Signs of Labor: A Fine Art Photography Exhibit hosted by the Center for Photography at Madison


Photographers are a breed apart. When the dedication – or even compulsion – to make sense of the world through photography truly takes hold, it shows.

It shows itself in eyes ever-tuned to composition and the interplay of hues and light. It shows itself in the ability to visualize not only images apparent to the unaided eye, but those hidden scenes that would remain forever hidden without the photographer’s knowledge of lenses and f /stops, ISO and shutter speed. It shows itself in the photographer’s respectful interplay with his or her subjects, bearing witness to their countenance by creating images that ring true.

It shows in the absent-minded gaze of a photographer who reflexively reaches for his or her camera while thinking, “There is something happening. There are photographs I must make. I must be there.”

For many photographers in and near Madison, Wisconsin, this was a mantra repeated for weeks on end beginning in mid-February, 2011.

The series of events started on Friday, February 11, when newly-elected Governor Scott Walker announced a proposed budget bill that greatly diminished the collective bargaining rights of unionized public local and state employees. It was the largest change to labor rights since the state of Wisconsin provided collective bargaining rights to public employee unions in 1959.

Within days, crowds of protestors had begun gathering at the Capitol building in Madison. The number of protestors swelled to tens of thousands and at the peak of the protests the crowd sizes were estimated at well over 100,000.

Protestors filled the Capitol day and night, establishing an information center to track news on the ever-evolving legislative scene and filling many walls of the Capitol building with handmade signs. Union members marched at the protests, including those of firefighters and law enforcement employees who were exempted from the provisions of the bill. Over the weeks that followed, speeches were made by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, filmmaker Michael Moore, and a performance was given by musician Peter Yarrow (of the former band Peter, Paul, and Mary), among others. In late April, a counter-protest speech was made at a Tea Party rally by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. While Madison residents have long been accustomed to news coverage of University of Wisconsin athletic events, the sight of dozens of media trucks from every major U.S. news organization parked around the Capitol square served as evidence of the historic nature of the events.

And in the midst of it all, photographers – even those not classically trained as photojournalists – felt a responsibility to serve as both artists and documentarians.

This led to a conversation months later between members of the Center for Photography at Madison when it became apparent that gallery space owned by the Center would be available during the summer months.

“CPM member Rich Armstrong…mentioned that he, and many other CPM members, have been taking thousands of photos down at the Capitol,” said Paul Nylander, organizer of the show. After discussions between Nylander, Armstrong, and past CPM president Reece Donihi, plans were made to host the “Signs of Protest” show as a juried exhibition.

Jurors Wayne Brabender, Becky McKenzie, and Paul Nylander selected 29 photographs from nearly 80 entries. Five of the selected entries, including “Stand Up” by Focal Flame Photographer Clint Thayer, were chosen as jurors’ top picks. “Stand Up” was described by a juror as “…a very powerful image in its stark contrast and bold, converging lines.”

Nylander said, “The selection [of the 29 exhibited photographs] was based first and foremost on photographic merits (composition, lighting, etc.) and not on political message. But we also wanted images to clearly convey a story in their own right, and preferably one that related to the protests. An ideal image would be photographically strong, and through image alone deliver the story of the protesters.” Nylander added, “We are somewhere between photojournalism and fine art in this exhibition.”

When asked about themes that emerged, Nylander noted that the show includes a great deal of thematic variety. “Everything from the blatant to the subtle, from the somber to the humorous, and from the emotional to the contemplative,” he said, while noting the inherent compositional challenges that “working” a crowd presented to local photographers. “But when, through good planning, plain luck, or some combination of the two, you get the great shot, you really know it,” said Nylander. “Many of the images submitted fit this category: truly well composed shots, technically good in their own right, and doubly so when considering the difficult environment the photographer was working in.”

The opening reception for the show was held on July 7 and was attended by over 130 people. News coverage of the exhibit appeared on WKOW 27, WORT radio, and other local news outlets.

