Picturing William & Mary: Ellen Rudolph Shares Insights

Source: W&M News
Date: Feb 13, 2004

Few people have seen William and Mary as intimately as has Ellen Rudolph. As a graduate student here in the 1970s, as a longstanding friend of numerous staff and faculty members, and as a leader within the greater Williamsburg community, Rudolph has fostered a love affair with the College impassioned both by its storied past and its wide-open future. Over the years she has documented that passion through her photography. The W&M News is privileged to share samples of her photographic work, along with the insights she imparted in answering the following questions. Ed.

Q: Of the hundreds of photographs you have taken of William and Mary, what do these say individually and collectively about the College?

Rudolph: There is great beauty in our W&M environment and it can be found in the most unexpected places.

I am always looking for the unexpected—everyone sees those published images of the Wren Building facade but do they see that reflection as the late afternoon sun peeks into the circular window in the Chapel choir loft? Do students notice the intricate patterns of that stairwell that they climb every day in the University Center? The details of the Wren Building are really quite exquisite, and I have spent days wandering around that building with camera in hand.

Thanks to Louise Kale I have even been able to climb up into the cupola to photograph what can be seen from there. It’s high up there! And it is not so easy to climb—but the view of Lord Botetourt looking down the mile long stretch of Duke of Gloucester Street is better than any I have ever seen.

Collectively, these images speak to my personal fascination with W&M. During my graduate school days here throughout the ’70s I really didn’t appreciate W&M in the way that I do now. Back then I saw the school, the buildings, mainly. It was a community of students and faculty, for sure, but I didn’t really see much beyond that. Perhaps it is a function of aging that I now see well beyond those surface things to the loveliness of its architectural patterns and its history.

Colonial and Historic Architectural Project - College of W&M

When I walk around the historic campus I feel the impact of time and the presence of historic figures. And I often wonder if they, too, appreciated the way the sunlight and the seasons adorn these worn exteriors.

Lord Botetourt in the Wren Courtyard

I have more than a thousand images of W&M in my personal archives, many of which have not been published. The ones I have published represent collections of those images – to give others a sense of the many facets of the college that I have spent time photographing over the years – architecture, seasonal views, patterns, process, people enjoying themselves, color, its natural beauty.

Q: How would you describe your relationship to William and Mary?

Rudolph: I am a graduate alum, as I said. I went to the University of Minnesota (Mpls) as an undergraduate. And nine years later I found myself graduating with a doctorate from W&M. I loved those days. I am also a photographer for many diverse interests here at the College, from University Development to the Alumni Society, and the President’s Office, as well as for the Business School, The ITA Tennis Hall of Fame, the School of Education, and the Law School. I shoot weddings occasionally at the Wren Chapel. Recently I spent some time at Kinesiology’s ropes course, which was great fun. Getting the images was as challenging as the student’s own work there was!

W&M School of Business Graduation 2005

Q: If you were sitting with a friend over tea or brandy, how would you describe William and Mary?

Rudolph: I often describe William & Mary as a paradoxical place. It is touted for its historical roots and architectural ambience, at the same time that growing pains are forcing it to give way to modernization with nothing but boring bricks and mortar to show for it. It is hard, I know, to modernize with historical imperatives governing things but W&M should be doing just that—preserving its lovely ambience even in its newest structures. I would rather, for example, banish all cars from the campus rather than build a huge, ugly parking garage.

The historic buildings are so interesting to explore, and they are such beautiful spaces to think in. The ‘new’ campus buildings look shabby by comparison, and they show signs and wear and tear more quickly than the old, and they just don’t inspire me in the same way. I would tear all those buildings down and start over.

The President's House, College of William & Mary

I would take Barksdale Field and build something on it with historical significance, much like Colonial Williamsburg has done with its architectural projects over the years. One by one, let’s replace those tired ‘new’ buildings with something that preserves the wonderful, historic character of the College.

I also find the College to be paradoxical in its ever-widening embrace of purely cognitive science. We know that mind and body reflect and enhance one another, and that the body cannot be left out of any equation for healthy living. Yet, over the years we have de-emphasized many interesting, team-building intramural activities. That is not good for the College or for its diverse students. Kinesiology’s ropes course is a profound experience for those who partake of it, yet it is purely elective and considerably underfunded. We can do better than that. That troubles me. I don’t think we are sending the right messages to students with so selective a focus on data gathering at the expense of the fully-developed self. Learning is more than that. I don’t think that Thomas Jefferson would be happy about this, either.

On the other hand, I am proud of the College, and I am proud to be an alum. It has greatness if only we take care to ensure the survival of that greatness. That is our imperative today.

