The Big Picture
Norma Lopez Molina
It was just over a year ago that John Wonner first noticed the giant hole in the ground across from his downtown high-rise apartment. Then came the construction cranes, the workers in hardhats, the noise of pilings being driven into the ground. Something big was in the works.
“I didn’t know about the project,’’ he recalls. “I didn’t know what they were doing. But I got so involved in watching the construction of it, so here I am.’’
Wonner is sitting on the seventh floor of the circular office building at Orange Avenue and Anderson Street, looking out at “the project’’—the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. From this vantage point, which is the center’s administrative headquarters, the view is quite stunning. But these days so is the view from the street, as the long-delayed project has finally risen above the fences with the promise of something truly grand.
Wonner, who has spent his life assembling and wiring things, was so fascinated by the construction that he started taking photos every day, both from an empty apartment in his tower facing the site, and from the street. Then one day last fall, he wandered over to the round building and introduced himself to center president Kathy Ramsberger. Before long, Wonner had been designated the official photographer/videographer of the project.
His photos now number well over 1,000, arranged in four thick books. The self-taught photographer’s images show the orderly disorder of a construction site—pillars, ladders, girders and, of course, the workers in hardhats and brightly colored vests, inspecting a beam, operating a crane or sizing up a welding task.
“If you look at my pictures, I’m focusing on the people working more than the construction part of it. Because that’s what you’re interested in—as in ‘what’s he doing?’ And I try to portray that.’’
Wonner takes his volunteer commitment seriously, spending as much as 6 hours each weekday, cameras at the ready, marveling at the center that had so many starts and stops over the decades. Many thought it would never be built—not with the bad economy, not with other venues and projects competing for money and attention. And yet there it is, evidence that commitment to the arts is more than just a noble thought, especially when private donors decide to open their wallets.
Sometime in 2014, the first phase of the performing arts center—a hall for Broadway touring shows and one for local theater groups—is set to open. Wonner says he’d love to be there on opening night, whatever the performance may be. For now, though, the photographic chronicler, who celebrated his 94th birthday in late October, says, “I’m going to take pictures as long as I can take pictures.’’ Because watching this sort of thing never grows old.