For five of the 17 days last February that protesters lived in and slept in the state Capitol, photographer John Riggs was there, with little more than his camera.
Shooting pictures inside the historic building was difficult: Light conditions were low and events were unpredictable. But Riggs, owner of Tamarack Studio and Gallery just east of Capitol Square, found the occupation sparked by political events so personally moving, so filled with creativity and so peacefully "utopian" that he felt it needed to be documented in a show and a book.
The result is "Inside, at Night — Origins of an Uprising," a exhibition of photos taken by nine people, including several professional photographers, who were inside the Capitol rotunda through the long days and nights of the occupation. The photos also are featured in a book that doubles as an exhibition catalogue.
While there was no shortage of coverage outside the Capitol during the wintry days of 2011, fewer people witnessed the scenes that were part of the interior encampment, he said.
"There was a core group of people really responsible for holding down the fort. That was my main curiosity, the dynamics that were going on inside," Riggs said. "Since then, the world has filled up with picture of crowds and signs, crowds and signs. But to me that's a pretty thin story. To me the real story is what happened inside."
"How did people come together? Three weeks later, that group of people that came in as strangers left as family, as a tribe."
Photos in the show range from active protests to the development of a small communal village inside the rotunda with an information station, a medic area, tables filled with snacks and fresh produce, yoga classes, even a lighthearted moment of gunny-sack-style races in sleeping bags.
Riggs originally thought about doing a solo show of photos he himself took inside the Capitol. But he was afraid he might not have enough good material on his own.
"The shooting conditions were just abysmal," he said. He sought out other people who took interior photos "with more than cellphones," he said. The outpouring of images — one contributor had taken 7,000 photos, another shot 9,000 — resulted in a show featuring 161 pictures.
"Usually a photography show in Madison consists of 20 to 30 images," said Riggs, who painstakingly printed most of the photos for "Inside, at Night" in his own studio.
Produced with the help of $9,1700 in donations from a campaign on kickstarter.com, the show has a distinct political element: More than half the profits from the sale of photos and books, plus donations at the door, will be given to the gubernatorial recall campaign. Photos will be sold at a two-tier price, "so that everyone regardless of means can take home an image or three," Riggs said.
Serving as administrative assistant for the show is Harriet Rowan, a recent UW-Madison graduate. Rowan spent the entire two and a half weeks of the occupation inside the Capitol and emerged as a leader and peacemaker there, creating the information station and often conferring with Capitol police.
The photos in "Inside, at Night" are mounted to Tamarack Gallery's walls with blue tape reminiscent of the tape used to hang protest posters inside the Capitol. The tape also is a cost-cutting measure, as matting and framing 161 images for a small gallery would have been prohibitively expensive, Riggs said.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the photos are accompanied by blocks of text written by protesters in the thick of things, excerpts from blog posts, emails, journal entries and Twitter feeds that create a real-time narrative. The exhibited photos themselves will be numbered, but photographers won't be individually credited for their work.
"The story isn't about who did it — the story is what's on the wall," said Riggs, who himself took a quarter of the pictures in the show.
A life-long photographer and founding member of the workers' cooperative Isthmus Engineering, the now-retired Riggs opened his photography gallery at 849 E. Washington Ave. in the fall. A short time later, Occupy Madison set up an ongoing encampment right across the street.
People in Madison are modest about the national impact of the Capitol protests, said Riggs, who credits the local actions for sparking the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread across the country last summer.
In the Capitol, "What I experienced was something new, having lived through the Vietnam years at the UW," he said. The occupation of the rotunda "wasn't like that at all," he said. "This was a group of people that was manifesting a political position in a very peaceful manner, and I was totally impressed with that."
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