Autumn on Grounds: Capturing a Sense of Place and Time

November 19, 2020 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Photographs are a flash in time, ephemera, small bits of history once captured on film and now encoded in ones and zeros. They hold instances of events, time and emotion, preserved for future generations to study and contemplate.

Photographer Dan Addison has been capturing the history of the University of Virginia for the past 15 years, preserving minor and significant moments. And with his intimate relationship with the University, he has developed a special appreciation and an understanding of its sense of place. He has captured this sense in a series of autumnal images around Grounds.

“I see the historic bones of the architecture, the gardens and the students who are there appreciating those things,” he said.

And not just the architectural bones; he also sees the subtle changes brought about by the migration of seasons and time.  

“As the seasons change, the whole view is different and as I recognize those changes, I try to find ways to capture that,” he said. “I have noted the areas of Grounds where fall colors first appear, I visit those locations to get a feel for where we are in the transition. Even though there is a lot of consistency each year, there are also many nuances that seem unique, and I make the effort to notice and capture them.”

Addison knows the general public has a casual familiarity with the iconic Rotunda and the Lawn.

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Looking at a tree changing orange, red, and yellow, through a circle hole in a sculpture
Addison captures fall colors in a tree near Campbell Hall, shot through an opening in a sculpture.

“Those who only know the University casually probably aren’t very familiar with the pavilion gardens, although many may be aware of the serpentine walls,” he said. “I think the Rotunda itself is the most recognizable element for UVA, or Moses Ezekiel’s Thomas Jefferson statue on the [Rotunda’s] North Plaza.”

As compelling as the historic architecture of the University is, Addison knows the importance of people in his images.

“Occasionally when I notice a location that seems visually compelling, I’ll wait for people to arrive, adding interest and a sense of place,” he said. “I may pause and the moment I’m trying to capture just doesn’t happen. In other cases, it is just perfect. Either a student really adds to the photo and the composition, or I take the photo without a student and it may not make the cut in the end.”

In Addison’s images, the student may be a minor part of a photo or may be a key element.

“I have two approaches to students,” he said. “One is if I am shooting wide enough that the student is part of the composition, but not the main focus. If I think the student would probably be a bigger part of the composition, I will walk up him or her and introduce myself and see if they mind being a subject. Ninety-five percent of the time the students are fine with it and they ask if they can have a copy.”

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While he likes including students in photos, they are more sparse this year with COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been put in place.

“It is strange now that there are so few people on Grounds,” he said. “I have found that there are occasions when I see more students than others, but it is still the least amount I have seen since I have been here.”

A paucity of students or not, Addison is still drawn to certain spots on Grounds.

“The most recognizable places are the first ones I am drawn to, but those can easily be overused,” he said. “I am drawn to specific trees, such as the Pratt gingko in the fall, the Yulan magnolia in the spring. There are also certain spots of the pavilion gardens that I am often drawn to during specific times of the year.”

Architecturally, the Central Grounds have some of the most interesting locales for Addison’s eye.

“I think the architectural detail around the Academical Village is very strong and it is very visually ‘UVA,’” he said. “One thing that can happen as a photographer after you see the same things over and over, it can become a challenge to see things in a fresh way. I think that is part of what I tried to do this time; I went to the spots that are very well-known and this time I tried to visualize each spot in a different way.”

When Addison started at the University, he did not look at many photos of the Grounds, wanting to observe through fresh eyes and not imitate what others had seen.

“I happened to be in Pavilion III Garden and there was a bench with a dogwood tree in bloom behind it and a serpentine wall and a lamppost, and I thought, ‘Boy, that is unique,’” he said. “I took a vertical of that and I was so proud of that photo. And when I got back to my desk, my supervisor had left me a map of Grounds, in case I had any trouble getting around. The cover of that map was the exact photo I had just taken.”

Addison is a member of University Photographers’ Association of America and has a keen interest in how his colleagues visually portray their own schools. 

“I believe I have a huge advantage being at UVA with so many classic locations to depict the University, with compelling architecture and landscapes,” he said. “I have become aware of how certain locations change through the seasons. In the fall, I know there are going to be pumpkins along the Lawn rooms and I know which trees show color first. It is also nice when the heat of the late summer finally breaks. All of those things come together and this makes fall special at UVA.”

In his 15 years working at UVA, Addison has developed a certain style and approach to his work.

“My background, before photography, was in graphic design, so I find myself drawn to texture, pattern and color,” he said. “When I see those things in a composition, my eye is drawn to it. I enjoy compositions that have many different elements to see in them. I want to create images that when you look at them, you are compelled to look further, and as you look further, you discover more aspects of it. This is what creates a powerful image.”

Masked student walks on the Lawn Sidwalks
A lone masked student strolls near the Lawn rooms, the original student housing at the University.
Green and Yellow leaf sitting on the railing of the Rotunda
Addison captures the juxtaposition of nature and architecture with an image of gingko leaf on the marble railing around the Rotunda Terrace.
Students sitting on the ground as the leaves fall on the ground
Students relax on the Lawn in the warm fall weather, surrounded by rustling leaves.
Brick wavy wall with white door frame
The pavilion gardens are special places for Addison. “Typically, when I have the opportunity to visit the Gardens I look closely to see if there is anything that seems different or unique during that visit,” he said.
Student sitting in a chair with their feet propped up on the lawn under a yellow tree that is losing its leaves
A student studies in the warm afternoon light on the West Range along McCormick Road.
Green and yellow Pratt Gingko trees
The Pratt Gingko is a favorite for Addison. Named after William A. Pratt, the first superintendent of buildings and grounds, who planted it around 1860, the tree is an important landmark.