Old World Wisconsin: A Photographer’s Paradise

I am delighted to welcome Loyd Heath to Sites and Stories today!
* * *
Most of the photographs in Kathleen Ernst’s latest book A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons were taken by me at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor living history museum located in Eagle, Wisconsin. Kathleen invited me to write this post about my interest in Old World, some of my thoughts about photography, and how I got involved in this project.

Loyd Heath

Although I have lived in the Seattle area for over 50 years, my late wife and I are originally from Wisconsin. When we retired in 1998 we took a road trip to Wisconsin to revisit some of our old haunts. Old World was not one of them because it didn’t open to the public until 1976, long after we had left Wisconsin. But after discovering Old World on the web we decided to stop. Our visit was brief but when I discovered the ten working farms, the Yankee Village, the farm animals, and the interpreters and farmers dressed in 19th century period costumes going about their daily activities, I said to my wife “this is a photographer’s paradise, I’m coming back.” I did, and I’ve been coming back to photograph several times every year since.

Kathleen used many of my Old World photos in A Settler’s Year to provide a glimpse into pioneer life but I have many that didn’t make the cut for various reasons.

Although I have photographed all of the farms at Old World, I probably have more shots of the Fossebrekke farm (located in the Norwegian area of the museum) than any other. Several of them are included in the book but the Fossebrekke farm is so photogenic that I have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos there. The one room cabin is small and spartan but it tells much about how early immigrants to Wisconsin lived and is located in such a beautiful setting with so much activity that I return to Fossebrekke again and again.

Fossebrekke farm in the Norwegian area.

Fossebrekke farm in the Norwegian area.

An interpreter cooks a pancake in the 1845 Fossebrekke (Norwegian) cabin.

An interpreter cooks flatbread in the 1845 Fossebrekke (Norwegian) cabin.

Friends often ask why I keep returning to the same place. They want to know whether I get a “been there/done that” feeling at Old World. They don’t understand that the museum is not a static place; it is a living history museum. Activities are constantly changing, the people and animals are constantly changing, and the light and colors are constantly changing. A photo taken today is different from one taken at the same place on another day – or even another hour or minute.

Photography requires great patience. I spend much of my time just observing what is unfolding before me so I can snap my shutter when the elements in my viewfinder appear “just right” to create the image that best conveys what I want it to say. This is what the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed the “decisive moment” i.e. the moment when the elements of an image are best aligned and the action is at its best or peak.

Although the farms and 19th century architecture are great subjects for photography, my camera often leads me to children visitors and their activities. The site is filled with school groups on weekdays and families with children on weekends.

A group of schoolchildren on a field trip enjoy a tug of war with Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen while their teacher and parent chaperone watch and photograph the event. Photo taken in the German area at the at the 1860 Schulz farm.

A group of schoolchildren on a field trip enjoy a tug of war with Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, while their teacher and parent chaperone watch and photograph the event. Photo taken in the German area at the at the 1860 Schulz farm.

A young boy befriends the farm animals.

A young boy befriends the farm animals.

Windows provide many opportunities for photos. They often provide interesting frames. Here’s a shot I used on the cover of an on-demand photo book I designed featuring the windows of Old World.

WindowsOWW

Windows also provide beautiful soft light for interior shots. When I first started photographing at Old World I used film. Since most of the buildings are quite dark, I often encountered situations where there was not enough light to shoot without a tripod and tripods are not permitted in the buildings. Flash is a poor alternative because it produces harsh contrasty light that destroys the ambiance of those old structures. It also tends to distract subjects who are engaged in some activity. It makes them look up and “smile for the camera,” another look I generally try to avoid.

But photography has changed. Modern digital cameras are far more sensitive to light than film so I am now able to capture high quality handheld images that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Here are a couple of shots I captured recently using only available window light and no tripod.

Windows provided the Kvaale family with light for doing household chores. Here a window provides light for showing a school group how things were done in the "old days."

Windows provided the Kvaale family with light for doing household chores. Here a window provides light for showing a school group how things were done in the “old days.”

