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An intimate glimpse inside Milwaukee dinnertime rituals

Back in January, Buzzfeed ran a story about an interesting photo series called "Weeknight Dinnertime" that went viral. Over 1.5 million people saw the story.  The photographer of the series is a Milwaukee native by the name of Lois Bielefeld.  Besides creating amazing art with her camera, Bielefeld also works for Kohl's as a photographer and teaches as an adjunct at Mount Mary.

Buzzfeed isn't the only publication that has featured her work.  Recently, the Huffington Post featured her series called "Androgyny."

Androgyny (2013-2014) explores the power and complexity of gender identity in a series of photographic portraits, short films, and an interactive installation. The work challenges social constructions of gender and celebrates gender expression and fluidity.

Quite few of her subjects in "Weeknight Dinnertime" are also from Milwaukee. I wanted to know more about the Weeknight Dinner series and why she wanted to photograph people at dinnertime. I also talked to her about her new series, "Neighborhood" which features photos of Milwaukee area neighborhoods.  Check out the interview below.

TM: Speaking of Buzzfeed, did you know it was going to be on Buzzfeed, or was it a surprise to you?

LB: I did know. Back in October or November, the series was picked up by the Business Insider, and from there it rolled into a bunch of other publications. Then Buzzfeed reached out to me in early January about doing a piece on it. I didn’t really know much about Buzzfeed, except that my daughter did a quiz for them once. That’s the extent of my knowledge. The story went up, and I guess went viral which has never happened to me before. I’m still trying to process what it means that 1.5 million people saw it.

TM: Have you been getting a lot of emails and requests for portraits as a result?

LB: I haven’t gotten any actual requests for photography, just more interest in the work and showing it elsewhere. I have also received really interesting emails concerning how serious the people look, and really strong reactions to that.

TM: Was that by choice for people not to smile, or did that just happen coincidentally?

LB: When I am doing a composed portrait, I’m looking for someone’s most honest expression. Generally, people during dinner are smiling and having a good time, but not always. I find that honest expression not in a smile for the camera, but just in a quiet expression. What’s interesting is that people often project a lot of emotion into someone’s quiet projection. I’ll just tell people to let go.

TM: What was the most interesting thing you learned about your subjects during this process?

LB: There is this American ideal that we have for the evening meal surrounding eating together around a table. What I learned most is that that’s not what’s really happening out there. People are so busy, and families are eating at different times and eating different things. They often eat at places that are different from that American ideal, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we’re coming together in some form and connecting in some way, that’s what’s important.

TM: What was the most interesting dinner that you saw someone eat?

LB: I went to this family’s house that I had photographed before, and they were serving cornish game hen and raspberries in really, nice bowls, and napkins all wrapped up – just a really, nice presentation. They admitted this isn’t how they normally eat, but how they wanted to present themselves was just as interesting to me.

TM: What was your favorite dinner dish growing up and why?

LB: I guess it was Kraft mac n cheese. I think I’ve developed my palette since that point, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for it. I remember my friend Ruth and I would figure out exactly how to make it as creamy as possible. We got very serious about it.

TM: Tell me about the inspiration behind your series “Neighborhood.”

LB: When I was in Luxembourg, I noticed that the neighborhoods are set up very differently there. It got me thinking about how our neighborhoods are comprised, and all the variety there is here in the States. I decided to start this body of work where I go on walkabouts with my subjects, because I am interested about them sharing their neighborhood with me. So, we walk around until we find a spot that we’re drawn to, and we do the portrait there. What I’m interested in is all those curiosities. Things that make you wonder where they came from or put them there, that’s what I’m looking for. I do the portraits at twilight and at night, because that’s when our perceptions on our neighborhood change.

TM: How did you go about picking the neighborhoods, and the locations within those neighborhoods?

LB: I started with photographing people that I knew, and we would photograph them in whatever neighborhood they lived in. That walkabout kind of determines where in the neighborhood we shoot. There were always multiple spots that made it hard to pick, but I’m happy with those results. In some of the more cookie-cutter subdivisions, it’s a little trickier to find that space and I have to work with the space I’m in.

TM: What is next for you?

LB: I am actively still shooting “Neighborhood.” I recently just put a dark room in my basement, and I am pursuing photographing my life in black and white. I don’t yet know where it will go, but I’m excited to see where it will evolve.

You can check out the rest of Lois' work at her website. She is represented by the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee.

Director of Digital | Radio Milwaukee