Lois Bielefeld Focuses on the Familiar

The photographer presents an intimate study of her parents in their Wauwatosa home.

In her most recent project, “To Commit to Memory,” photographer Lois Bielefeld embedded herself in her parents’ Wauwatosa home for periods of several days extending over a two-year span. The resulting work, which includes four videos and 150 photographs, captures in intimate detail the mundane routines of life and domesticity, and in the process, reveals much about her mother Sally and father Eric, as well as herself.

“People are really complex – how do you sum up one life, let alone a relationship with a family?” Bielefeld says. “Photography and video will always fail in representing it, but I hope it makes [the viewer] think about their own relationships and their complexities.”

The project began with a video piece titled Thank you Jesus, for what you are going to do, in which Bielefeld, 43, filmed Sally carrying out a daily routine of planking for 13 minutes while reciting Bible verses from memory. Finishing that video presented Bielefeld with a question: “I’m a queer atheist and feminist, and my mom is Evangelical Christian and very conservative – what does it mean to present her in this incredible faith and devotion?”

Portrait of Lois Bielefeld; Photo by Lydia Anshus

The twin themes of faith and domesticity have threaded their way through Bielefeld’s work since the beginning. In one series, she photographed people in Luxembourg countryside villages who had ties to the Catholic Church. Other projects include portraits of people in their homes sitting down for a weeknight dinner, and a series of photos of Bielefeld and her partner’s everyday rituals.

“No matter what means people have, they always create these havens,” Bielefeld says. “I think about the way that the home has been represented in advertising and through movies and am interested in pushing back on many of these ideas.”

Bielefeld attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts in applied photography in 2002. A year later, she moved to New York City, where in 2006, a chance encounter with Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra inspired her to pursue photography as an art form – not just a vocation that paid the bills.

“My daughter was photographed by [Dijkstra] when we were in New York, and it ended up being shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery,” Bielefeld says. “Seeing that work on the wall was one of the most influential moments for me.”

So, in 2008, Bielefeld began work on her first photo series, “The Bedroom.” Inspired by her living situation at the time, sharing a bedroom in a Brooklyn apartment with her 8-year-old daughter, that series explored how a room that hosts dreams and intimacy can reflect one’s identity. This surge of creativity came just a year after Bielefeld came to terms with her own identity, openly coming out about her queer sexuality and splitting with her husband.

“Being a young mom, I just didn’t have the time to focus on my sexuality, but I knew things weren’t right,” Bielefeld says. “It’s something I always knew, but also something I didn’t know at all – it’s hard to explain.”

Over the past couple of decades, Bielefeld has resided in Rochester, Brooklyn, Oakland, Los Angeles and Chicago, but has returned to Milwaukee on several occasions for extended stints. Her work is included in the

permanent collections of Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel, UW-Parkside, the Racine Art Museum, the Museum of Wisconsin Art, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City.

“[Milwaukee] keeps pulling me back – I think it partially has to do with my wife’s preferences,” says Bielefeld, who is represented here by Portrait Society Gallery. “She really likes Milwaukee and wants to be home with her chosen community, and I feel similarly. It’s just a very supportive place to make art.”

The locale also seems to provide plenty of inspiration for Bielefeld’s work.

“I’m from here – I understand the aesthetic here, I relate to it, I love it,” Bielefeld says. “I revel in the tchotchke sort of aesthetic – when people would leave plastic on couches, all of that.”

Photos:

In Lois Bielefeld’s “To Commit to Memory” series, each portrait is complemented by two captions: one by the parent who is featured in the photo, and one by the photographer.

Photo by Lois Bielefeld

I enjoy shoveling the front steps and the sidewalk. It’s not nearly as challenging as riding the exercise bike, but I can multitask by getting exercise while I shovel. I hope to get an hour workout. I thank God I’m healthy enough to do this.

After living in California for the past two years, I realized how much the four seasons are embedded in my comprehension of time. I didn’t live there long enough to really be aware of the nuanced seasons. 2020

Photo by Lois Bielefeld

 

House Study #21, 2020; Photo by Lois Bielefeld

 

 

A living room picnic is good time management. We burn our confidential papers and bills to help create dessert.

There was always a bag we called burnable garbage that sat under the dish towels. Dad would bring in wood stored in the garage that was from trimming the tree in the backyard, and mom would get one of the burnable garbage bags. We’d have a roaring fire, get sticky with toasted marshmallows, and sing hymns or carols. 2020

 

 

 

 

Photo by Lois Bielefeld

Every spring and fall I would rotate the storm windows and screens. One year, I painted all of the windows. Actually, maybe it took two years. We replaced the windows in 2012. Now I pay to have the windows cleaned once a year.

I remember helping Dad wash windows. He gave me newspaper and Windex, and he instructed me on how to alleviate getting streaks. I also liked using his big paint-brush to dust out the window frame when he was switching out the windows. 2020

House Study #88. 2020; Photo by Lois Bielefeld

When Lois visits, she stays in her old room. I just finished showering, and I sat down to talk with her. I’m so happy she’s home.

The walls and ceiling of my room were wallpapered in National Geographic photos. Slowly over the years, they fell down. Once I tried to help by taking a bunch down, and my mom cried. I think I understand now, as I feel a hole daily since my daughter moved out in 2018. 2020

Photo by Lois Bielefeld

 

House Study #111. 2020; Photo by Lois Bielefeld

We occasionally sing hymns together. This time we sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We even did an improv riff of “Amazing Grace” to Eric playing “House of the Rising Sun.”

What I miss most from my upbringing during my formative years in the church is community singing. There’s something about everyone singing together that I ache for as an atheist. 2020


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue.

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