On one of the last warm days in October, I led sixteen teens into the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Postcards from America: Milwaukee exhibition. This blog post is a description of our experience spending one hour together looking at a single photographer’s work in the exhibition.
Postcards from America: Milwaukee shows the recent work of eleven Magnum Photographers, invited to photograph Milwaukee during the prior year as part of the Postcards for America project. None of these photographers were local, so their photographs—ranging from portraits at the Wisconsin State Fair to polaroids to an installation memorial for a deceased musician—were provocative for a group of high schoolers who have spent their whole lives here.
This was also the first time most of these students had ever met each other. Hailing from twelve different Milwaukee-area high schools, and often the lone “art nerd” in their class, they came together for the Satellite High School Program, a semester-long, weekly program taking place at the Museum. For most, it was the first time they’d ever been in a room where everyone else was just as into art as they are.
After exploring the exhibition in pairs with a set of prompts (see photo above), we came together in front of Donovan Wylie’s The Preparatory City—Marquette Interchange (2014), which is situated in between two additional photographs by Wylie (pictured below).
Although the teens did not yet know its title, we immediately began discussing the mood of the photograph—desolate, tranquil, solitude, waiting. They quickly recognized the location, intrigued by the photographer’s choice to depict a street most people never end up on—as one student said, “I’ve actually been on that street, but only because I took a wrong turn trying to get on the highway. And I was terrified because I had no clue it even existed.”
We moved up close, looking at details in the monumental photograph (it’s 5’ x 6 ½’)—a lone street light, a red fire hydrant, specks of litter on snow-scattered patches of grass, a hazy white truck idling in the distance. The teens talked of the height of the columns, so much like temples or cathedrals stretching up into the sky, even as they’re blocked by the road itself, stopping our eyes from reaching the top of the frame.
Eventually, I shared the title of the photograph, and we began to discuss what the artist meant by the phrase “preparatory.” I told them something Wylie said when he visited Milwaukee for an artist’s talk earlier in the year: that he was struck by the buildings, streets, and highways that seemed to be lying in wait for an influx of people to inhabit them. “The photograph reminds me of how I feel when I’m taking a walk in the evening in winter,” one student commented. “There’s no one around on the street—it’s eerie.”
Then another student asked: “Is the artist making a satirical statement about the city—about how sad it is that we’re ready for a population who probably will never come? Should we be offended?” Deeply embedded themselves in the difficulties facing the city in terms of segregation and education, the students began to talk about how it seems like nothing ever really gets better, even though there’s a lot of talk surrounding all these challenges.
It looked as if the conversation would end on a low point, and we all paused, quietly considering the photograph and its empty streets and towering concrete columns. “Maybe this is an out there comment and no one will agree with me,” one student said, tentatively breaking the silence, “but I don’t think he’s being negative. To me it’s positive, like, yeah, there’s maybe more we can do to encourage people to come, but there’s hope in the photograph, with all the buildings and streets open and waiting and ready.”
The tenor of the group changed, and we began to talk about what could be done to open up these conversations into ways to get things done and bring more people in. We ended by agreeing that photographs like this, and the exhibition itself, are an important first step, and that there is unexpected empowerment that comes in seeing your city photographed through the eyes of outsiders.