Her photos are shoe shots


What do a Ravens fan, a statue of a 19th-century politician and a gravestone angel have in common? They all look good in ballet shoes.

At least that's the theory of amateur photographer Elaine Urbanski, whose pictures of ballet and baby shoes in unexpected locations are currently on display at Ze Mean Bean Cafe in Fells Point.

Urbanski's obsession began last May when she needed a photo to paint for an art lesson. Waiting for her son to finish a class, she spotted a statue standing in a fountain in Mount Vernon Place. She pulled off her own shoes and waded through the fountain to pose them on the statue.

From there, she turned to ballet shoes, which she had always admired. "They have a hard edge and yet they're feminine and beautiful and made of silk," Urbanski said. "They represent strength and beauty."

For a model pair she visited Anita's Dance Studio in Towson, where part-time dance teacher Simeon Walunas lent her pointe shoes. "They're on long-term loan," Urbanski said. "She didn't know then that these shoes would cross the country from California to Chicago to Louisiana."

A research and evaluation manager for Sylvan Learning Systems in Baltimore, Urbanski, 43, has photographed the shoes in cities across the country during business trips. "I travel with my laptop in one hand and the suitcase of shoes in the other," Urbanski said.

An amateur photographer for 15 years, Urbanski, from Parkville, uses a 14-year old Minolta camera with manual focus and no zoom lens. "Sometimes I have to practically stand on my head to get the shot I want," she said.

She shoots about a roll of 400-speed film in either color or black and white at each session. She said she enjoys experimenting with special effects.

Shoes photographed on a black background, for instance, appear to float. Sometimes she tints the black-and-white shots with a pastel wash.

She discovered other special effects by mistake. One time she thought she had ruined a shot because her hand shook. "But when it was developed, it looked like a spirit was rising out of the statue," she said.

Coordinating shoe shots often takes considerable finesse. Although she uses a pole to put shoes in hard-to-reach places, some statues -- her primary subjects -- prove inaccessible. To get the shot of the Howard statue, she recruited a passer-by, who scrambled up the statue -- and still needed the pole to hang the shoes.

She has no qualms about asking strangers to pose in the shots, either. At a Ravens game, she approached "a big burly guy" sporting a Ravens headband, T-shirt and tattoo. "He looked mean," Urbanski said.

Despite his friends' teasing, the fan, nicknamed "Bear," agreed to wear the ballet shoes around his neck, and later allowed Urbanski to include the photo in the exhibit.

Urbanski took the "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to shoot at the Ravens stadium during construction last May. "There are many photos of the stadium, but how many of ballet shoes hanging from a crane?" she asked.

Urbanski's shoots offer a chance to bond with her children, Vincent, 15, Ashley, 13, and Andrew, 9. "Sometimes Andrew will say, 'Put the shoes here, Mommy,' and when I do, he's usually right," Urbanski said. "He has a good eye."

She also works photo shoots into the family schedule. Before Ashley's soccer games, she explores the neighborhood around the playing fields. She takes pictures until half-time.

Each child appears in the exhibit -- a drawing by Andrew, a photo of Ashley wearing the pointe shoes, photos of Ashley's baby shoes and a poem about Vincent and football. About 30 of her photos are on display at the Fells Point show, "Pointe Shoes, Baby Shoes, and Ravens Shoes." The work sells from $200 to $600.

Urbanski explained that the shoe photos are metaphors for some children's lives. At the exhibit, one photo shows the shoes beside a massive, weather-beaten door.

"It says, 'A child lives in this environment -- fragmented, splintered, dishonest,' " Urbanski said. "Being in the education field I see a lot of poor children who don't have the opportunities they should have."

In contrast, another shot shows the shoes encircled by a garden hose. "All children should be surrounded by a life-giving force, by nurturing people," she said.

Her photos offer both close detail -- raindrops spotting the new Raven's stadium seats -- and broad scope, such as a shoe-toting statue overlooking Lake Michigan. The photo of a woman (looking over the lake) is the exhibit's centerpiece, Urbanski said. "It reflects the places she's been and the places she's going. And the shoes show the wear of it all."

At the exhibit, Urbanski has placed some of her poems beside the photos, but most of her poems are too personal, she said. She hopes to publish a book of her photos and poetry by 2000.

Family, work and photography leave little time for other hobbies -- even the art class that inspired her to begin shooting shoes.

"I called the art teacher and said, 'I can't take your class. I have to take these photographs,' " Urbanski said. "She understood."

Photo exhibit

What: "Pointe Shoes, Baby Shoes, and Ravens Shoes"

Where: Ze Mean Bean Cafe, 1739 Fleet St., Fells Point

When: Through Jan. 4; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 9: 30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday

Call: 410-675-5999

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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