This is an archived article.

February 26, 2009

Past and present: Class photographs Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition sites with large-format cameras

John Stamets and his students are trying to photograph a ghost. No, it’s not a hovering spirit that leaves a wispy shape in the middle of a picture. The ghost they’re looking for is the UW campus in 1909, when it played host to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE). And the camera they’re using to capture it isn’t too much different from the ones in use 100 years ago.


Stamets, a lecturer in the College of Built Environments, is teaching large format photography. The camera, which has a front standard and a back standard with a bellows in between, uses 4 by 5-inch film instead of the 8 by 10 glass plate used in 1909. But just like in the old days, the photographer gets under a hood to take the photo.


Most of the equipment being used in the class belongs to Stamets and it isn’t terribly portable, so he needed a project for his class that was close at hand. Then he hit upon it — why not photograph sites on campus that were captured by AYPE photographers in 1909? So now the class sets out with old photos in hand and tries to re-photograph a site as it is today.


Easy, right? Wrong. Most of the buildings built for the AYPE are long gone, since they weren’t built to last in the first place. “The fair people asked, ‘What three permanent buildings do you want? Most of these buildings are going to be torn down, but we’ll give you some good ones.’” Stamets said. “The University asked for a chemistry building, an engineering building and an auditorium.”


The chemistry building lives on today as the Architecture Building, but the engineering building was replaced by today’s Mechanical Engineering Building (on the same site) and the auditorium — the original Meany Hall — was damaged in the 1965 earthquake and torn down. Two other buildings survive, however. Cunningham Hall was the women’s building at the AYPE, and a building then called the foundry survives as the Engineering Annex behind the Mechanical Engineering Building (it has been enlarged since the AYPE days).


The demise of the AYPE buildings and the springing up of new buildings in different places poses a dilemma for today’s photographers. Stamets notes that the locations of some of the major buildings at the AYPE are open spaces today and vice versa. For example, the footprint of the Government Building, the largest building at the fair, is almost exactly the same as Red Square today, while present-day Meany Hall sits on what was then open space just inside the fair’s main entrance at 40th Street.


“Some of these photos you can’t take because you would be looking at a blank wall or you’d be inside a building if you were in the same location,” Stamets said. “But we try to do anything that seems to be relatively possible.”


Students take what Stamets called A, B and C shots. An A shot means the photographer is standing in approximately the same spot as the 1909 photographer was. A B shot is when the photographer isn’t quite in the same spot, but isn’t far away. For example, Frosh Pond today is smaller in diameter than its predecessor, Geyser Basin. But in shooting across the pond, Stamets aimed his camera so that the pond took up one-third of the shot, as it did in the original, even though that meant he had to stand a few feet away from where the original photographer stood.


In a C shot, the photographer has to take greater liberties. For example, in 1909 the George Washington statue was inside the entrance to the AYPE at 40th Street. The photograph taken then showed people headed into the fair past the statue. The student who recaptured the scene wanted to include the statue in it, despite the fact that it has been moved to opposite Campus Parkway.


“The statue is still at an entrance to the campus, so the photographer shot the statue with people heading away from the camera, just as they were in the original,” Stamets said.


Stamets began teaching his class in the winter of 2007 and has been doing so most quarters since. He didn’t start out with the AYPE in mind, he said. He just wanted to teach students how to use a large format camera, which — despite the incursions of digital — still has a place in architectural and fine art photography, especially when historical documentation is involved.


“Large format photography centers around keen observation rather than spontaneous conditions,” said Susie Philpsen, a UW graduate who took Stamets’ class. “It requires far more long-term attention and time and potentially more visits to the site. That said, when shooting large format, the negatives provide such great detail that unintended things appear all the time that you wouldn’t expect and it suddenly seems far more spontaneous than you might imagine.”


Laura Newton, a student currently taking the class, agreed. “It’s so different from taking out a 35 mm camera,” she said. “There’s a lot of planning. There’s more purpose and intent you’ve got to put into it. But it’s pretty exciting when you feel you did it right.”


Since beginning the project Stamets has become quite interested in the AYPE, and photographs by him and his students will appear in an upcoming UW press book, A White City in the West: Frank H. Nowell and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The book, by Nicolette Bromberg, visual materials curator at the UW Libraries, focuses on the photography of Nowell, the official AYPE photographer.


There will also be an exhibit of then-and-now photos by Stamets and his students over the summer in Architecture Hall. Interestingly, the second floor studio in which they will be exhibited appears in one of the photo pairs. Although the building was designed as a chemistry building, it was called the Palace of Fine Art during the fair and housed art exhibits.


The buiding’s recent landscape renovation has been a boon for Stamets. Some large trees were removed, leaving the building more exposed than it has been in years. “Now I look at the 1909 photos and today’s, and I can hardly tell the difference.”