How do we as Wisconsinites preserve our heritage?
How do we best pay homage to those who built our cities and towns, passed down their values and virtues, and left this great state in our hands to leave for future generations?
Some of the most important tools to preserving our heritage are not in museums. They’re not in city squares, town halls, or downtowns as statues or monuments.
Rather, they’re actually in just about every home in America.
Our photo albums.
With the exception of the written journal, no other medium documents our history as accurately as the photograph. Photographs hold power. The have the ability to illuminate everything about us. Our prosperity and hardships. They document our evolution over time in every avenue, be it style, architecture, or fashion. They have become the archival illustration of our villages transforming into metropolises, of lone houses expanding into communities, and of our ancestors looking us right in the eye.
They have also become a record for much of what we have lost over time. A chronicle of countless structures, at one time the pride and joy of someone‘s blood, sweat, and tears, lost to the annals of time…and a need for parking space. They are excerpts from a person’s existence long ago. Small, visual clippings from lives departed, and often times, our only way to connect with those who lived them.
We’ve all had that nostalgic feeling browsing through old, black and white photos. That kind of dreamy, wistful remembrance, whether we are in the picture or if it was taken long before our time. Those photographs are truly a semblance of who we are.
That is why we get that feeling.
Recently, I have had the opportunity of working with the Landmarks Commission of Neenah on this very topic. A “Then and Now” rephotography project to visually document where Neenah has been in the past, how it reached the present, and how to preserve the best of Neenah for her future.
Neenah, WI is rich with fascinating history. Many of it’s streets are lined with homes built by paper and lumber barons. Here was the founding of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the birthplace of Hollywood director Howard Hawks, and the hometown of the designer of the Pentagon, who’s family name, Bergstrom, still remains prominent today.
During this project, I have had the opportunity to sift through thousands of old photographs from museums, historical societies, and private citizens. When a certain photograph is chosen for inclusion, I then stand in the exact spot that a photographer stood decades ago, sometimes 100 years or more, and recreate the photo today.
The results are striking. Awe-inspiring.
Too often we don’t pay enough attention to our communities. It’s architecture. It’s layout. The people who left it for us.
They get thrown into the context of our world today and just simply don’t take priority over our jobs, kids, appointments, TV shows and everything else we need to get through the day.
However, when one looks at two photographs, side-by-side, taken from the exact same spot 100 years apart, it’s easy to pause for just a second.
Suddenly, that building with the “1889” carved in it you drive by everyday takes on a whole new meaning. The other smaller buildings around it today are not there in the first photo. You see it in the context in which it was intended. What you’ve always known as an apartment building is actually a hotel in the first photo. The people in the photo are dressed in nineteenth century fashion and seem proud to be in the photo, showing off for anyone who would view it.
You never really look at that building the same way again. You pay a bit more attention to it when you drive by. You smile. That nostalgic feeling comes back again.
That is the power of photographs as preservation.
Sadly, however, many photos show the mistakes we have made when open spaces have taken the places of once majestic buildings. Or when photos of modern buildings with “For Rent” signs are shown to take the place of turn of the century, state of the art architecture, with proud business owners standing outside their palaces, boasting with pride for what they had created.
The feeling of loss hits you…hard.
We owe it to those who came before us to remember them. To document the leftover parts of those who defined us. They are our heritage. They are our ancestors. We see evidence of their presence and existence all around us. Like ghosts, they struggle to call out for attention, but are powerless. All too often we fail to acknowledge them. We keep driving. We look away. We continue on with our lives, forgetting that they are the ones who gave it to us.
It is our duty to heed their call.