An interpreter prepares food in the kitchen of the Kvaale farmhouse.

An interpreter prepares food in the kitchen of the Kvaale farmhouse.

Special events provide great opportunities for photos at Old World. A Civil War encampment is held each year with reenactors portraying events that occurred during the war. Several years ago the Civil War event included a funeral of a Yankee soldier. His casket, surrounded by flowers, was displayed in the parlor of the Sanford House in the Village and the following day was carried to the church where a funeral service was held and the casket was buried with a 21 gun salute.

Civil War Collage copy

Since I switched from film to digital, I now shoot everything in color. But I love the nostalgic or “antiquey” look of black and white or sepia and it seems appropriate for a 19th century living history museum so I often convert selected images to monochrome. Here’s an example that illustrates the different “feel” I can achieve by converting an image from color to monochrome or “grayscale” as it is now often called. I like both the color and the black & white renditions of this image, but they are very different. The color emphasizes the lusciousness of the spring foliage whereas the B&W draws the eye to the shapes of the main elements of the image, the farmer, the oxen, and the wagon.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Teddy and Bear, Old World oxen, haul a load of hay through the German area of Old World Wisconsin on a wet spring day.

Old World is a great place for portraiture. I like my portraits to have a candid look so I sometimes have to ask interpreters not to pose, but that is never true of the animals. Some of them “moon” me when I approach, but this pig went right on with his bath.

Cooling off on a warm summer day.

Cooling off on a warm summer day.

When organizing my photos I have labeled some of them “artsy.” These are creative images that are often somewhat abstract. They tend to be architectural scenes that I find aesthetically pleasing . Here are a couple of examples:

Mary Hafford's bedroom as seen through her bedroom window.

Mary Hafford’s bedroom as seen through her bedroom window.

Grotelueschen blacksmith shop on the left and Peterson wagon shop on the right, both in the heart of Crossroads village.

Grotelueschen blacksmith shop on the left and Peterson wagon shop on the right, both in the heart of Crossroads village.

Note the different shapes in this image, the triangles, the squares, the rectangles, and even a couple of circles. It is these shapes that attract your eye and make the image interesting.

Friends often ask me what type of camera I use at Old World. High quality images can be captured with almost any type of equipment. When I used to judge the Old World photo contest we often awarded prizes to images shot with “point and shoots,” (sometimes dubbed PHD cameras as in “Push Here Dummy”), and even a few with cell phones.

Yet nevertheless I have to admit that I use high-end equipment (professional single lens reflex cameras and high quality large aperture lenses) because it enables me to be more flexible in my shooting and increases my chances of capturing high quality images.  But that also has a downside.  I am often approached by people who comment on what a “beautiful” camera I have.  I know they are just trying to be friendly and mean well but I have difficulty knowing how to respond because in my world cameras are useful but not “beautiful.”

When one of my photographer friends receives a comment of this type, he often responds by relating the story of a magazine publisher who threw a cocktail party for contributors to a recent issue. During the festivities one of the authors approached one of the photographers and commented somewhat haughtily, “I really enjoyed your photographs; you must have a very fine camera” whereupon the photographer retorted “and I really enjoyed your article; you must have a very fine typewriter.” Moral of the story: although a good camera can help, serious photographers believe there is far more to making a good photo than a good camera.

And I use the term making rather than taking because I believe that post processing (i.e., adjusting color, tonal values, cropping, etc.) of an image after capture is frequently as important as clicking the shutter. He didn’t have the digital tools we have today, but Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer, was famous in part because of his post processing of images. (He did it in the darkroom, not on a computer.) He once jokingly said that dodging and burning (i.e, adjusting tonal values) is the photographer’s way of correcting the mistakes God made when He established tonal values.

Old World encourages visitors to bring their cameras (SLRs, point and shoots, cell phones or whatever) and it sponsors an annual contest with significant monetary prizes and publicity for photos taken on site. For more information about the contest click HERE.

And for more information about my photography see  www.Loydheath.com.

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