Seeing the Unseen
photo exhibit explores local nooks and crannies
Cities are constantly changing. Looking at what a city has built over its history is a good way to draw a picture of the life of a city, its people’s attitudes and assumptions, their dreams and their fears. What was built, what wasn’t built, what has been cared for and what has been abandoned reveal a collective portrait of the generations of citizens and how they responded to the times they lived in. Photographer Travis Dewitz’s “Unseen and Historic Eau Claire,” presented by the Chippewa Valley Museum, is an exploration of the city through photographs of its historic and modern buildings.
Dewitz is a local professional photographer focusing on business and portrait clients who has won numerous awards both nationally and internationally for his photography. His images are in the collections of well-known publications such as Vogue and National Geographic, and later this year his first book, Blaze Orange, will be published through the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photographs in “Unseen and Historic Eau Claire” are selected from a personal assignment that Dewitz set himself in the spring of 2013. As he writes, “I love Eau Claire. I know that there is much more to Eau Claire then a few main roads lined with commercial stores, fast food joints, and gas stations between point A and point B. When you live somewhere for your entire life, that is what it becomes. A blur of nothing special, day in and day out."
Having made compelling photo essays of other cities while traveling, Dewitz thought that training his eye to see the remarkable in a place he was so used to would be a real challenge. “I started with locations I felt comfortable with and realized there were houses I had driven past a million times but I’d never really seen them.” Leaving his regular routes and looked around with an eye to composing photographs, the project became both surprisingly easy and exciting to him. He writes, “Have you ever been driving down the road in the city where you live and saw something that caught your eye? You think to yourself, Is that new? I’ve never seen that before. When did that change? You look over and ask the person next to you, do you remember that? They then respond back, that has been there forever, as long as I can remember. That is an incredible feeling.”
The exhibition includes a selection of 22 8”x10” prints. They depict a variety of modest houses, ornate mansions, hole-in-the-wall or glittering commercial enterprises, government and religious buildings, and vacant or bustling industrial sites. It is possible they may seem at first swift glance to be a simple documentary gallery, as they share a similar composition that places the buildings in the center of the frame with a straight-on view, but Dewitz is practiced at seeing and composing excellent images so there is some photographic subtlety and a touch of humor going on in the work. Incorporating time of day, time of year (the series was shot in the early spring of 2013), found lighting, and even in the choice of selecting how to use the expanse of pavement in front of the buildings, Dewitz has created a wry and compassionate architectural portrait tinged with melancholy. The photograph of the 50-50 Factory Outlet building features the strong line of luridly lit green awning cutting across dark blue twilight, and the same green light is reflected in puddles across the parking lot but broken and distorted as though in the reflection we are watching the building already dissolving in time. In another photograph the white paint on the dark doors of the abandoned Walter bottlery has been scoured off by age in an exact tonal mimicry of the filthy grit-filled snow melting on the curb.
“The older I get the more into history I get,” Dewitz said. “In photography it seems images of things that don’t exist anymore are more valuable, they gain value because they can’t be photographed anymore – I was looking for unique places which in 10-20 years might not be there anymore.”
“Unseen and Historic Eau Claire” will be on display at the Chippewa Valley Museum through March. Museum hours are 1–5pm Tuesday through Sunday, with early opening at 10 am on Saturdays. Visit www.cvmuseum.com or call (715) 834-7871 for more details about the exhibition.