A photography book evokes downtown Madison then and now

 

"Photo Book Shows The Development Of Madison" Used by permission Wisconsin State Journal :: DAYBREAK :: D1 Wednesday, November 20, 2002, William Wineke.

Used by permission, copyright 2002 by Ishmus Publishing Co. Inc. November 8th, 2002 By Tom Laskin

Local photographer Zane Williams spent the last five years taking pictures for his new book, Double Take, a meticulous rephotographic survey of Madison published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

The expertly printed book uses photographs taken of the downtown by the prolific commercial photographer Angus McVicar during the 1920s through the 1950s to explore changes in the area over the last 80 years.

Williams emphasized these changes by precisely "rephotographing" McVicar's urban images, using the same vantage points and matching the seasonal conditions of natural light. He also worked with his head under the black hood of a view-style camera, which produced black-and-white negatives that reproduced the tonality of McVicar's original photographs.

Williams used 72 pairs of the technically identical then-and-now photographs for his book.

The result is a compelling visual journey that records both the positive and ham-fisted change that's occurred in the central, most historically significant part of the city, a portion of Madison real estate that even longtime residents often take for granted.

A telling rephotographic pair contrasts McVicar's dynamic 1932 view past the detailed marquee of the original Capitol Theatre to the upper blocks of State Street with Williams' contemporary view past the theater's successor: the far less inflected street-level facade of the Madison Civic Center.

This isn't merely a catalyst for nostalgic reflection. It's a compelling new perspective on how one small, exceptionally sited city has remade itself again and again, often with little planning or architectural sensitivity.

This pair of photographs suggest a question that everyone who cares about the future of this city should be asking during a time of rapid demolition and rebuilding downtown. That is: Where do we go from here? Now in his 50s, Williams has lived much of his adult life in the First Settlement Neighborhood just east of the Capitol Square.

The oldest parts of the city stretch out before the windows of his restored 19th-century home, and many of the old buildings McVicar's commercial customers paid to have photographed are just beyond his doorstep.

And although Williams is not a Madison native (he came here for college in 1967 and stayed), years of making photographs of the central city have bonded him to what architectural historians would call Madison's "built landscape."

His friend and fellow photographer Greg Conniff says that much of the Madison photography Williams has done comes from a deep love of place. "Zane isn't going to be making any money on Double Take," he says. "This is expensive to do and has taken a lot of time. It's truly a labor of love."

Rephotography is a relatively recent methodology, and it's practiced in a variety of ways. Natural landscapes -- for example, the Grand Canyon -- received a lot of attention in the 1970s from rephotography pioneer Mark Klett and others. Later, Boston and other cities began receiving book-length rephotographic treatments.

Rephotographers often use images taken by a variety of earlier photographers, but Williams only uses photographs culled from the large archive of McVicar's work. And thanks to the survival of McVicar's logbooks, Williams had all the information needed to recapture the visual qualities of the earlier photographs.

That hadn't been the case with other urban surveys of this type. Williams admits that such careful duplication of McVicar's views obscures some of his own ideas about the direction his city has taken over the last 75 years. But that doesn't bother him; in this project, he prefers showing over telling. "This framework isn't absolutely neutral," says Williams, as he gazes upon a wall in his home office that's covered with uncut pages of Double Take. "But it's about as neutral a framework as I can think of, looking at then and now.

Trying to gauge, as objectively as possible, the quantity and the quality of change." Independent curator Tom Garver, who is one of Williams' more passionate contributing essayists, says that the attention Williams paid to the original photographs assures that viewers of his photographic pairs would be led to a close examination of the finest details of facades, buildings and entire blocks that were in transition even during the first decades of the 1900s.

"I think one of the most valuable qualities of the book is that it reminds you that the city is a palimpsest, that it's an erased and over-written manuscript," says Garver. "You can look at a building on State Street and say, 'I know that there's something really nice under that fašade, and maybe someday people will recognize it and go back to it.' Or say, 'I know what was built on that location, and this building is better.

The building that's going to go up in place of the Woolworth's building [on the Capitol Square] is clearly better." Williams pairs his contemporary photograph of the boxy, unadorned Woolworth's (which should be completely demolished by the time you read this) with McVicar's 1934 view of the attractive 19th-century opera house and the impressively proportioned limestone city hall that it had replaced. Unsurprisingly, the building's predecessors were also much better.

The caption for the pair mentions that Frank Lloyd Wright admired the old city hall so much that he may have been influenced by the circle-in-a-square motif of its original balconies. While examining single pairs can yield a bounty of insight, Double Take has been organized in a way that aids readers in making up their own minds about how the city has changed, and whether this change has really been in Madison's best interests.

The organizing principle came from two retired scholars who had spent many years at the Wisconsin Historical Society, former curator of sound and visual archives George A. Talbot and former research specialist Jack O. Holzhueter.

While perusing the McVicar/Williams pairs, the two (who co-wrote an essay for the book) realized that the images could be structured as a walking tour of the isthmus that would begin on King Street, in the oldest portion of the city, and then proceed around the Capitol Square. This way readers could easily trace the period of change that the photographs cover.

Williams quickly agreed to the idea, and with help from Holzhueter (who also wrote the captions for the photographs and served as Williams' editorial consultant), the final structure of the book took shape. Holzhueter says that he and Talbot hoped that this historically informed structure would provoke readers to take the book under arm and use it as a guide to the Madison they might have missed during rushed commutes. In his introduction to Double Take, Williams says, "Seeing and knowing a place requires spending time in it, paying careful attention, looking at both the details and the larger picture.

