State Housing

State Housing

To view all 12 images, check out the email edition.

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Extraordinary journeys often begin somewhere entirely ordinary. For New Haven photographers Robert Lisak and David Ottenstein, an offhand conversation in 2012 was one such beginning. Ottenstein was showing Lisak photos he’d taken of the Ohio Statehouse, jogging in Lisak the memory of a 1978 book, Court House, whose contributors had traveled the country photographing America’s seats of justice. The pair discussed the prospects for a kind of spiritual successor focused on state legislatures, and now, 11 years and 49 capitol shoots later (unless they revisited Ohio), the result is here: Capitol America: A Photographic Portrait of the Fifty State Capitols.

It’s a result of which they should be extremely proud. The technical achievements necessary to produce the book’s 250-plus images are as monumental as the subjects themselves. Perhaps only other master photographers can understand the skill and effort it takes to weave—no, wield—light, shadow, color and composition this way. But we hardly need to understand a piece of magic to be awestruck by it.

Informative, level-headed descriptions of the 50 capitols offer a grounded contrast to the outrageously beautiful photographs, which also contain more subtle insights. As the authors pose it in their introduction, this survey is a chance to contemplate the historical, political, social, philosophical, logistical and material meaning and power of these diverse yet connected “civic temples” “arisen from the dream of self-government.” Through Ottenstein and Lisak’s lenses, we find that opulence and prudence, magnitude and intimacy, profundity and utility, universality and locality are, like unum and pluribus, equally virtuous—paradoxes that abound in structures meant to encompass so much.

Despite the book’s scale and span, some images managed to resonate on a personal level. A photo of a sculpture outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol was a shock—not because it features prominent bare breasts but rather because it does so in Pennsylvania, a state that not long ago rejected a relative’s business name registration on the grounds that the name was blasphemous. Images of Connecticut’s state house hit home, of course, but also manage a few surprises. A view of our 1878-constructed capitol through a rotunda within the 1988-constructed Legislative Office Building is an inspired choice, juxtaposing lavish “High Victorian Gothic” architecture meant to look older than it is against an obviously budget-constrained project whose aesthetic tells you pretty much exactly when it was designed. Another image, this one taken inside the state house, shows an antique chair occupied by a rumpled box of manila envelopes used to distribute files to legislators—an expensive and esteemed object and a set of ephemeral and everyday objects, each performing their civic duty.

Capitol America is such a sustained and iterative study that you can use it not just to examine the architecture and aesthetics of state houses but also the architecture of your own aesthetics. You may find, like me, that your answers to questions so basic we usually forget to ask them—What exactly do I like? Why exactly do I like it?—evolve each time you leaf through this book, a testament to its depth and detail.

The dozen images the photographers have graciously allowed me to curate here are both representative and not. They don’t (because 12 images can’t) represent the breadth of Capitol America’s visual and intellectual feast. They do however convey the artistic achievements to be found throughout—and, I hope, the opportunity afforded by a 4 p.m. book launch tomorrow at the Institute Library, where you can not only buy the book but pick the brains behind it.

Capitol America: A Photographic Portrait of the Fifty State Capitols
by Robert Lisak and David Ottenstein
Website | Book Launch Event

Written by Dan Mims. Images photographed by Robert Lisak and David Ottenstein for their new book, Capitol America: A Photographic Portrait of the Fifty State Capitols.

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