How do you see St. Louis? That was the question the Sheldon Art Galleries posed as it asked people to send their photographic answer for prizes and a chance to have their work shown.
This Friday, June 6, The City at 250 - A Celebration of St. Louis in Photographs opens to reveal stories of the city, shown with affection.
There is no direct statement in any of the photographs regarding social conflict or political struggle – no photograph depicting the “Delmar Divide” or homelessness or college students against Peabody Coal. Sheldon Art Galleries Director Olivia Lahs-Gonzales does not recall any conspicuously transgressive content in the photographs that didn’t make the cut. The general response was diverse in a myriad of ways but uniform in the photographers’ testimony to their gentle love for the city.
The judges -- Lahs-Gonzales, the St. Louis Art Museum’s Eric Lutz, John Nagel of the International Photography Hall of Fame along with the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio’s Robert Duffy -- have selected high-quality images that create a record of this moment in our city’s history. They did not know names of the participants, their gender, ethnicity or backgrounds. The resulting exhibit – with work from professional, amateur and youth photographers– presents fresh as well as fine-tuned ways of seeing St. Louis.
A small selection of the “places” category winners depict architectural ruins as an aesthetic interest. Pamela Lawson’s Looking Backwards shows the once beautiful Carr School, ravaged by time and neglect. Like a crumbling Corinthian column, once great buildings now beyond hope for repair are more fascinating than sad when removed from the context of an impoverished neighborhood. Lahs-Gonzales notes that St. Louis parks are well represented in the exhibit. Wendy Williams Gold on the Ground – Ginkgos in Tower Grove Park and David T. Carriel’s Unusual Tree in Lafayette Park offer keenly composed views of local favorites.
It is also an earnest, as opposed to commercial, showcase of our best-loved buildings. Neil E. Das presents an alluring view of a Moonrise Over the Chase. Matt Wicks and Jeff Hirsch both present dazzling details of the fabulous Fox that are not found on the theater’s promotional materials, but should be. The magic in these images comes of the photographers’ discerning vision facilitated by their technical talent. Many provide very interesting perspectives on well-known places. There are an abundance of arches. Yet, presentations of the Gateway Arch in the exhibit will not be familiar. They show the Arch from odd angles, through objects and as seen from the midst of deserted buildings in North St. Louis.
Some hidden gems that only St. Louis insiders will recognize are also on display. Sugarloaf Mound along the Mississipi south of the brewery is the only known Mississippian mound west of the river, but few people are aware that it exists. Two photographers mark this spot as important. Some of the photographers capture fleeting moments to describe a place. Hilary Hitchcock’s images do just this. You Came Back, a photograph she took from a window in her Skinker-Debaliviere childhood home, makes the viewer into a voyeur. The image of a man seen through trees as he walks through snow is frozen in time like held breath.
Despite the heavy competition and without any advantage other than her artistry Hitchcock had three photographs chosen for the final contest selection. She employs a different method of visual storytelling for each. Hitchcock has spent years exploring photographic devices from digital point and shoot cameras to Polaroids to pin-hole and toy cameras. Her photograph of humble South City red brick bungalows, titled I Notice You, comes of her love for the “unsung heroes of St. Louis architecture.” Hitchcock is sentimental about these charming houses that were “built for a turn-of-the-century working class, not fancy people, yet always include beautiful millwork, a little stained glass window somewhere and a mantle above the fireplace.”
The personal stories of the photographers often provide an interesting backstory. Amateur photographer Olivia Kristina Botonis had her mother pose with her sewing machine in front of the City Museum in A Stitch-in-Time Becomes a Playground to Climb. When Botonis’ lovely mother left Greece for St. Louis in 1973 she found work as a seamstress in that building, then the home of Biltwell Sportswear.
The first place award for the youth category went to Emily Scholten of Parkway North High School. Scholten’s photograph is a very clever take: It shows a map of the St. Louis region projected onto the face of her friend and classmate, Ashley Hanson. The image is captivating. It is also a lovely marking of the transition both of these young women are making into their next phase of life. Hanson is heading to New York City to embark on a career as a professional model, as Scholten enters Kansas University to study graphic design. Both Scholten and Hanson are likely to look back periodically on the countless ways that their St. Louis childhoods shaped their lives and their vision.
The exhibit catalog featuring 100 of the 250 winning photographs will be available at the gallery, online and in local bookstores. At $24.95, it is surprisingly affordable for a fully illustrated, hardbound art book. The remaining 150 photographs that were chosen to represent contemporary St. Louis are on display on video slide shows throughout the galleries.
The Sheldon Art Galleries began commemoration the 250th anniversary of the city in February when the Imagining the Founding of St. Louis exhibit opened. To enter the photography galleries, visitors will pass through that expansive array of early St. Louis colonial art and artifacts from large and small local collections. These rooms draw the Osage history of the region into focus and show French Colonialist attempts to make their own visual record. The juxtaposition of historic and contemporary visual reflections on the city makes for a thought-provoking exercise of self-analysis. What are we looking for when we envision our city?
Note: The St. Louis Beacon/St. Louis Public Radio supported the contest.
Saturday, June 21, 11 a.m. - J. Frederick Fausz will sign and discuss his book The Significance of the “Indian Capital” of Colonial St. Louis – Then and Now.
Saturday, July 12, 1 p.m. – Artist and Osage Scholar Sean Standing Bear will discuss his painting in the Imagining the Founding of St. Louis exhibit as well as the Osage objects on view.
Wednesday, July 14, 12 p.m. – Daven Anderson speaks on the history of the founding of St. Louis.
Admission to all gallery talks is free, but a reservation is needed for each. Call or email Susan Sheppard at email@example.com or 314-533-9900 x37
Saturdays, June 28-Aug. 9, 10:30-12:30 p.m. – Children’s event - Storytelling and scavenger hunt in the galleries. (Suggested donation of $3 a child for craft supplies)
Where: 3648 Washington Blvd. 63108