Capitolists

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W hile accomplished photographers Robert Lisak and David Ottenstein are longtime friends, they’d never worked together on a project—until a couple of years ago, when they jumped straight into the deep end. 

It began when Lisak saw photos Ottenstein had taken of the Ohio capitol building, which reminded him of Courthouse, a 1970s book of courthouse images that had long inspired him. Lisak suggested the two of them capture the country’s state houses—all of them—and Ottenstein was in. “I spend a good amount of time on the road, wandering around, and he was driving back and forth to California,” Ottenstein says. “We decided it wouldn’t be such a big deal to stop at all the state capitols.”

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That’s an understatement, but the resulting photographs aren’t, and you can see some of them at the New Haven Museum, where a joint exhibit, Capitol America, is on display through the end of June. Large, impeccably printed and rich with detail, texture and history—also, all black and white—the images make a compelling argument for the importance of capitol buildings, decorative structures that don’t always get much appreciation from constituents. The duo made use of perspective-control lenses to mimic the old 4×5 view cameras, which, because of the “flexible bellows between the film and the lens,” were the “perfect tool for the architectural photographer,” Ottenstein says. Such lenses allow for the lines of the buildings—the edges of walls, floors, ceilings, columns, staircases—to be “squared up,” while, with standard lenses, a building will look “like it’s leaning backwards.”

Although the tools Lisak and Ottenstein used were similar, their different styles are a point of interest for both photographers, who went on a road trip together before beginning the project to test whether “our work made sense together… We were sometimes shooting back to back or shoulder to shoulder,” Ottenstein says. While there’s certainly overlap, both agree that Lisak is more interested in detail, where Ottenstein is drawn to space.

Two photos in particular—one an interior of the Alaskan capitol in Juneau, the other a moody exterior shot in Albany, NY—put Lisak’s eye for texture on display. In the Alaskan photo, rich light plays over the puckered leather of an office chair, illuminates the whorls of the textured wall and casts a dramatic spotlight on a massive stack of papers—a reminder of the work still to be done. Outside New York’s capitol, a tangle of tree branches in the sky and their shadows on the grass create an organic, tempestuous frame for the building, which looks less like a seat of government and more like a Victorian mansion, secretive and baroque.

Among his own photos, Ottenstein’s favorites—both exteriors, of Richmond, VA, and Columbus, OH—eschew detail for dramatic pillars and slashes of sun and shade. The front of Virginia’s capitol, captured in late afternoon, is a stern study of vertical and horizontal lines, while the Ohio image is a meditation on the simplicity of columns, which rise in both the foreground and the distance.

Put another way, Ottenstein tends to capture the bones of the buildings, while Lisak leans toward the flesh. Both are fascinated by what Lisak calls “historical contradictions embodied in the buildings,” and these schisms are particularly resonant in southern capitols. Lisak’s image of the Arkansas capitol surveys the building over the shoulders of the Little Rock Nine—a powerful sculpture that speaks to the state’s history of segregated schools, as well as the fortitude required of the students who defied it. Ottenstein noticed a broader pattern: “In the northern capitol buildings, everywhere I went I saw Abraham Lincoln… Then, when I headed south, there was no more Lincoln. He just wasn’t there.”

As a whole, the photographs on display in Capitol America are marked by a sense of grandeur and reverence. While not overly romanticized, they respect and echo the aspirations of the people who built these “impressive, temple-like structures,” as Ottenstein describes them. “These buildings represent what we would like to believe self-government could be,” Lisak says. “And yet we know the reality is different.”

This exhibition displays a handful of images that will eventually be included in a book spanning the entire project, from sea to shining sea. When I ask Ottenstein if he’s tired of state capitols, his answer is decisive. “Not at all… We’re both really kind of disappointed that we’re almost done.” With two more buildings to shoot—in Providence, RI, and Augusta, ME—they’re planning to do it together, on one last capitol road trip.

Capitol America by Robert Lisak and David Ottenstein
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 12-5pm through June 30, 2017
(203) 562-4183
www.newhavenmuseum.org/…

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photo 1 © Defining Studios Photography. Photos 2-3 by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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