Interview

Local photographer offers book on Colonial project

By Bonnie Obremski, North Adams Transcript

Monday, June 16
WILLIAMSTOWN -- A Northwest Hill photographer is releasing his latest book after spending a decade revealing the most intimate parts of a Pittsfield landmark.

Nicholas Whitman will sell and sign copies of "The Colonial Theatre: A Pittsfield Resurrection," in the theater on Thursday, June 19, from 6 to 8 p.m. The cost of the book is $40. Theater members receive a 10 percent discount.

The 137-page hardcover book documents in photographs and text the $21.6 million renovation of the historic Colonial, which was finished in August 2006.

"In the case of a building about to undergo big changes, evidence can be lost," Whitman said last week. "So, there is an urgency to make the record. Part of what makes the photographs interesting is, when the building is restored, the 'before' pictures are a benchmark for how the building has been changed."

The restoration of decaying buildings has inspired Whitman before. He has documented the transformation of the former Sprague Electric mill complex that now houses Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the River Street rowhouse buildings that are now home to The Porches Inn in North Adams.

"Their past can be read by looking at the wear marks and scars which cover them," Whitman said of old structures. "This physical evidence is the grist from which I make photographs."

Whitman is a Williamstown native and a 1972 graduate of Mount Greylock Regional High School. He attended the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and the Rochester Institute of Technology. He has two grown children, daughter Elizabeth and son Alex, and lives with his wife, artist Mary Natalizia.

Natalizia provided crucial assistance with the book, Whitman said.

"Culling thousands of images down to 150 means some real favorites end up on the 'cutting room floor,'" he said. "By the end of the process, my objectivity was shot: I was down to about 250 and stuck. Luckily, my designer Geraldine Millham and my wife were able to make the hard choices I couldn't."

Whitman said he hopes people who pick up his book will appreciate the images and the story of the Colonial.

"On the one hand, I simply wanted to present these scenes for people to view and mull over," he said.

He said the quality of the images is very good, thanks to the printer, Studley Press of Dalton.

"But, there is a story line here, too," he said. "It is a story of hope and optimism in the form of George and then Steve Miller, who protected the theater for half a century until the people of Pittsfield could come together and reclaim and restore this landmark."

Whitman created the story from three separate series of photographs he compiled throughout the decade.

"One series was of the building and its details before it was changed," he said. "A second series was made from the same location before, during and after the restoration. These were made with a very wide-angle camera and covered 140 degrees of view -- the lens actually spins around, and it's like looking at a scene while turning your head. A third series was more conventional, of the restoration in progress."

In the book, Whitman builds a context for each of the series.

"The context is provided in essays on the theater's history by former Mayor Anne Everest Wojtkowski, on the theater's relationship to Pittsfield's revival by Mayor James W. Ruberto and the Colonial's current state by Executive Director David Fleming. Also included is a statement by the photographer and a revealing interview with former owner Steve Miller."

As the Colonial's restoration progressed, the photography industry changed as well, Whitman said.

"There were dramatic changes in the field of photography with the shift from analog to digital, and capability was greatly expanded. Digitized negatives were given a whole new life. Also, this book was written and designed on a computer, which enhanced creative control."

Whitman said he felt relief upon finishing the book, which met his expectations. But, his work with the Colonial is not finished.

"We are making some big prints to show in the Colonial lobby, and there will be a show at the Ferrin Gallery, opening Aug. 8," he said.

While at home in Williamstown, Whitman said, he expects continually to be inspired by the beauty of the town's landscape.

"It has been a principal subject since I began," he said. "The museums here are wonderful, too. To have world class art so readily available as a visual reference is just fantastic."

For more information about Whitman and his work, visit www.nwphoto.com.
  North Adams Transcript, June 16, 2008