By Judy Kurtz
For Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, what started out as a small project devoted to her husband has morphed into a six-year endeavor that involved her camera lens and every senator in the 109th Congress.
The artist and writer, who’s the wife of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), is poised to unveil the fruits of her camera-toting labor with the debut of her photography installation, "How they changed our lives — senators as working people."
The exhibit features the photographed portraits of 113 senators accompanied by information on what each lawmaker considers their his or her legislative achievement.
Lautenberg tells ITK, “So many people don’t know who their senators are. If you ask the average person, they really don’t know. And they certainly don’t know what their senators have accomplished while they’re in Washington. And so I really wanted people to know.”
The senator’s spouse originally wanted to create something for her husband that involved his legislation and photographs. During a Democratic retreat years ago, the project started to expand when Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) expressed an interest.
“He thought it was a great idea," Lautenberg said. "And he wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, a great piece of legislation. So he said he wanted to be a part of it.”
Promising to take up no more than five minutes photographing each member of the upper chamber, she soon had more than a handful of senators on board.
She says, “Some of them were harder to get because they’re very busy and their offices are very protective of them." But before long, Lautenberg was able to get face time with every senator.
Some of her favorite memories from her photography sessions center on unique things that can be found in Senate offices.
"[Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)] has a ... grand piano that belonged to his grandmother. He was very proud of that piano and he loves to play. But he didn’t play it for me!”
"How they changed our lives" opens to the public on Sunday at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, N.J. Lautenberg says she hopes to eventually bring the floor-to-ceiling installation to the nation's capital, and to perhaps turn her work into a book.
She now has plans to snap photos of senators in the 111th and 112th Congress. But Lautenberg says she’s not too worried about convincing the latest crop of lawmakers, who have been called the most polarized Congress in modern history, to pose for a picture, explaining, “Once I tell them that I’ve gotten all these people, everybody wants to be part of something like this.”
Bonnie Lautenberg Photo: Brian Marcus