It was probably inevitable that Joe Lekas became a photographer. His day job as a photo retoucher exposed him to the work of hundreds of photographers, and spending so much time looking at other people’s work made him realize what he might be capable of himself. He was constantly looking for things to fix, a sensibility that has crept into his own photographs, which evoke a hyper-real imagined perfection. Although he carried a camera with him for many years, “it was always just a hobby.” But about two years ago, Lekas began experimenting with what evolved into his signature style: saturated, hyper-realistic cityscapes filled with the details that most people don’t see.
“I wanted to be an illustrator,” he says. “I would photograph a lot of buildings and then draw over the photographs.” Eventually, he started trying to bring out more and more detail in his photos, many of which have an architectural, illustrative quality. He started close to home: Walking to work in the Loop every day, near the Merchandise Mart on the Chicago River, he had a spectacular view of the skyline. “For years,” he says, “I just walked by and saw how beautiful it was. I thought that somebody should try to photograph it in a way that shows how stunning it is to the naked eye.” And, of course, eventually he realized that he was that somebody.
Lekas’ photos are really an amplification of details, exposing much more than what the naked can see: stormy clouds, radiant streetlights, glowing windows. Every one of the finished photographs is a composite of anywhere from five to 80 exposures carefully layered together in Photoshop. He’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, working on a single photo, stacked together. “I might start taking some highlights from one picture, and the colors from another.” On average, 12 separate photos are strategically layered together to form a final shot, though, Lekas says, “I’ve used up to 80 different photos before.” He digitally stacks the photos together in a process similar to HDR (high dynamic range imaging), but his process gives him more control over the images as he works on them. The resulting cityscapes are Chicago, squared. Lekas draws your attention to every lit window in every building, and to every brick mortared in every wall.
Spending most of his life in one place hasn’t stunted Lekas’ imagination. He was born and raised in Glenview, attended New Trier High School, and graduated from Dominican University in River Forest in 2006. But his photographs, even those shot primarily in and around Chicago, show an imagination that has traveled far and wide. Take, for example, “The Bean”—the downtown Chicago sculpture known officially as “Cloud Gate”—which Lekas refused to shoot for years “because everybody’s already done it.” Lekas’ photo of “Cloud Gate” is a luminous mirrored oval that hides the familiar kidney-shaped indentations. A great wall of Chicago skyscrapers is reflected on “Cloud Gate” with the same intensity as the buildings in the background, and a stream of glowing amber lights shoots across one side of The Bean’s reflective surface. The twilit clouds are impossibly dramatic, both in the background and on The Bean itself, and even the concrete and steel skyscrapers shimmer with detail.
His imagination is fueled by the colors of the night. The unnatural, saturated colors “make everything more beautiful,” Lekas says. It also makes his processing more challenging. When he lines up all the exposures, “there might be a window that was lit in one shot that wasn’t lit in another. But in the end, the night shots are more satisfying.” Although Lekas typically works with recognizable skylines and landmarks, he also exposes the unseen in more ordinary domains, like open garages at A. Finkl & Sons Co., steel manufacturers on the north side of Chicago. “If you drive by it,” Lekas says, “you probably wouldn’t even notice that it’s there.” But walking the city at night gives Lekas a different perspective, one that, in this case, was filled with glowing embers and flying sparks. Hidden on Cortland Street near the Chicago River, the industrial glow of the Finkl facilities gave Lekas a chance to look at something most Chicagoans never see. “I walked by one night and saw a big open garage. Inside was a smoldering metal pit,” he says. Although unlike the cityscapes he normally works with, the steel manufacturer turned out to provide some of his favorite images. Some of these shots include people, a rarity in Lekas’ work, but it’s really the machinery that’s alive, shooting orange sparks like the breath of a nighttime monster.
Lekas’ photos probe and question the Chicago landmarks he grew up with. In one of his more experimental shots, he has taken a cityscape that he wasn’t happy with and literally rolled it up into a sphere. As his style evolves, Lekas hopes to re-imagine urban landscapes across the world. But, he says, “Chicago is my home base.”