Grand Forks Herald


Friday, May 30, 2008


Fifteen years ago, artist and photographer Roddy MacInnes found two photo albums in a flea market in Denver. Inside was the signature of the photographer, Nina Wieste, a date that showed the photos had been made in 1917 and a reference to the Jim River.

Through an Internet search, MacInnes, of Boulder, Colo., found that the Jim River flowed through Dickey County, N.D., and that in 1917 Wieste had been attending a teacher's college in Ellendale, N.D. Later, he met with members of the Dickey County Historical Society to explore ways to develop a project from Wieste's album, and her photos of the people and places of long ago.

And that led to a project MacInnes has called "Jim River, Sad But Sympathetic" that will be part of "Remembering Dakota," an exhibit set to open June 10 at North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks.

In his statements about the project, MacInnes wrote of his initial intention to use the project to address questions such as why we have the need to create a photographic record and what role photographs play in the construction of identity.

Wieste photographed the significant people in her life and the landscape wherever she was, MacInnes wrote. In all of the photographs, there was a sense of celebration and excitement, possibly because of the great transitions in her life, he said.

"She is leaving home. She is anticipating nostalgia," MacInnes said. "And because of this, I am tempted to believe that Nina Wieste understood the significance in photography's ability to preserve memory, especially since she knew that great changes were about to take place. She had the foresight to make a visual record of the changes, by photographing what was familiar, and also who she was and what she would become."

Many of the photographs in Weiste's albums were taken in and around the small towns of Oakes, N.D., and Guelph, N.D., and in nearby Ellendale. Also that year she travelled to Paul, Idaho, where (MacInnes believes) she was a student teacher for a short time. Within the photographs Weiste took that year, though locations changed, there were recurring themes, MacInnes said.

As part of the project, and as another way to explore the relationship of people, memories and photographs, MacInnes made photographs of members of the Dickey County Historical Society. MacInnes also asked each of his subjects for a a photo of themselves when they were 16, the same age Nina Wieste had been when she took the photos in the album. With some of the photos, MacInnes included quote from the subject about the photographs and the signifi-cance of their own personal photo albums.

Wieste died in 1983 in Pueblo, Colo., and MacInnes said he had little information about her life between 1917 and 1983 except that she was a teacher in eastern Colorado before marry-ing and moving to Pueblo. As his project continues to be exhibited, he is learning more about her and the other photos, he said.

For his project, MacInnes said, he wanted to spend time in the environments of Wieste's photos, and to capitalize on her recurring themes. He tried to see what he imagined she would have seen, and tried to convey that in his photographs.

As he photographed the people who now occupy the landscapes Wieste had photographed more than 30 years earlier, MacInnes said he began to understand how the landscapes and people had changed, or had not changed.

"Although the people and places recorded in Nina Weiste's photographs are unique, and specific to her, we recognize them," MacInnes said. "In terms of vernacular photography, they are familiar to us because we understand their language."

Art critic Susan Sontag wrote that the family album was photography in its truest sense, MacInnes said, as it memorializes the achievements of individuals.

Nina Weiste's photographs of life at the beginning of the 20th Century, MacInnes said, also provide a record of a landscape about to undergo a marked transformation. The rural envi-ronment she inhabited has changed. Her photographs lay claim to another reality and a connection to the past.