Lois Bielefeld shoots in the dark.
She likes twilight, hunts down the blackening blues of gloaming shadows and loves the brilliant cascade of artificial light against sooty skies. The Milwaukee native and Shorewood resident makes portraits of people in their neighborhoods, taking them on evening walkabouts to unexpected sites where she creates revealing, provocative images of tension and surprise. Community is the latest in a series of thematic narratives that she’s explored.
“I am interested in these collective things we share as humans,” she says. “Food, community, bedroom.” So far, there are 94 portraits in the series, and she is currently focusing on temporary communities.
Bielefeld works with battery-powered strobe lights and “very specifically lights certain things in the frame and lets certain things fall into shadow.” At twilight, the sun sets quickly and light and shadows shift rapidly, so she runs between light sources—strobes, car headlights, flashlights—tweaking them. “Often I’m anticipating and even guessing what the light will look like as it get dark.”
Her “Weeknight Dinners” series, which she began in 2013, went viral on Business Insider in 2016 when the website published a story with images of her work. The photographs capture what, how and where people really eat on busy weeknights. During the week, there are “kids, activities, getting to the gym —
food becomes secondary. I’m curious about seeing what people ordinarily do. There is a deeply ingrained notion of family eating at the table, very June Cleaver, sitting down, saying grace together, laughing and talking. But that isn’t how everyone eats at every meal.” The online comments startled her. “Some people were outraged that I showed people watching television or listening to the radio, as if I had attacked American values.”
Bielefeld’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout Wisconsin and in Chicago, and is found on LoisBielefeld.com. Three of her images are part of the “NOW Figuration” group show at the Portrait Society Gallery, which represents her, in the Third Ward’s Marshall Building until Sept. 8. A solo show entitled “All In: Shorewood Girls Cross Country” runs at the Charles Allis Art Museum until Oct. 22.
Bielefeld began photographing people in their neighborhoods in 2015, inspired by a residency she spent in Luxembourg surrounded by dramatically different villages. Below are family friends photographed near Nicolet High School.
Bielefeld photographed the subject and her husband in Baton Rouge for previous series. Here, shortly after Juanita’s husband died, Bielefeld “acutely felt his absence and also his presence.”
Bielefeld selects sites locals overlook or that she can reveal with a fresh eye.“When I see something and they say ‘I never noticed that before,’ it’s gold for me.”
“I like that transitionary time period when the sky moves from light to dark,” says Bielefeld.
Elic stands in front of what used to be the grand entrance to a public pool. “The whole time we were photographing, the neighbors were setting off fireworks, which created a wonderful haze in the background,” says Bielefeld.
At an auto mechanic’s lot in the South, “there was this truck that the vines had grown up all around that was so beautiful.”
Their four Schipperkes “were a bit wild to try and photograph, both because of how much they absorb light, but also [because] they were movers.”
Lois Bielefeld is drawn to “the tensions within the photograph, the push/pull within the spaces” that help reveal how people feel about their neighborhoods.