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On the road
By Tony Staley

Brian Pirman's art
“My goal was to capture lost Americana. Old signs, old buildings, old exteriors. I really had an open mind about what I was going to photograph: the American landscape, things that have color, texture, form, pattern.”

A sabbatical journey took Brian Pirman (Art) on a solo cross-country quest to record the forms and textures of late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings and barns, signs and rural landscapes.

But as well as giving him a chance to find beauty in the mundane, the trip allowed the scholar in graphic design to become a student, exploring his new Nikon D200 digital camera and learning more about digital means of enhancing and altering images.

Pirman’s quest took him more than 2,500 miles, all on county roads, from De Pere to Santa Fe, N.M., where he explored his surroundings and took intensive weeklong classes at Santa Fe Workshops – one to learn more about his camera and one on digital photography.
Web extra
See a gallery of more images from Brian Pirman's trip. >>MORE

Among the lost Americana he documented were old, one-of-a-kind handmade signs that are gradually vanishing from small towns and rural areas across the United States.

Some of what he saw, including fading, weather-beaten signs painted on old brick buildings in Texarkana – the Texas-Arkansas border town – appears in his new book, “Images,” a photographic record of his journey.

“You look at these signs and buildings and wonder: ‘Who owned this? What was their story?’ With things this antiquated, there’s always a story behind it and that fascinates me,” Pirman says. “Unfortunately, these signs are disappearing at an alarming rate. It’s a dead art – now everything is electronic.”

Pirman went to New Mexico by way of Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas. He came back through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

He recalls being in the Oklahoma panhandle at Easter and driving by some cattle he saw on the horizon in the foggy morning light.

Ten minutes later, he turned back and shot about 25 photos.

“As I got into my car I stepped into a massive pile of mud and I was really upset,” Pirman says. “All I could think was, ‘These shots better be pretty good because here I am all muddied up.’ ” Viewing the photos that evening confirmed his hunch that he had needed to go back. One of those photos is on the dust jacket of “Images.”

It’s both exhilarating and strange to see such photos later on the computer, Pirman says.

“I know exactly what I shot, but when you look at it electronically on screen, it looks different, and it is different from being in the moment. That disconnect between what you’re looking at and what you just photographed means there are always pleasant surprises as you see things you didn’t know were there.

“One of the things I like about photography is that you’re truly in the moment, removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It’s just you and your camera. It’s almost Zen-like, shooting the photographs and working on them in the computer using Photoshop.”

In his Santa Fe classes, Pirman learned more about using his new Nikon D200 digital camera; about ways to find beauty in the mundane; and more about using Photoshop to enhance and alter images.

Besides knowledge he could share in his design classes, Pirman’s trip yielded a collection of 1,000 edited images. Several of these have appeared in juried shows and he has continued to draw upon the material as a whole not only for “Images” but for a second book, “365 Days of Facebook,” that features many photographs from the trip.

Pirman says, “I’ve always had a strong interest in photography. It’s really my fine-art outlet. Designing is always for someone. Photography is for me and not for someone else.

“Particularly with technology, you have to be a lifelong learner, because otherwise you’re just going to be dust on the wayside.”

Pirman, a 1978 graduate of Abbot Pennings High School, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked in graphic design in Chicago, in Madison for Oscar Meyer, and in Green Bay, before joining the St. Norbert faculty 13 years ago.

His sabbatical trip opened his eyes to many things, Pirman says.

“I see more now than I’ve ever seen before. I look harder. For anybody who is in a creative field, it is extremely important that your ability to look, digest, process and be original continues to grow.”

Being away for six weeks, he also learned how much he missed his family and friends.

“But one of the things I learned is that I need to get out there more often,” says Pirman, who this summer wants to travel around Lake Superior taking photos.

“There’s a tendency to become really comfortable with your day-to-day life and to not want to reach out or extend yourself with certain ventures. Knowing what I know, having taken that sabbatical, I feel an urge to do it again and check what’s out there, and I have done it on a smaller scale. It’s healthy.”

Summer 2010 Magazine

Web extraLook here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Text ExtraThe education of a freshman president
Reflections by President Tom Kunkel in Trusteeship magazine.

VideoJohn M. Perkins speaks
The civil rights statesman interviewed on campus.

VideoPaul Tagliabue opens Sport and Society conference
The former NFL commissioner delivers his keynote address.

GalleryCommencement 2010
A gallery of images from “a ridiculously fine day” in May.

GalleryGwen Ifill’s Commencement address
The journalist and newscaster spoke to the Class of 2010.

VideoOn the road
Images and reflections from a sabbatical journey undertaken
by Brian Pirman (Art).

Text ExtraThe Yogurt Man Cometh
A chapter to enjoy from this travelogue in Turkey, recounted by author Kevin Revolinski ’90.

GalleryThe faculty in action
Professors as educators: teaching, advising, demonstrating, mentoring and working with students.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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