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Dona Schwartz pays attention to details you and I might miss

By Adam Overland

Dona Schwartz 165
Dona Schwartz

October 26, 2010

Dona Schwartz is an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in visual communication. She's currently on semester leave.

Dona Schwartz pays attention to details you and I might miss. She captures them in a flash, quite literally, with a large-format camera—a bulky, heavy contraption that shoots on 4–by-5-inch film negatives, and which one or even two hands could not hold steadily. The camera gathers far more detail than most digital cameras today can touch—closer to gigabytes (GB) than megabytes (MB) in digital terminology. Technically, that means you could enlarge an image from this camera to the size of a very big, big-screen TV and the detail would stay intact; whereas, it might otherwise be a digitally pixilated mess you'd have to squint at to make sense of. Practically, you and I would hardly know the difference when that image appears in an 8-by-10-inch frame. There is only so much detail the eye and the mind can absorb under those circumstances—but the details are there, in the depths of those photographs. And for decades, Dona Schwartz has been paying attention, often to what are the details of our daily lives.

"One of the things that has shaped my work is that, because I'm a parent, and because I have a full-time job and I have not been able to travel to photograph exotic and unusual things, it has shifted my attention to the things that are interesting, that are right here around us. And, as a matter of fact, the things that are right here around us are actually pretty fascinating," says Schwartz.

Some works, from farm to Super Bowl

Schwartz received a Ph.D in 1983, specializing in visual communication and the way visual representations function in a social environment. Soon after she joined the School of Journalism, where she found that the school embraces professional practice as part of what one can do as a faculty member.

Her body of work began in the 1980s with Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm, an ethnographic study of a small farm town in Iowa.

Schwartz interviewed farm families of three generations, using the photographs she took not only in the presentation of her research, but also in her interviews with the people who would be the focus of her book, to elicit responses about their changing way of life. The narrative those interviews evoked runs parallel with the photographs.

She followed Waucoma Twilight with another book about the 1992 Super Bowl, held at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, detailing what we didn't get to see: a room full of camouflaged FBI agents in the bowels of the Metrodome, for example, and a cavalier letter from the owner of the Washington Redskins to a group protesting the team's name, in which he said he could not conceive of how the team's name could be considered offensive.

Her more recent books rely less on words and more on photographs. "I got to a point where I thought, 'if I need to describe what's in the photograph, and the photographs aren't given the space to do what they can do, then, they're really unnecessary. Either the photographs are redundant or the words are redundant.
It made sense to try to make the argument visually, and to open up the possibility of multiple meanings within the pictures."

In the Kitchen
Take for instance, In the Kitchen, published in 2010—a photographic journey that takes place entirely within the confines of a single kitchen. She and her new husband, each of them with three children, began living together under the same roof in 2003. The book is about the process of reconstituting family when you bring two separate families and traditions together into one, says Schwartz. "And everybody, at some point, had to be in the kitchen," she says.

So, beginning in 2003, Schwartz set a camera in her kitchen and it stayed there, within easy reach, for more than two years. The result became a candid look at what is often the everyday—the everyday that is so, well…everyday that many of us never stop to look at it. So Schwartz has stopped it for us.

Those who view the book may react with a flash of recognition, says Schwartz. "They feel like they know this group of people…you find these moments that are common patterns," she says. One photograph shows two of the children staring intently at an egg cooking, sunny-side up—the first egg they'd ever cooked. Others offer a look at family members, tired in the morning, or crabby, or, as Schwartz says, "in the chaos of just trying to get out the door."

"The complexity of what's going on every day, to me, is really worth championing," says Schwartz. "I want to take the time to slow it down to look at and assess the way we live our lives. Even though we're moving through those lives, we don't very often stop…to think about what it means to do things the way we do them."

On the Nest
In 2006, Schwartz began working on her ongoing project On the Nest, a portrait series, and eventually a book, about parents and children in transitional moments in their lives—shortly before the baby is born, and shortly after the young adult has left the nest. The setting in both cases is the bedroom of the child, but the underlying message is clear: in each case, the photograph shows people on the threshold of momentous change.

"The idea is that there are these moments in your life where you're in transition; you're not what you were, and you're not what you're about to be," says Schwartz. She approaches the topic as a parent—someone, she says, who's been there and done that. The images show people externalizing—in the space of the child's future or former bedroom—what they're thinking and feeling and hoping for in concrete ways.

The photographs, says Schwartz "tell the story of where they've been, and where they think they're headed. And we catch them at a moment in between."

She calls the photos of the expectant parents "a very innocent moment—they're full of love, and hope, and fear—and they have no idea what it's going to be like when they become parents. No idea."

And on the other end, some 18 years later, the threshold unfolds before them again. "When [your kids] leave home, you're not that person that you were back at the beginning. You’re a different person. You can't go back. Who are you going to be now that these children who you've devoted all this time to are gone? Who do you get to be now? Do you just close the door [to the bedroom] and walk away? Does the dust pile up? At what point does it get changed, if ever?"

She's found many answers to that among her subjects. Some have an exercise room before their child returns for the first holiday. Others make a shrine.

Next fall, Schwartz's youngest daughter—the last of the six children in the household—will go off to college. She'll take a final photograph for the project, a self-portrait, and the book will end. "I've thought about that photo quite a bit. And I don't know how I'm going to feel about that. It's staring me down."

Sometimes all you can do is stop, look at the lens, and stare back.

You can see more of Dona Schwartz's work at Dona Schwartz.