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A Photographer Captures Chicago's Urban Patchwork

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Angie McMonigal's Urban Quilt photo series forces viewers to zoom in on the small details of her city's architectural history

Behind the Lens looks at architectural photographers both professional and amateur, examining how they got their start, stories from their portfolios, and tricks to capturing great design. Have a lensman in mind? Send links to portfolios (no photo files) to national@curbed.com.

Chicago-based photographer Angie McMonigal has always been struck by the small details, the facades and flourishes hidden within the city’s famed towers and high-rises. When the fine art and architectural photographer captured and cropped a photo of the city’s skyscraper canyons a few years ago, showing the layers and textures embedded within a century-plus history of architecture, she felt like she might be onto something. After collecting a series of similar images, she showed some of them to her sister-in-law, who said they resembled an urban quilt. The name stuck, and since then, she's been creating a unique series of tableaus in-between editorial and personal projects.

"Seeing these design elements from different decades creates this amazing patchwork," she says. "Now, when I'm out in the city, I’m looking for certain scenes in the urban environment, and trying to capture the density and diversity of design."

Curbed spoke to McMonigal about her Chicago photo series, how she got started in the industry, and why it’s important to slow down.

How did you get started in photography? What made you want to photograph buildings?

"A lot of photographers who shoot architecture are architects. That’s not the case with me. I studied medical technology. I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, Berlin, and have just always been in awe of architecture."

How would you explain your style?

"I’m definitely more detail-oriented. I’m always looking to show the city in a different way that’s more abstract. Often, people look at my images and ask, ‘Where is that?’ For me, it’s about showing the city in a different perspective, and getting people to appreciate the idea of slowing down."

What are some of your favorite buildings and places to shoot?

"I’m still thrilled driving down Lake Shore Drive or going downtown. I just sort of found myself falling into shooting architecture. It’s what I was drawn to, and I've been covering architecture for almost five years."

What camera and gear do you use?

"I have the Nikon D8-10, which is what I’m shooting with now. I usually shoot with my 24-70mm lens. I’m honestly not a big equipment person and don’t get hung up on it. This is just what I have, so I make it work. I don’t think any piece of equipment is exactly right for any circumstance. You just make it work."

Any advice or tricks for improving architectural photographs?

"Shoot often and shoot as much as you can. You should also limit your choices. Take one lens and camera, so you focus on seeing your environment in an interesting way, as opposed to constantly worrying about what gear to use. Limit yourself to one building, so you can see it from as many perspectives as you can. Limiting your vision is a big help."

Any tips for shooting buildings on Instagram?

"I probably cheat because I post a lot of my normal images. If you're shooting with your phone, it's a fun way to play around. Take advantage of the ability to use filters and experiment."

What advice do you have about getting ahead in the industry for people who want to become professional photographers?

"Instagram and social media are great ways to expand your audience and reach new clients. When you're on Instagram, following brands or companies or places that you admire, and content that may fit well with what you want to do, can create opportunities. Think about ways you can help out; reciprocity is key. There's a building here in Chicago called El Centro, a new blue-and-yellow student building for NEIU. I took photos and wrote a blog post about the project, then tagged the firm on my social media posts. The principal of the firm saw it, called me, and now I'm shooting a project for them. Keep in mind that I posted that image a year ago, and they've only now reached out for more photos. Things take a long time in the photography world."

Tell me the story behind one of your favorite photographs you've taken.

"It's the second one I took for the Urban Quilts series. I was walking along Lake Shore Drive and noticed the Mies van der Rohe buildings in the foreground and the much older, ornate architecture in the background and noticed how they overlapped. It was one of the images that made me think there might be more to this idea, and this series. I like the color and the contrast, and to me, it's one of the most interesting ones. It represents the variation and the style of architecture in the city."

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