By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 17, 2024 at 10:02 AM

I’m not sure there’s been a more apt name for a local art exhibition than “Dynamic Range: Photographs by Bill Tennessen,” which runs Jan. 19-May 12 at the Haggerty Museum of Art on the Marquette campus.

The show collects nearly 50 images – all captured in Milwaukee – by self-taught hometown photographer Bill Tennessen.

And they are dynamic.

Prophet Blackmon
Prophet Blackmon. (PHOTOS: Courtesy of Haggerty Museum)

Shooting for the Milwaukee Community Journal, Tennessean – who was born in 1934 and raised on North 39th Street – took photos of local kids at Boys & Girls Clubs; of athletes both professional and non-; of Juneteenth Day celebrations; of politicians, local and national; of protests after the killing by police of Ernest Lacy; and much more.

“They really capture a time,” says Haggerty Museum Curator for Academic Engagement Lynne Shumow. “(The Lacy photographs) are serious and important, but a lot of them capture the joy of the Black community.”

Indeed, the photos – which are arranged into themed sections, including The Arts, Ernest Lacy, Juneteenth, Politicians/VIPs, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, Community, Storefront Churches and Sports – capture the complexity of a community: joy, sorrow, excitement, spirituality, power.

Ernest Lacy march, July 10, 1982.
Ernest Lacy march, July 10, 1982.

Tennessen – who graduated from Marquette University’s College of Business Administration in 1956 – began working for the newspaper in 1981, so most of the photos date from the ‘80s and ‘90s, though there are a few more recent ones, too.

There are many familiar faces and sights, including Ko-Thi Dance Company, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vel Phillips, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dwayne Wade, Jimmy Carter, James Cameron, artist Prophet William J. Blackmon and others.

But it is the faces of everyday people that bring the Milwaukee of 30 and 40 years ago alive in this important and interesting show, which Shumow says almost literally walked through her office door.

“I was at work one day, someone came in and asked for a curator. I was the closest one and I came out,” she recalls.

“He said, 'my dad is a photographer, would you look at some of my dad's photographs?' And I'm thinking, ‘oh boy. We don't usually do that. We create our own exhibitions.’

“This guy turned out to be Charlie Tennessen, the son of Bill Tennessen. And so he showed me these photographs. I was like, ‘wow’.”

Storefront church at Sydney Hih.
Prophet Blackmon's storefront church at Sydney Hih.

That began a process that lasted more than a year and for which Shumow drafted a team that included Marquette History Professor Rob Smith and Mia Phifer, who is Education and Research Coordinator at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and a team of student interns from Marquette and UW-Milwaukee.

They made repeated visits to the home of the photographer, who is 89, and spent countless hours winnowing down, from a collection of thousands of images, the 48 that are in the exhibition.

“Tennessen printed all these prints from film,” Shumow says. “Just a few of them are digital prints or that we had digitized, but almost every single one was hand printed by him ... silver nitrate prints (made) in his dark room.”

Best of all, in addition to an opening reception – slated for Thursday, Jan. 18, at 5 p.m. – Tennessen himself will give a gallery talk at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21. Free and open to the public, it will be a one-of-a-kind opportunity to hear the artist speak about his work.

The opening reception is free but guests are asked to register online here.

Registration details for the gallery talk have not yet been released, but watch for them here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.