The popular narrative of the historically mild winter of 2016-2017 is that Chicagoans have, if you’ll excuse the expression, dodged a bullet. Zero measurable snowfall in the months of January and February? Unheard of in 146 years of National Weather Service record keeping. Leaving aside all the disturbing climate-change implications, a handful of 60- and 70-degree days in February are phenomena to which we all can surely grow accustomed.
And yet . . . call me a meteorological masochist, because the season’s relative snowlessness has left me cold in at least one sense: aesthetics. This week’s long-awaited dusting of a few inches was a reminder that winter unaccompanied by the ubiquitous white fluffy stuff simply appears unfurnished—a seemingly interminable stream of frigid days as bare as all the leafless trees. There’s a reason we’re so enamored of snow globes and white Christmases: if you’re not exhuming your car from it at the ass-crack of dawn, snow can be really pretty.
It’s a sentiment shared by photographer Satoki Nagata, who captured many stunning winter scenes as part of his “Lights in Chicago” series. An off-camera flash and slow shutter speeds give his single-exposure black-and-white images a distinctive abstractness, with layers of motion and ambient brilliance that approximate the experience of walking the city at night. They’re the street photos Vivian Maier might’ve taken were she on acid, or if she’d had better gear.
Shot between 2011 and 2015, all of the photos feature a single subject, typically a pedestrian on a headlong personal excursion through the palpably cold dark. Some are cocooned by falling snow, others exhale clouds of warm breath or cigarette smoke.
“I feel the images convey the everyday subtle moments of each person’s life,” says Nagata, a Japanese-born former neuroscientist who currently resides in River North. “You can imagine the individual’s life.”
Beyond that, in each and every noirish frame, the ordinary atmospheric circumstance is made ethereal. —Jake Malooley