SMALL TOWNS: Fox Valley photographer offers area churches a gift

Preservation of art and architecture is the chief goal for a Fox Valley woman
Published: Jul. 27, 2023 at 4:53 PM CDT
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MENASHA, Wis. (WBAY) - A Fox Valley woman says it’s her way to give back, by photographing churches in Northeast Wisconsin.

She then provides each church with her professional photos for free.

This week in Small Towns, we tag along on one of her recent shoots in Menasha.

The steeple of St. Mary’s Catholic Church has towered above Menasha for 154 years.

And while it hasn’t been that long, photographer Tracy Van Zeeland has had a project in the back of her mind.

“For a very, very long time,” says Tracy.

Her motivation?

“I am a very firm believer in Jesus,” says Tracy.

At the beginning of this year, Tracy launched what she calls her Church Photography Project.

Her mission to photograph area churches and then provide the church with a framed photo.

“I love architecture, I love art, photography allows me to bring all those things together and preserve what’s here,” explains Tracy.

St. Mary’s is her 20th so far.

“This is gorgeous, this is on par with what you’d see in Italy or Germany. The people that did this are obviously artisans and definitely loved what they did,” says Tracy as she observes the church before her shoot.

Growing up in Little Chute and Appleton, Tracy discovered her love for photography in high school.

“When I was 15, I got my grandfather’s camera, which the meter didn’t work and it was film, so to say that it was expensive would be an understatement because everything was an experiment and guessing, and back then it was hard to learn stuff, we didn’t have YouTube, and so I joined the high school photo club,” recalls Tracy.

After graduating, Tracy attended St. Norbert College, earning a degree in Communications, English and Theater.

She then worked for a local television station in productions, but eventually pursued her passion.

“Decided to go back to what I really enjoyed doing,” explains Tracy.

Tracy went back to school to study photography, and in 2000, she took a leap of faith.

“Ironically in ‘94 I first started photographing weddings under Milt Kinney for a summer and I had heard a rumor that he was for sale and on my way home from work one day I called them up, and 15 days later I owned it,” says Tracy, owner of M.C. Kinney Photography in Appleton.

So far, Tracy’s church project has taken her to communities like Appleton, Kaukauna, Darboy and Black Creek to name a few.

She came across one church with a deep personal connection.

“My maternal grandmother, when she was in the nursing home, she told me about a stained-glass window that her grandmother had donated and I don’t know why but I never really pursued it, she said it was in a little church and north of Appleton and because of this project I was able to find that stained-glass window, it’s at St. Mary’s in Black Creek, and while in that church I also found one of the Stations of the Cross from the other side of the family that was donated,” says Tracy holding back tears.

Tracy’s shoots take about a half hour and she’s constantly on the move.

When she leaves the church, her work is far from over.

“So obviously the sun is coming from over there and it’s shining right in there so I have to tone it down and then in post-production I’ll put that in so you can see clearly what the stained-glass is,” explains Tracy while taking photos.

When learning about Stacy’s offering St. Mary’s jumped at the opportunity.

“When people can get interested into the church and the beauty of churches, especially the way society is today of trying to take God out of everything, this is something that she can bring Christ back into everybody’s lives and show the beauty of the church and what it represents,” says Steve Siegel, St. Mary’s Business Manager.

Along with giving the church her photos, members can also purchase images with 10-percent of the proceeds going back to the church.

It’s a nice idea in theory.

“People are like, oh this is all about you making money, I’ll be frank, a lot of money has been going out, nothing has come in, most people just don’t think to get a picture of their church to hang in their house, it’s just not something people do these days,” says Tracy.

And that’s ok she adds, because while her project may not be a boon to business, it’s mighty good for her soul.

Tracy says she’ll continue photographing churches as long as there’s interest, and she’s hoping this story will inspire more churches to call, allowing her to offer them her gift.