Wednesday, November 07, 2007
My shadow is the one with the camera. The other one is the suspicious security guard.
Our shadows are engaged in something that starts out slightly tense and edgy -- a bit more than a conversation, a little less than a confrontation. We're in the parking lot of the Kastenmeier Federal Courthouse, the striking and colorful Kenton Peters building that was completed in 1984. It's one of Madison's most interesting buildings, one that is always a photographic temptation.
That's how it started. When T and I passed by on the way to the Farmers' Market last Saturday, I walked into the parking lot to take a few shots. I had the Sigma 10-20mm ultrawide zoom on the camera and began with a vague idea of getting some sort of up-close, off-kilter angle on the building, the red pillar, and the scattered yellow autumn leaves in the parking lot.
To do that I need to get pretty close to the building, closer than it seems in this photo, because the 10mm lens is exaggerating the distance. Just as I'm framing the scene I notice the door open and a tiny figure come out. I think maybe he is a judge working on the weekend, which seems odd. The figure comes closer, and in the viewfinder, grows larger. That's when I see the badge.
"What are you doing?" asks the security guard. He looks like he could be a retired cop -- trim but a bit heavyset, with thinning gray hair and glasses. He looks very suspicious, and he's not smiling.
"I'm taking a picture," I reply. "I really like this building. It's fun to photograph."
"Taking a picture? Then why are you so close? You can't even get the whole building in the picture from here. People usually shoot from back there on the sidewalk.
"Why do you have to be so close?" he asks again, fixing me with a skeptical look. "This is a federal building, and we have to be careful."
"I have a wide angle lens, so I have to get close" I say. "Here. Take a look through the viewfinder. It's really cool."
"No, I can't see through that with my glasses. Do you have any ID?"
My moment of truth. I have a funny feeling that he won't consider "Madison Guy" an appropriate response. I'm an American citizen and a taxpayer. This is public property. I helped pay for it, and I have a right to be here. I have not committed a crime. Why should I have to identify myself? I consider refusing.
But like a motorist pulled over in a traffic stop, I have already reflexively started to reach for my wallet. Meanwhile, he's asking why I want to take pictures of the building.
"I'm a photographer and a blogger," I say, hoping that would explain my unseemly interest in photographing nearly empty federal buildings. I hand over my driver's license.
"A blogger, huh? Do you have a job?"
I say I work as an editor but that the job had nothing to do with my blog. The pictures are for me.
"So are you going to put them in your blog?"
I say I might. "Anything wrong with that?"
"No, but we have to be careful. You know, all kinds of people come through here." He wrote something in a tattered little drugstore spiral notebook. My name and license number, I figure. Something to ID the guy with the camera they captured on their security cam.
I say something noncommittal. And I take the photo shown here.
"I like to take pictures, too," he says, looking at my camera. "The other day I was at the Olbrich Park beach on Lake Monona, looking across the lake toward the Capitol, with the sun setting behind it. Just then, the sun shone through the windows at the top of the dome. It was beautiful. But I didn't have my camera with me."
"Too bad, I know what you mean -- that's a beautiful view of the Capitol from there."
"So you like this building? I think it's a great building. Beautiful," he saya with obvious pride. "But it has one little hidden design flaw. Do you want to see it?"
We walk around the building to the Henry Street entrance as he explains that skateboarders bump and crash into the building all the time. Mostly they just scuff it up. The blue metallic siding is pretty tough, and the building is solid. With one exception.
He leads me to one of the large blue pillars that seemingly hold up the weight of the building above the entryway. "Here. Give it a shove."
The seemingly solid surface gives way and bends inward. It's even less solid than the sheet metal on a car.
"And look at this," he says, leading me to the other side of the pillar. "This is where a skateboarder crashed into it."
There is a big, crumpled dent in the sheet metal. It looks as if it needs to visit an auto body shop. We talk a bit more as he explains that he wished they would open up the pillars and put something solid behind the metal siding. I thank him for the tour, we shake hands, and I hurry off to the Square to join T at the Farmers' market.
Looking back on the experience now, I'm still surprised by how quickly and automatically I handed over my license on request. Am I a man or a mouse? Maybe I'm neither -- just a typically cowed citizen of the post-Timothy McVeigh, post-9/11 United States.
The other thing I found out doesn't surprise me at all: The pillars that hold up our temple of justice aren't as solid as they seem.