Sunday, February 05, 2006

Images of a Landmark

SARATOGA SPRINGS - The banners were hung on Broadway Thursday night - draped across the brick façade of Borders bookstore and lighting up the street like it was opening night at The Met.

They depicted large posters with giant images of stained glass, a lonely steeple, and orb-shaped windows, introduce the latest project of photographer Emma Dodge Hanson.

Hanson, whose focus has included pop stars and fashion models for international magazines, has turned her attentions to a local subject in 'Images of a Landmark,' documenting the ongoing restoration of the historic Universal Preservation Hall on Washington Street.

'I've been photographing it for a year and a half now, inside and out,' says Hanson of her black-and-white images documenting the massive restructuring of the UPH.

Her images capture the historic hall, its twisted shanks of wounded architecture stained by time. Depicted, as well, is the vastness of the sacred space, and the progress of its restoration that will continue through 2005.

When complete, the historic hall dating back to the 1870s will feature a rare collaboration of a worship space for the Universal Baptist congregation and a 750-seat performing arts theater for the city. Hanson's is a visual diary of the transformation.

'Some are abstract (in style), others are larger, more panoramic,' says Hanson of the series of 11 x 14-inch images on exhibition. There are 18 shots in all, which also signify a change in the style of Hanson's art.

Hanson grew up in Nantucket, R.I., watching her grandmother, who stood behind the lens of a camera, capturing the images of children for a series of books published by Random House.

Hanson studied photography at Skidmore College and published her first book of photographs in 1998 - 'Solo: Women Singer-Songwriters in their own words.' The book includes more than 150 photographs of musicians, from a winsome looking Jewel to the playful Ani DiFranco, wearing a leather jacket and a baseball cap, to the seriously determined pose of Sheryl Crow.

Hanson's other work has included sessions with authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks, still photography for dance companies, the white-gowned and tuxedoed couples captured in matrimonial bliss that have appeared in national bridal magazines and, as she watched her grandmother do, she has captured images of children in their starry eyed stages of awe and wonder. In each, the focus is on people going about their daily lives.

With 'Images of a Landmark,' Hanson is working for the first time on architecture, capturing camera angles with arches and bell towers and sleek, sassy balconies where curvaceous lines seem to go on forever.

Four frames depict the building's façade, each connected to the next. When they are hung side by side, their collaboration is not unlike a musical quartet brought together to create a new world symphony.

While the work concentrates on the architecture, three pieces in particular - 'Pews,' 'Electrical Insulators,' and 'Hanging Lights' - depict objects grouped together like bands of families, a human gathering of inanimate objects.

The building itself, with its asymmetrical roofline and mix of Italianate and Germanic gothic-style architecture, provides an intriguing visual base. Hanson's images capture both its historical meaning and its importance for the future, as it undergoes its transformation.

Inside the UPH, Shane Williams-Ness walks through the classic walnut and ash doors that lead up the stairs and open up into the big, beautiful space that will be used for a performing arts center.

'One of the goals is to maintain and enhance the already fabulous acoustics,' says Williams-Ness in the room with towering interior ceilings. Along its flanks, six stained glass windows line each side of the massive hall, while a crew works on the dismantling and rebuilding.

In one corner is a collection of wooden pews, their frames piled with red velvety cushions bearing vintage tags that read 'do not remove.'

A goal, according to Williams-Ness, is to make it a comfortable place to sit and enjoy everything from jazz and pop performances to choruses and modern dance, when the space opens sometime in 2005-2006.

Between now and then, Hanson will continue to document the evolution of the space, depicting a rebirth of sorts, a diary for Saratoga's children and their children's children to revisit in the future.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian


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