Williams Reshoots Early Photog's Sites


Used by permission The Capital Times :: SATURDAY EXTRA :: 1B
Saturday, November 23, 2002
By Jacob Stockinger


Times Madison photographer Zane Williams first came to Madison in 1967 to attend the University of Wisconsin. Since then, he has called Madison home and has become one of its foremost professional photographers. His image of a red barn and rural landscape was used for the official U.S. postage stamp honoring the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial.

His new book "Double Take" ($45) has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press in an edition of 5,000.

The handsome coffee-table book features shots done earlier in the 20th century by Angus McVicar, a commercial photographer in Madison from the 1920s to the 1950s, and then Williams' own attempts to recapture the same site, seen from McVicar's same vantage point, decades later.

Williams recently spoke about his project:

How did you get the idea for the book?

I've been interested in rephotographing ever since I saw a similar project about the Western frontier in the 1970s.

When I saw the McVicar photographs of downtown Madison in the mid-1990s, the possibility of doing a project right here in Madison, in my own back yard, kicked in.

Also, other photographers around the country told me they were really unaware of any truly rigorous rephotographing projects in the urban U.S.

What really sets this project apart is the consistency made possible by McVivcar's 8x10 photographs -- I used a 4x5 view camera-- and his logs, which contain dates, addresses, clients and brief descriptions of what he saw and photographed.

So I had a record that allowed me to go back on the same day he took a picture 40, 50 or 60 years ago and replicate it within a matter of minutes.

How long did the project take you?

I started photographing in August 1996, after a half year of preparatory research. I took the last photos in early spring of 2002.

Why did you choose to do it in black and white?

From the beginning I conceived of the new works as pairs of photographs with McVicar's black-and-white photographs. If you're trying to replicate them, it would be weird to have a black-and-white antecedent and then a color counterpart.

I also think that with color, the viewer's attention goes to the color, which is not the crucial element in a project like this. Rephotography is all about time and patience, change and subject matter. It's all about precision and rigor.

How many total exposures did you take to arrive at the final 72 pairs and six tri-plates in the book?

I'm really not sure. But there were 140 total sites. In some cases, it took only two trips and on other occasions I went back nine times.

What were your criteria for the final selection in the book?

I was trying to get an interesting cross section of downtown Madison, not necessarily a representative one. It's like a walking tour of downtown Madison.

My choice was largely intuitive. But I had help from local historians such as George Talbot and Jack Holzhueter. We tried to make it have internal logic.

What did you learn culturally and artistically about the city from making the comparisons?

I'm always looking at what's going on in Madison, at streetscapes and what building is going up or coming down. That's what photographers do. They have a close visual relationship with their immediate space.

I greatly value a visually pleasing city. I've traveled a lot around the world and in Europe, where they have older cities than we have in America. Those cities do something to us because of their design and architecture.

When Madison has to change, I want it to benefit all of us and be worthy of tribute.

What does that mean, specifically?

Madison is a lucky city. It's naturally sited on an exceptional piece of land between lakes. But I've seen unprecedented change in the last decade. And what led me to do this project was what I've seen in all that growth and change. I'm not schooled in Madison history or politics or economics. I'm really just a citizen observer.

But I have a very strong interest in the way things work and look -- in the visual face we give to our city.

I've always had a high regard for quality design and construction. All I ask is that we always have something better to take the place of something we take down.

In some cases we do, and in some cases the day-in and day-out commercial projects offer a lot of banal architecture that rules the roost in this city. We don't do ourselves any great service.

It sounds as if you're very critical of current construction projects.

Sometimes we're failing to live up to our geography. We're capable of more. Right now we have a large group of tall, dense structures going up around the Capitol Square. It's only fair to ask where it's all going to end.

Are we going to end up with a circular wall around the Capitol Square that will feel impenetrable?

These are the kind of questions everybody has to ask.


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Copyright © 2011 Zane Williams Photography, Madison, Wisconsin. All rights reserved.