As all states have their own character, so, too, do their capitol buildings. New Haven Museum’s newest exhibit, “Capitol America,” includes photographs of the nation’s capital buildings, many of them sites of both architectural beauty and historical conflict. A project by New Haven professional photographers Robert Lisak and David Ottenstein, the show will open on Thursday, January 26, 2017, with a reception at 6 p.m.
“Capitol America” is a show of contrasts—black and white, light and dark, workaday function and Gilded-Age splendor—with large-format photographs encircling the New Haven Museum’s own elegant rotunda, and a slideshow on a tablet computer. The “secular, civic temples” featured in the photographs range in style and feeling from classical elegance, to robber-baron ostentation, to practical simplicity, reﬂecting the historical moment in which they were built—during times of budgetary excess or restraint—and something of the nature of the people of the state.
From the 19th-century flamboyance of “manifest destiny” to the 20th-century sculpture of the “Little Rock Nine,” the exhibition explores the history and nature of the continually evolving American experience through the architecture, artifacts and furnishings within and without the halls of governance.
While the exhibition’s images are full of arresting detail—an unusual view of the rotunda in the capitol building in Hartford, taken from behind the statue, “The Genius of Connecticut,” for example—Ottenstein and Lisak view the collection as photographic exploration, not documentary. “Photographs have their own language,” Lisak explains. “It’s not always literal, the content of the photo, but how the content resides within the photograph.” As artists, their aim is to get past the notion that a photo is a literal mechanical reproduction of “some piece of the world.” Lisak summarizes, “We are trying to make each photo interesting and compelling as a two-dimensional image, a visual artifact, regardless of the subject matter.”
Lisak and Ottenstein met in a Yale University darkroom 30 years ago. The two professional photographers reconnected in recent years, sharing ideas and periodically collaborating. Reflecting on their ultimate objective of producing a book with the “Capitol America” photos, they note the influence of the 1976 publication, “Court House” which documented architectural styles in court houses across the United States. Lisak notes “We became photographers at a time when that was what you did with a photographic project; the book was the goal.” Ottenstein adds, “Working toward the creation of a book imposes a discipline and creates a permanent record. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work.”
About the Artists
David Ottenstein has worked as a free-lance photographer in New Haven, since 1982. His commercial work includes architectural, product, editorial and people photography on location and in the studio. His interest in American history and culture is reflected in his fine art/documentary work, and led him to photograph interiors of decaying industrial buildings in the northeast U.S., to the Midwest, and more recently, to the mountains and Great Plains of the American West. Photographs from these projects are part of the Western Americana Collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Library, the Permanent Collection of Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of American Art, Kansas City, Missouri and the New Britain Museum of American Art, among others. He received a degree from Yale University in American studies with a concentration in photography.
Robert Lisak is a photographer and videographer based in New Haven. He has done a wide range of work for commercial, architectural, and non-profit clients, as well as pursuing his personal work for more than 25 years. He is a member of the American Society of Media Photographers and has an MFA in photography from the Yale University School of Art. He taught photography for more than 20 years at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he created the digital photography courses in the Media Studies Department.
About the New Haven Museum
The New Haven Museum has been collecting, preserving and interpreting the history and heritage of Greater New Haven since its inception as the New Haven Colony Historical Society in 1862. Located in downtown New Haven at 114 Whitney Avenue, the Museum brings more than 375 years of New Haven history to life through its collections, exhibitions, programs and outreach. For more information visit www.newhavenmuseum.org or Facebook.com/NewHavenMuseum or call 203-562-4183.