Madisonians in particular might avail themselves of a walking tour of these sites, with book in hand, as a means of reacquainting themselves with their city, finding perhaps that they will be truly seeing some things for the first time." Angus McVicar wasn't taking photographs for posterity. He did most of his work for paying clients who wanted their large new signage, their packed display windows and their dignified office facades front and center. Even the casual reader is sure to notice that his original photographs were cropped in the camera to present his subjects as vital, going concerns, not representative pieces of architecture. It's Williams' great achievement that his pairs overcome the commercial qualities of McVicar's photographs and produce what he calls the "new work" -- the visual representation of change that a single photograph could never offer.

Williams' talent for revealing changes in the cityscape gives us insight into the ways in which we can guide the redevelopment of downtown right now and into the future. Take a look at McVicar's low-angle 1934 view of the soon-to-be demolished Sherlock Hotel, an Italianate "flat iron" building constructed of yellow limestone that once capped the eastern side of the initial block of King Street. He obviously stood below grade to emphasize how well the aging, somewhat cobbled structure completed the handsome arrangement of vernacular 19th-century buildings that stretched up the block toward the Capitol. And he didn't employ this visual strategy by accident.

The caption for the photograph points out that The Capital Times had hired McVicar to memorialize the building and the block on which it stood.

The paper had motives that affected the composition of McVicar's photograph. The 79-year-old building was being razed to make room for a modern gas station, and obviously that was news. But the newspaper's first offices and printing plant had also been located in the middle of the block, and it's plain that the higher-ups at The Capital Times wanted an attractive visual record of the business' physical origins. Bound by McVicar's commercial choices, Williams also shot the block from below in 1999. But he didn't have to worry about idealizing any of its architectural elements.

By then the heights of the remaining buildings had been altered. The modern gas station was long gone, and, thanks to problems with leaking gas tanks, contaminated soil prevented the former site of the Sherlock Hotel from being anything more than a small parking lot backed by the blank sidewalls of the structures that abut it to this day.

McVicar certainly didn't mean to instruct future Madisonians about the modest glories of the old block; he wanted to take a good, clear picture for his client. It's a testament to the power of Williams' project that the original picture "means" so much more when it's placed in a pair with a technically identical rephotograph. We understand almost instantaneously that the crudest kind of change has taken place on this stretch of King Street, and it is the interaction between the old and new images that tells us that.

The inevitable shortcomings of the Sherlock Hotel's 19th-century structural design -- dubious supports, limited exits, flimsy inner walls, etc. -- probably guaranteed that it would have been replaced by some kind of building before the end of the 1940s.

But Williams' pair asks: Did it have to be a gas station? Did it have to be a business that would end up scarring the site for three-quarters of a century, or perhaps even longer? Isn't there a way we can avoid such plainly bad attempts at remaking the city for the future? Similar questions arise as we ponder each pair. Is it an improvement that a once-active automobile-related business on the corner of State and Gorham streets has been replaced by a mini-mall built right up to the sidewalk? Have the islands of stoplights, street lamps and forlorn-looking trees that now fill the middle of the 500 block of East Wilson Street brought order, or have they erased all memory of a previously wide-open street that reminded residents that old Madison sat on the borderline between the east and the west? Change on the isthmus has come rapidly over the past decade. Large projects like Monona Terrace and the soon-to-be-completed Overture Center have gobbled up large chunks of the old city and influenced a real estate gold rush in the downtown. In another decade, much of what McVicar and Williams have photographed may be gone.

Change is inevitable. New needs, new styles, new ways of thinking about small cities like Madison will modify the urban landscape that comes to us from the past. But Double Take shows us very vividly such change can be managed with more sensitivity. It can be effected more logically, and take the ideas of many more citizens and planners into account. If Williams' rephotographic pairs get that point across to even a few thousand people, Madison is sure to be a better place for it.

Angus McVicar, a commercial photographer, took photos of Madison buildings and streets from the 1920s through the 1950s, not for art's sake but to document the city for people willing to pay for the service.

A few years ago, Zane Williams, a contemporary Madison photographer, looked at McVicar's collection and decided to recreate it.
The result is the just-published "Double Take: A Rephotographic Survey of Madison, Wisconsin" (University of Wisconsin Press: $45). The heart of the book is a series of photographs of the same sites, separated by 50 to 75 years.

The photos in the book tell a story of change; very few buildings look the way they did 70 or even 20 years ago. The old Madison Post Office gave way in 1929 to a new Manchester's Department Store, which, in turn, gave way in 1981 to an office building, Manchester Place, which now anchors the Wisconsin Avenue entrance to the Square.

Older residents of the city may find themselves more intrigued by the business names on marquees than on the buildings that have changed.

Names like "Olson & Veerhusen" and "Waters Motor Co." and "Rennebohm Better Drug Stores" were once known to virtually every city resident; they're now part of the city's history.

Some names stayed but the stores' place in the community changed.

The Sears store was once an important stop on State Street. Sears moved to West Washington Avenue and then to the malls. The building recently housed Zorba's Gyros, which then gave way to Takara Japanese Restaurant.

Smart Motors once sold Hupmobiles at 437 W. Gilman. Smart is still around, selling Volvos and Toyotas on Odana Road. Its "Art Deco" brick and limestone building now houses a dry-cleaning store.

Art critic Thomas Garver, a former director of the Madison Art Center, writes in an essay in "Double Take" that we shouldn't always assume that change is bad.

While renovations have hidden some beautiful architectural details of venerable buildings, overall, things may be getting better, Garver said.

" But Madison is changing, and for the better. We now pay more respect to the special qualities of our environment, rather than regarding any environmental gifts simply as resources to be exploited."

McVicar, for example, photographed a row of private boathouses along the Lake Monona shoreline in 1931. The general site (it's been filled in some since 1931) is now a parking lot next to Monona Terrace on John Nolen Drive, not an altogether beautiful spot, but one that is, at least, open to the public.

 

 
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