In the presence of art, we have the opportunity to see inside someone’s heart, mind, and soul and feel what they felt.

Behind the Lens: A Photographer’s Account of the Gibbes Museum Renovation

Over a year ago I reached out to the Gibbes Museum of Art requesting to document their current renovation. My original motivation was a curiosity that led to an exploration of transition.

Over the past few years my wife, Corrie McGovern, has captured events for the Gibbes use in their marketing, annual report, social media, and newsletters. We appreciate the Gibbes’ contribution to our community including art education and exposure, the various lecture series, Art of Healing program, art classes in a variety of mediums, and on and on. So luckily I knew who to ask for access inside. But given the odd nature of the ask I wasn’t sure what the answer would be. Gratefully, the answer was yes.

I have a layman’s appreciation for architecture. Growing up, our neighbor had a subscription to Architectural Digest and I would get lost in the imagery and subject matter. Maybe I appreciated the functional art aspect? There was even a time in my photography career that I trained to be an architectural photographer. Today my art contains the lines and structures often found in architectural photography.

First floor windows are reopened to the exterior.
First floor windows are reopened to the exterior. ©James McGavick
The Rotunda Gallery.
The Rotunda Gallery filled with construction supplies. ©James McGavick

I believe the Gibbes renovation was a few months into the project on my first visit, so I found the building just as I had hoped. Raw. Plaster gone or scored. Fixtures removed. Exposed brick, beams, wood and tile. From sections of dirt on the ground floor to the inside of the ornate glass dome. The shell of what had housed art for over a century getting a makeover to perhaps take it another century. It was this time in between that called to me artistically. I wanted to record the window of transition. While feeling at home with the architectural aspect, the environment of a historic remodel was foreign, new and exciting. This organized chaos soon to be gone and forgotten.

The Rotunda dome seen from above.
The Rotunda dome seen from above. ©James McGavick
The first floor promenade
The first floor promenade ceilings have been returned to their original height. ©James McGavick

Charleston has amazing weather most of the year but it’s not without swings. And the conditions on a construction site are the same as outside, just add a hard hat and tungsten lights. From below freezing concrete in the chill of winter to summer’s blazing heat of a bright metal roof top with a heat index over 115 f. degrees. Sprinkle that with the dust and fumes you would expect from a construction site of this type. Toss in occasional wires, open stair wells, hanging pipes and a dome ladder that is not for those with height issues.

ornamental railing of the south staircase
A view through a doorway to the ornamental railing of the south staircase. ©James McGavick
North ornamental staircase.
The north ornamental staircase, removed in the 1970s renovation, is being reinstalled. ©James McGavick

My intention was to capture “what was” with available light. By “what was” I mean that I did not contrive or move objects. What you see is what was in the frame. And by “available light” I mean that I did not add or manipulate light in any way. No strobes, flashes, tungsten, hot lights, etc. Again, what you see is what was available. These parameters proved to be a creative challenge in balancing subject matter with daylight, sunlight, tungsten, fluorescent.

Scaffolding in the Rotunda Gallery.
Scaffolding in the Rotunda Gallery. ©James McGavick

This self-assigned project has an organic beginning and end. Gone will be the evidence of the hard work done by so many. Soon finishing touches will be applied to the paint, art will be displayed, and the doors will open once again to Charleston’s residents and visitors alike. I will miss my solo time with the bones of the building but I look forward to visiting the renovated Gibbes.

James D. McGavick, photographer and guest blogger

James and his wife Corrie have a Charleston based photography studio that specializes in the art of people; Weddings, Portraits and Events— More of James’ art can be seen on his website,

Published March 4, 2016

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