Minneapolis’ well-dressed past

The walls of photographer Timothy G. Piotrowski’s Kingfield apartment are covered in examples of vintage art photography, a growing collection years in the making.

There are also Piotrowski’s own photographs of women costumed and posed to look like Vaudeville performers or silent movie beauties. If you can’t quite tell which are originals and which are his meticulously produced homages, well, that’s the point.

"For me, it’s enjoyable when I can fool myself," he said.

It was serendipitous, then, that Hennepin History Museum curator Jack Kabrud paid a visit to Uptown restaurant Barbette in 2005 when a series of Piotrowski’s photographs were on display.

"Photographers have worked with our collection before but not on living models," Kabrud said. "I thought, ‘This is the guy that has to do it.’"

Nearly two years later, the fruits of their collaboration are on display in "Studies from Life: Costumes and object portraits from the collections of the Hennepin History Museum." Given unprecedented access to the museum’s collection, Piotrowski photographed women in garments dating back to the Victorian era.

The resulting pieces blend artistry and documentary. Century-old costumes are given new life on living, breathing women and new meaning through Piotrowski’s lens.

In photographs of elaborate day dresses from the 1870s, women’s motoring clothes from the 1910s and a swimwear from the 1930s, Piotrowski labors to reproduce the look of each era’s photography. He also draws on his deep knowledge of photography’s history, borrowing poses and themes from other decades, and creating images layered with references.

And so you get "Seated Miss Katherine with broad hat and long cape — 1890," in which a 21st-century woman wearing a Victorian black silk bodice poses like a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl.

"Victorian woman dressing — 1880" does less mixing of styles and times, but it depicts a scene no 19th-century photographer could be expected to witness. Not only would a prim Victorian woman never allow a camera in her dressing room, the era’s technology almost certainly would not have captured her fleeting look of surprise.

Jada Hansen, the museum’s executive director, explained that early photography required long exposures and demanded great patience from the subjects. Sometimes, poses were held with the aid of a long metal rod.

"When you took a photograph you had to sit very, very still," she said. "If you moved, it just completely messed up the photograph."

Free from both the technological restrictions and strict social mores of the Victorian era, Piotrowski photographs these clothes — and the women who wear them — in a way no 19th-century photographer could. For him, it was an exciting and exceedingly rare opportunity to shoot those garments, among the oldest in the museum’s collection.

"They’re fragile, they’re rare and they’re expensive," Piotrowski said. "I had maybe fancied the idea of doing Victorian … pictures, but I couldn’t afford to buy the pieces, and I wouldn’t be able to find a collector to — in their right mind — lend them, probably."

"When Jack [Kabrud] proposed this to me, I was beside myself," he added.

The project sparked some controversy among patrons, said Hansen, who admitted it was unusual for a museum to lend out its holdings.

Kabrud said he chose only those garments he knew were not too fragile. After two decades at the museum, he knows its costume collection perhaps better than anyone else.

"There was no damage to any of the pieces," he said. "I feel that the final product was very worth the time and effort. And the nervousness."

Kabrud has his favorites in the garment collection, like a turn-of-the-century Mariano Fortuny-style silk dress with long, sharp pleats. But they are only rarely displayed on mannequins, and spend most of their lives packed away in acid-free boxes.

That made "Victorian Nicole in pleated dress" something of a revelation for Kabrud. Here was that Fortuny-style dress, its elaborate pleats spread out like a Japanese fan.

"It justified every decision when the photos started coming forth," he said.

Viewers can judge for themselves by inspecting the pinstriped duster (circa 1912) hanging off a mannequin in the museum. Dusters were long coats was worn over finer clothing by early motorists.

The same garment appears in "Summer eves," a photograph of three women in motoring outfits. Piotrowski and his model somehow resuscitate a garment that, on the museum floor, seems listless.

All of the garments in the Hennepin History Museum collection were at one time worn by Hennepin County residents. Seeing those clothes animated in Piotrowski’s photographs, you can’t help but think about the lives of the women who wore them.
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"Studies from Life," photographs by Timothy G. Piotrowski, runs through spring 2008 at the Hennepin History Museum, 2303 3rd Ave. S. 870-1329.
www.hennepinhistory.org