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