        A very sad comment on one of the greatest cities in the world.

          • Many thanks Paul!
            Lots of Chicago still to explore. I don’t get to the South Side too often and should take a few trips to Hyde Park and the lake front your way to take it all in.



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