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Photographer Re-imagines History in Gratiot, Ohio

"Charles & Victoire in Cases" [photo: Laura Ruth Bidwell]

A road trip to a small village in Central Ohio led photographer Laura Ruth Bidwell to create an exhibit based on imaginary characters portrayed by a pair of real-life Clevelanders.  It's a story she shares in her new series,  Gratiot, on view now at the Cleveland Print Room.

The process began a few years ago, when Bidwell paid a visit to Gratiot, Ohio, located in Licking and Muskingum counties.  Like Lima, Bellfontaine and Versailles, Buckeyes have given the village's name a unique spin.  The French would pronounce it "Gra-schwa or Gra-show" while Ohioans pronounce it "Gray-shot." 

After her visit, Bidwell wanted to find out more about the name.

"There was indeed a Charles Gratiot.  He was a fur trader and his son was a civil engineer, I believe who did map out parts of Ohio and Michigan.  Probably that's why he left his name all over the place," Bidwell said.

Her 'Gratiot' series reimagines the history of the Gratiot family by creating two fictional characters with two local models.

"I figured because I had two muses who were dark and beautiful and mysterious that I would actually give them the name of Gratiot.  So it's not only a place, it's also the names of these two fictional characters that I created based on the people I was actually photographing," Bidwell said.

Her models are local art installers - David Russell Stempowski and Jane Baeslach.  Once Bidwell decided to make her models fictional characters she created a narrative loosely based on Northeast Ohio filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's  'Only Lovers Left Alive.'

"I call it his love letter to analog.  The main characters are vampires and they've lived for a long time.  But that's not the point.  The point is that they're glamorous and mysterious and they have this eternal life," Bidwell said.

Bidwell has laid the show out in a concise way to help viewers follow her Ohio Gothic narrative.

"These creatures, are they alive or are they dead?  There are the people in the story and there are landscapes they may or may not have taken or seen and there's a picture of where they live," Bidwell said.


In the end, Bidwell admits that she's not really so interested in the process of photography.  She's mostly interested in the person she's shooting.

"It doesn't matter if I'm a good photographer or not.  It's really about who's sitting in front of my lens," Bidwell said.

Bidwell's exhibit Gratiot is on view now at t he Cleveland Print Room through November 4.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.