Maybe there are lessons to be had from Thomas Jefferson’s days. Time was slower then, the sense of community back then was larger, and the small but beautiful world of the College was warm and embracing. There was an emphasis on the whole person and on the acquisition of a broad spectrum of ideas instead of on ever-increasing specializations that characterize most university experiences today. I try to show that old ambience as often as I can.

Q: What are some of the photographs of the College that you have yet to take that you believe are important?

Rudolph: Currently I am working on a project related to the Adam’s Garden. This is a veritable jewel in our midst, this garden, thanks in main to the efforts of Madelynn Watkinson. She knows that I have spent quite a bit of time exploring that garden with my camera but she will be surprised, I think, by the expansiveness of this project. In my own mind, natural beauty inspires and moves us deeply. It helps us move beyond our focus on ourselves to comprehend the larger imperatives of the world around us. We need to preserve those green spaces and to expand upon our efforts to incorporate them into our lives. Greenspace is vanishing as we speak, yet if W&M is going to retain its true historical character then it needs to rekindle those green spaces that embraced our founding fathers.

At some point I also plan to do a photojournalist essay on the blight that I see invading the campus. Tired, twisted chain link fences, they are everywhere. Cars are everywhere where bicycles should be. I hate to see these things that rob our campus of its integrity and beauty.

While I do have many opportunities to photograph W&M leaders and donors, I don’t ever get enough time to photograph the students who are the heartbeat of W&M. I would like to do that in some avant guard way.

Q: What is a non-photographer in danger of missing when he or she looks at the College?

Rudolph: The average person with a camera is looking to put herself in the picture, using W&M’s historic architecture as a backdrop. And this is fine, but there is much, much more to be had, even by a novice photographer. I tell students who work with me to use the camera to help extend their vision—sometimes even I am surprised by what I see in my images, things that weren’t apparent to the eye alone.

Colonial and Historic Architectural Project - College of W&M

Look for patterns, because W&M has a thrilling array of them. I particularly love the juxtapositions of the old architecture with light, and with natural symbols. I also love to get as close to my subject as possible because what I see then is so different from what can be seen from yards away. There is an intimacy to be had in that kind of photography.

The W&M sign on Jamestown Rd. near the Wren Building has long been a favorite subject of mine. In recent years I think that cutbacks have probably downgraded the plantings there but I must have 10 years of images in my archives of that sign cloaked in fantastic seasonal plantings. The one shown here is but one example—I haven’t seen that particular constellation of color and flowers there for years but it should be repeated! It surely reflects W&M at its best!

Colonial and Historic Architectural Project - College of W&M

Q: Compared to all of the subjects you have photographed around the world, what is special about Williamsburg and, in particular, William and Mary?

Rudolph: Well, as I tell photographers all the time, your own backyard is one of your best subjects. You know it intimately, and seasonally, and you know it in the best light. Visitors don’t. When I travel elsewhere, I have to learn the place first before I can adequately photograph it, or at least I have to bring folks with me who know the place intimately. That’s why I tend to spend extended time on these international projects.

If I were a student today I would have a digital camera with me constantly, so as to capture the experience for posterity. Those priceless expressions, that perfect light, that unrepeatable moment—those make great images even in the hands of an inexperienced photographer. And the College should be using those images to help project itself to the world.

W&M is a very alive place. Let the dancing light tell the real story!

Q: When you’re not shooting the College, what might we find you engaged in?

Rudolph: I teach some psychology classes and then I take time off to travel internationally as a conservation photographer. I spent a year in Australia on a conservation project, which gave me the opportunity to travel 45,000 km around the Outback by 4-wheel drive.

I have also done conservation projects in Ecuador, and Costa Rica, as well as in South Africa and Namibia, and Suriname. And recently I spent four and a half months in Provence—in the South of France—doing the photography for a book on the petite villages of the Luberon Region of Provence.

As a photojournalist I am also frequently involved in writing and illustrating articles for various publications. Right now I am even working on several children’s books. I have spent more than 20 years working with animals in various ways, as longtime President of the Williamsburg Area SPCA (now called the Heritage Humane Society) and as a wildlife rehabilitator. My goal is to share my many wonderful animal rescue stories with children who will be tomorrow’s conservationists. And maybe even some historic triangle stories, who knows!

I also build Web sites as part of my digital workflow. Today’s digital era has changed how I do things as a professional photographer, which is just fine with me, as I am inspired by the challenges it brings. I have a digital desktop that looks like the helm of the Starship Enterprise.

Read more of Dr. Ellen’s essays and access her personal photo galleries at www.drellenrudolph.com.

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