Connecticut College News
The ´accidental historian:´ Photography professor shares unique perspective of downtown New London06/16/2009
This photo of the New London Parade shows the view from Captain´s Pizza. The photo, taken in 1984, is one of 10 of Professor Ted Hendrickson´s on display at the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London.
A photographer with half a century´s experience in one city is bound to have some sort of archive. Thus is the case with Hendrickson, Connecticut College´s photography-focused assistant professor of art. So when the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London decided to host an exhibition about the history of the New London Parade, a public open area at the entrance of the city, Hendrickson reached back into his collection and emerged with a prominent set of historic photographs.
Ten of Hendrickson´s photographs now decorate the front alcove of the museum´s second floor. They are displayed alongside old postcards, drawings and paintings, as well as architect blueprints for the Parade renovation. Hendrickson´s photos document the most current history of downtown, from the early 1980´s through as recently as May of this year. The other historic material, borrowed from local organizations like the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London Landmarks and the New London Public Library, depict scenes of downtown: the fires of the Revolutionary War, State Street´s boulevard in the 1800´s and seasonal events through the early 20th century.
The Parade is currently undergoing a $10.2 million renovation to restore it to its historical intention: an open and accessible cultural area in the heart of New London, and a warm access gate to travelers passing through the city. It is part of a grand plan to "bring New London back." The redesign removes what Hendrickson describes as the "imposing dam of earth" that once welcomed train passengers, levels the plaza with the street, expands the amount of open space and adds greenery, sculptures and a whale´s tail fountain in the center of a small, sunken-in amphitheater.
Not all New London residents are convinced this will improve the city. In letters to the New London Day, comparisons have been made to past failed attempts to improve the city, from "Next they will be putting cobblestones on State Street again" to "What a waste of taxpayer money." Hendrickson explains that the city has had numerous experts make ineffective suggestions for improvement. When he says the word experts, he laughs. "New Londoners are getting suspicious of these promises."
Hendrickson thinks the Parade renovation, however, actually could be part of a unique, more permanent rebound. The renovation is accentuated by newly sprouting restaurants and coffee shops. In the past three years, downtown New London has welcomed a shoe boutique and art gallery, a food co-op, a fair trade store, an outdoor eating cafe, a music venue and an organic restaurant with a daily changing menu. The area has also witnessed the flourishing of their widespread art initiative, Hygenic Art. But the most important difference, Hendrickson says, is the introduction of condominiums to central areas of town.
"The difference this time is that people are starting to live downtown, in these newly renovated buildings," says Hendrickson. "They´re looking for places to shop and to eat. Things can´t close down at five in the afternoon anymore, just when people are getting out of work. That was something that was really holding the city back."
And although the distance between the college and downtown has always stunted potential interaction between the two, Hendrickson thinks this, too, is changing for the better.
"New London´s much more interesting than a lot of college towns, but it´s an effort to get here," he says. "But the interaction between the college and downtown is better than it´s been, maybe ever. There´s so much more to do downtown. Businesses have a stronger customer base. It´s become a pretty cool place."
Regardless of the climate of New London, Hendrickson has always made time to shoot downtown. Even today, he regularly makes the drive from his home in Mystic to photograph what has changed.
"I´ve been taking pictures of New London for a long time," he says. "The subject has always been accessible because there it is, in front of me, and I know it. It feels personal. It makes it easy to inject a degree of mood or feeling into my work."
He continues, "Whether I move toward nature oriented landscape or other ideas, I always come back and shoot a little in New London. I say I became an accidental historian. I´ve got a pretty good archive from downtown."
And after just a few minutes with Hendrickson, anyone can sense the bond he feels to his city. It is soaked into his elaborate stories of its history, shared myths that have been passed across dinner tables for decades, from Eugene O´Neill ("He had a job working at the New London Day as a reporter, and was a hard drinking guy who was always at the Dutch Tavern. He´s a famous playwright, sure, but to some around here he was just a drunk and a no-good.") to the small red Nathan Hale schoolhouse ("It´s been moved at least five times in my memory. It´s owned by the Sons of the American Revolution, and they get completely frustrated with having to approve its transport so often."). His photographs show all sides of the city in all forms, from black and white to color, from sharp focuses to 180-degree views, from its desolation to its moments of vibrancy.
And these efforts are very conscious, as Hendrickson is very conscious of the importance of his work. "Sometimes I have it in my mind as I shoot, ´This will become the archive of the future.´ Next to all this old stuff," he says as he looks around the exhibit, smiling. "I just love it."
- Lilah Raptopoulos ´11