Several photographers provided comments about their work. Clint Thayer of Focal Flame Photography (photograph entitled “Stand Up”) said, “I made the photograph on the evening of February 14, 2011, at one of the earliest points of the labor protests. While photographing near the Capitol at night, I came across a small group of protestors and was struck by both the intimacy and the intensity of the moment.” Thayer asked the subjects for permission to photograph them and used an off-camera flash to provide backlighting. The resulting image is angular and starkly lit, with the Capitol rising at an off-kilter angle relative to the subjects. The shadows cast by the protestors’ figures are elongated and the writing on one homemade sign appears luminous. “Many viewers have asked me if the image was altered using Photoshop,” said Thayer. “Aside from cropping and grayscale correction, it was not. The visual elements you see were achieved in camera.”

Kurt Westbrook (photograph entitled "PM WATCH") made his photograph at 4:46 pm on February 28th, 2011. “My plan that day was to look for a photograph with the late afternoon sun highlighting the capitol building and its flags, and whatever scene I might encounter,” Westbrook said. After walking up King St., he noticed a backlit building and a small group of law enforcement personnel wearing blaze orange vests, watching protestors from their post. Westbrook added, “The protesters were angry but respectful, and the chant to come said it all: ‘Whose house?...Our house.’"

Bill Pielsticker (photograph entitled "Liar!") made a composite of 165 images from three rallies.  Pielsticker said, “I created a 'Pinocchio Walker' poster for the Feb. 19 rally and brought home as many images of people photographing my sign as I did of the great signs others made.” He continued to photograph the sign-viewers at rallies on February 26 and March 12, and compiled the composite of the photographs-of-photographers. He included a single image in the composite of the original "Pinocchio Walker" protest sign.

Another composite was contributed by Peter Patau (photograph entitled “This is What Democracy Looks Like"). The image included nine black-and-white images taken with an iPhone. “The protests were unique among my photographic projects, because I was as much a participant as an observer,” said Patau. “As time went by, I started leaving the D90 at home and shooting more with the iPhone. Its casual informality erased many of the barriers between the observer and the observed. It made for a more natural interaction with people than when hiding behind a DSLR,” said Patau. [Author’s note: learn more about cell phone photography in another Focal Flame Photography blog post.]

Michael Rauch (photograph entitled "Charlie V.") submitted a photograph of Charlie V. Gasser, the lead singer for a  local band named Bascom Hill. The band was performing during a protest rally at the Capitol. Rauch said, “I was fortunate to be asked by a member of the band to photograph their performance….This protest was marked by cold and snow which did not dampen the crowd [estimated to be] up to 100,000.” The image of the crowd was reflected in the sunglass lenses of Gasser, and the photograph shows a sea of people stretching down State St. next to the Capitol. Remembering his experiences during the protests, Rauch recalled, “I was there early in the protests when the teachers were the primary leaders of the protests.  They often brought their children with them. They were polite and so were the police.  It was shocking to me to hear [later] news reports about ‘thugs’ after witnessing the interactions between the police and protesters.”

Tom Miller (photograph entitled "A Teacher Thanks a Farmer") contributed a photograph taken with a 70-300 mm telephoto lens during labor protests on March 12, 2011 in which a parade of pro-labor farmers drove their tractors to the Capitol from farms throughout Wisconsin. Miller said, “The image shows a teacher holding a sign thanking farmers for their support of the protest. There is part of an out-of-focus John Deere tractor in the foreground to provide context for the image.”

Ken Halfmann (photograph entitled "Shamester") documented a group of protestors who had constructed “a large (about 8 foot) orange cutout of a hand pointing a finger of shame at the Capitol building,” said Halfmann. He noted that the group had been carrying the cutout to protests in the area and maintained a web site about their efforts.  

Interested in seeing the entire exhibit? The “Signs of Protest” show will be open to the public every Saturday from July 9 through August 27 at the CPM studio, 303 S. Paterson St., 2nd floor. 

Any political opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewees, and are not necessarily the views of the Center for Photography at Madison or Focal Flame Photography.

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