Bethel photographer Elyse Shapiro will be the featured artist at the celebratory debut of the Historic Granite Church this month.

The Granite Church, a nonprofit, will provide community art space in the Georgetown area.

Elyse and the creative committee for the Granite Church curated twenty of her photos that they feel best capture the story of the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill which established Redding as a company town.

The early images document daily happenings at the factory from 1982 until its close in 1989, while others capture its colors and textures since closing.

The Historic Wire Mill Photography Exhibit will open in conjunction with The Granite’s Debut on Saturday, May 18 from 1pm-7pm at The Granite Church, located at 5 North Main St., Georgetown.

The Granite is the name of the venue in the historic building which was purchased in 2022 by the nonprofit BeFoundation and is partnered with Spread Music Now. Both organizations are led by Director Richard Wenning. Private and public funds have supported its ongoing renovations since.

The Wire Mill, which operated in Redding from 1848 to 1989, and The Granite Church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The church was originally the Gilbert Memorial Church and was built specifically for the mill workers and their families.

Exterior photo of the wire mill in 2007. Photo credit: Elyse Shapiro

The Town of Redding took ownership of 44 acres of the wire mill property in 2020, after a foreclosure process that started in 2012, winding up in Connecticut Superior Court “in a victory for the town,” according to the Town of Redding website

A film “A Georgetown Story” by John E. Mayer offers some of the history.

Shapiro’s professional career has focused on photojournalism for 17 years, event and commercial photography (primarily weddings, portraiture, and corporate and family events), and as an educator. She’s taught photography at the Silvermine Guild for 20 years and is currently an adjunct photography professor at Western Connecticut State University. Some of her freelance work has been published in the New York Times, Weekly World News, and American Photographer.

The Granite Creative Director Robert Mars, also a pop artist, said he worked with Shapiro and her husband to select the photos that best portray the 140-year-old factory when it was still in operation.

“I enjoy the photos that Elyse has captured. We share an eye for how nature interacts with industrial spaces [and] the landscape that surrounds us in Fairfield County, which I have gravitated towards while living here.

Clocking Out - a photo captured by Elyse Shapiro of a wire mill worker at the end of his shift in 1982.

Looking ahead to the restoration effort in Georgetown, he shares a vision with other creative people in and around Redding.

“I hope to see the Wire Mill become operational again in the next decade with a small concentration of condos/apartments (20 or so), and then utilizing the lakefront with a public park and playground. I would also love to see a skatepark (but that's in my own interest), restaurants, and carefully-selected shops. I think if done right, it would not overwhelm the infrastructure and roads but add a destination in the Georgetown area.”

The Granite Church offers a welcoming place to gather for meetings, workshops, rehearsals, performances, and to socialize.

About her early photos from the mill, Shapiro said, “There were men in pits working on the galvanizing process which is coating metal with plastic, men working in the annealing process, heating it, cooling it so that you change the nature of its properties to be more amenable to being bent, so they can be shaped better into whatever they were making,” she said.

After Gilbert & Bennett closed, Shapiro’s interest in the subject centered on colors, light, abstracts, and angles.

“A lot of the visuals were so new to me,” she said. “They’re not landscapes. They’re not everyday objects you can recognize. I wanted to capture the uniqueness of whatever happened at the factory and after years of it being shuttered through a lens, the decay and peeling paints. Peeling paints attracted me. It’s random and dependent upon the elements. You can see five or six layers of paint, over and over on wooden walls, on concrete walls. One layer is bright green, followed by another layer over it in bright red, and then bright yellow. It was almost like natural graffiti,” Shapiro said.

Photo credit: Elyse Shapiro

Shapiro grew up in Queens in between Jamaica and Flushing. She began practicing photography at 15. She also went into Manhattan to study painting and drawing at the Art Students League.

Discussing the Nikon with a Cannon-Range Finder that launched her photography interest and career, Shaprio said,  a “To this day I remember my father taking me to a department store that sold cameras on Long Island and I walked away with this magic Nikon. I love equipment. I love using filters. I love using strobes.”

Photography is a combination of technique and visual for her. “I’m a big experimenter.”

Among the highlights of the wire mill subject there is the sawtooth building.

“You can picture a wooden saw, a lot of sharp triangles. The roof was made of glass angles like a saw that let in light from multiple directions. The whole ceiling is a light source, I’m sure it was supplemented by artificial lighting,” she said.

It is unusual for Shapiro to be represented in a gallery in this way. “Most of my career has been photography for hire. During her career at Brooks she covered stories in lower Fairfield County from Greenwich to Fairfield and had become the chief photographer for the newspaper chain managing eight photographers and freelancers.

After her daughter was born she shared the job with another photographer at the Westport News and eventually left the newspaper to work only weekends at events (mostly weddings).

She enjoyed it but also missed the life-as-it-happens element of photojournalism.

“Journalism takes you in front of so many different people. You can go on a fire in the morning and be on a boat in the afternoon with the governor to cross the Long Island Sound so he can get on the QE 2 harbored in Westport,”  Shapiro said.

In that later work, she relied on “the sensibility of my journalistic training” along with employing a technique she admires in professional photography. “Our type of wedding photography was to follow the action as a journalist, not set up shots. We did a small amount of formal pictures but if you hired our group you were hiring people that were following everything, photographing everything that was going on.”

In that role she worked closely with clients to make sure every photo was to their liking, Shapiro shared, “I always respected other people when people hired me. I realized I had to perform for their liking.”

It’s been years since Shapiro has photographed events. Her present work intentionally is doing photography for herself. She does her projects and loves to teach and inspire her adult students. While her work over the years has been included in many shows, “I don’t want to take pictures for the intention of showing or selling.”

The factory images “definitely had a  journalistic approach but then it curved into the other ideas where arts meets journalism. I think every journalist has to be cognizant of how to communicate in an artistic way, which doesn’t mean interpretive always. It means the right way to take a picture. It’s a matter of taking a photograph for the maximum effect, whether that be paying attention to the geometric construction of the photograph, the deep space, the layering, what’s behind it, what’s in front of it.”

So where does the art come from? Is it self-expression?

“Not in journalism. It’s just not ethical to express my dislike for something going on behind the lens, to get emotionally involved as a journalist is not so good. But to get emotionally involved as an artist is probably what makes an artist an artist.”

Check out Elyse Shapiro’s work this Saturday from 1-9pm at The Granite’s debut opening!

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