by Alison Wagener
Every picture tells a story. But what happens when that story strays from the truth – perhaps so far that it becomes a truth of its own?
That’s what UW-Eau Claire archivist Greg Kocken, associate professor of English B.J. Hollars, and associate professor of photography Jyl Kelley set out to discover. And at their UWEC Foster Gallery exhibition, “Fauxtography: Real Photos, Fake Stories, and the Intersection of Fact and Fiction,” you can too.
The exhibition consists of 16 photographs from Daniel Nelson and Charles Van Schaick, both turn of the 20th century western Wisconsin photographers. Displayed under each photograph is a story, written by Hollars, that features the picture’s subject. To make the experience even more immersive, the team recruited several community members to read the stories aloud.
But while writing these stories came naturally to Hollars, pairing fictional, inaccurate information with historical photos was a departure from Kocken’s everyday work.
“That’s the difficult thing to wrap my mind around, still. Partly because my training is as a historian, and this goes absolutely against everything that a historian would do,” Kocken joked. “I think we’re really trying to challenge the viewer to question what they see.”
In 2011, Kocken assisted a historian who was working on a small family project. The historian was intrigued by a set of glass plate negatives taken by his grandfather, Daniel Nelson, an amateur Eau Claire photographer. Over 400 in total, these negatives presented a considerable opportunity for the McIntyre Library Special Collections and Archives to partner in preserving and providing access to a piece of Eau Claire history.
“All of those images focus on Eau Claire, and more importantly, place [the researcher’s] family in the context of Eau Claire at a very important time in our community’s history, a time when Eau Claire was transitioning from a lumber town into this kind of post-lumber, emerging industrial town,” Kocken said. “It’s a very fascinating collection.”
Kocken added that while Nelson’s photography is obviously amateur, he was struck by the candid nature in which he captured his subjects while simultaneously placing them within a meaningful scene. Kocken later had the idea to display the Nelson images in the Foster Gallery, and he knew he wanted to pair them with Van Schaick’s.
Van Schaick began as a studio photographer in Black River Falls in 1885 and served as the town’s main photographer for over 50 years. His professional photographs present a contrast to Nelson’s amateur work, featuring posed subjects, painted backdrops, and often blank expressions. His collection of over 6,000 images was made available by the Wisconsin Historical Society and have been featured in Wisconsin Death Trip and Hollars’ own Dispatches from the Drownings.
Together, Kocken, Hollars, and Kelley narrowed down the thousands of images to just 16, a process Greg understated as being “not easy.” The challenge, Greg said, was to find images that not only had a fine aesthetic quality, but that also told a story.
Hollars then took inspiration from those stories to write his own.
"It was so fun to develop the stories inspired by these photographs. In some ways, it felt like I was collaborating with Van Schaick and Nelson. And it sort of felt like I was collaborating with the subjects, too—all of whom are long dead, of course, but through the power of fiction, we were able to dream a few more stories."
Kocken said that by pairing fictional stories with these very real photographs, they hope to challenge the audience’s narrative of what happens when you look at a picture.
“The photographs are perfectly real – they capture perfectly real moments in time. But often when we see a photograph, when we don’t know the subject or the scene, our mind starts trying to piece that puzzle together,” Kocken said. “In this way, we’ve taken that concept and kind of flipped it on its head, because we’ve absolutely built those puzzle pieces for you in your mind. But they’re not accurate at all.”
When I went to chat with him, Kocken showed me a sneak peek of the exhibition, and I can say that “Fauxtography” certainly subverts its audience’s expectations. The true lives of the people in each historical picture are essentially unknowable, so the fictional stories Hollars has created become, in a way, more true for the audience than their real-life situations. It’s a very personal experience—but still completely fabricated.
So basically, it’s just your everyday art exhibition, except it makes you question everything you know about art, photography, stories, and perhaps even truth itself.
“Fauxtography: Real Photos, Fake Stories, and the Intersection of Fact and Fiction” will be displayed Nov. 4-23 in the Haas Fine Arts Center’s Foster Gallery at UW-Eau Claire. Entrance to the Foster Gallery is free. Those interested in listening to the stories are encouraged to bring their smartphones and a pair of headphones.