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'Bridge' exhibit strives to take people from torment to hope

Vance Gellert poses beside part of "Bridge," an exhibit showing at the Anderson Center through June 17. Photos of project participants are lined up on the long wall in their approximate positions on the Interstate Highway 35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1, 2007.1 / 3
This portrait of Caroline Chit-Hammer is among Vance Gellert's works displayed in "Bridge."2 / 3
Vance Gellert photographed Marcelo Ordaz-Cruz, an Interstate Highway 35W bridge survivor, next to a racing wheelchair.3 / 3

Photographer Vance Gellert's collection of images and thoughts from survivors of the Interstate Highway 35W bridge collapse are display through June 17 at the Anderson Center at Tower View.

Gellert started taking pictures shortly after the bridge fell into the Mississippi River during rush hour Aug. 1, 2007.

He knows it was just chance that he was not among the 171 people on the span when the tragedy occurred, killing 13 and injuring 145.

He thought then about interviewing and making portraits of the survivors, but did not start on the project for three years.

"I felt the distance in time from the event would make people more amenable to participating with a broader perspective of the event," he said.

Gellert persevered.

"No further healing can happen for the survivors, or the rest of us, without bridging the gap between us to make us whole again," he explained.

That became his charge: to build a bridge between the people who were involved and those who were not.

"The first step was the hardest," he said, but he took that step with a purpose in mind.

"With this renewed energy we can see the things to celebrate, the things to fix, the new directions to go to try to ensure these things won't happen. There are things to recognize and celebrate as we arise from these ashes, reborn with a sense of a community that suffered through pathos with courage, resilience and regained pride," Gellert said.

He also wanted to recognize the responders who rescued, treated, supported and comforted those in need.

The Minnesota State Arts Board awarded a grant, and Gellert began contacting survivors -- not an easy task because a "firewall" had been created to protect them from the media, from lawyers, from hucksters.

Some of the survivors are permanently injured or disabled; others are emotionally scarred.

"I wanted to tell their story in a meaningful, thoughtful way," he said.

Eventually he found his way to 50 survivors and 10 first responders who allowed him to videotape interviews and take their photos.

"An important inspiration for the project was the tormented metal of the bridge stored on the banks of the Mississippi River," Gellert said.

One of the survivors had asked to have his portrait shot down where the bridge's girders were -- at that time -- laid out on the flats.

"Seeing this tormented metal twisted in these extraordinary shapes in the 13 seconds it took for the bridge to fall" made a deep impression on him. For Gellert, they were "just like these people's lives -- never to be the same."

He saw something else, too.

"But with the flowers and verdant plant growth around them, and the rust and patina of the paint, they also suggested healing and moving forward. This is finally what the 'Bridge' project encourages -- a bringing together of community and healing," Gellert said.

He ended up with 50 stories, including two from families who lost loved ones in the collapse and two from first responders.

The exhibit, which is touring Minnesota, opened at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2012, the fifth anniversary of the collapse. Many of the survivors who attended let him know their thoughts.

"They were very pleased that I did tell their story with respect," he said.

Gellert admitted that he wrestled with how to present the images visually.

The simple answer came to him: "With the concept of building a bridge in mind I assembled the portraits as the metaphorical bridge between us."

At the Anderson Center gallery, the bridge supports -- made up of images of first responders and others who supported victims and survivors in some way -- can be seen on the end walls.

The project participants are lined up on the long wall in their approximate positions on the bridge when it collapsed.

Their names are not on the photos because Gellert wants people to stand back and see the bridge he built. An accompanying brochure includes all the images and identifications.

The exhibit, which opened Friday, also includes quotes lifted from his interviews and projected in a cycle, some images of the bridge's tortured girders and two panels addressing what went wrong that day -- and what went right.

Gellert was a pharmacology student at the University of Minnesota when he bought his first camera.

He soon realized that the camera was going to give him a more effective voice to address issues of personal interest, according to his bio. He completed post-doctoral studies then left his original field to pursue photography and founded a gallery.

After 13 years he left to pursue a photographic dream of documenting rituals and ceremonies surrounding medical plant use by traditional and shamanic healers in Bolivia and Peru. That culminated in the major exhibition "Smoke and Mirrors" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2008. That work has been expanded to studies in western clinical practice at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Gellert has completed several other major projects, including "REAL: Artists and Landscapes," about self-taught artists. It opened at the North Dakota Museum of Art and later traveled to the Minnesota Historical Society and other venues. He has participated in the Anderson Center's summer art celebration and has been a resident at the center's Tower View estate.

Last year he began a new project: the story of Minnesota's Iron Range.

"It's such a rich story, so multi-faceted," Gellert said. It will include everything from the changing technology to the region's art and culture and its people.

The public can see the "Bridge" exhibit in the Anderson Center's education building. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays. Admission is free. For information call 651-388-2009.