As Mark Hersch approached Chicago’s O’Hare airport in 2014, he never could have imagined what awaited him. While gazing out his window, he snapped what he felt was an “interesting” photo with his iPhone. The result is a surreal image that continues to circulate the internet to this day.
At first, this upside-down city in the clouds looks like the work of a digital artist. But in reality, what we’re looking at isn’t digitally manipulated at all. Instead, it’s all a game of light and reflection. Recently, the photo was shared by NASA as its Astronomy Photo of the Day and included an explanation from a team of experts.
What we’re looking at is an incredible reflection. And it’s all thanks to Lake Michigan. Stretching out 22,404 square miles, it makes the perfect mirror. In this case, it’s possible to see the Sun both above and below the clouds. It’s actually the reflection of the sun that bounces off the lake’s waters and back up to the sky. In fact, it’s this same principle that gives us the surreal Chicago skyline.
The long shadows of the city cast onto the calm lake during sunset are also beamed into the sky. This caused a rare view of a city in the clouds that would seem unbelievable, if Hersch hadn’t captured the moment. In fact, even he was surprised by what he saw.
“When I took the picture on the plane and viewed it on my iPhone, I knew it was an interesting picture,” Hersch tells My Modern Met. “And when I downloaded it, viewed it on my computer, and could really see the detail, I knew it was a unique image. Even to this day when I look at it, I’m struck by the fact that it would be impossible to recreate. It is a view of the world that will never be seen again.”
Since it was first published in 2014, the photograph has been a viral sensation and helped launch his career. Hersch has a few ideas of why the image continues to appeal to people. “Some are fascinated by the physics of it, others feel it has a spiritual quality, many just like the aesthetics of the subject matter.”
Currently, Hersch focuses his artistic practice on what he’s termed “rephotography.” This technique sees him merging historic photos of well-known cities with modern views taken by the photographer to see the evolution of the urban environment.