From the Archives: Photographer Monte Kruse Works Close to the Edge
I’ve dipped into the archives again for this early profile I did of photographer Monte Kruse. The man has crazy talent. When I first met him 21 years ago the bulk of his work was as photojournalist but as the years have gone by h’s gravitated more and more to fine art photogtaphy, often shooting nudes. The first two images below are from fairly recent work he’s done of agrarian nudes – depicting the human form in the throes of doing farm work and showing the nuance and contours of bodies hardened and developed by that kind of labor intensive, close to the ground activity. This blog also features a later story I did on Monte titled “Photographer Monte Kruse Pushes Boundaries.” You’ll also find stories on the blog about Monte’s mentor, photographer Don Doll. The blog features yet more stories on other photographers, including Monte’s good friend Jim Hendrickson, as well as Larry Ferguson, Ken Jarecke, Rudy Smith, and Pat Drickey, superb imagemakers all. Look for a big feature on Jim Krantz in November. And if you’re a film fan, the blog has dozens of pieces on filmmakers and other film artists, including Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler, Joan Micklin Silver, Charles Fairbanks, and Gail Levin. Explore…enjoy.
©Photograph by Monte Kruse
From the Archives: Photographer Monte Kruse Works Close to the Edge
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Metro Update
Picture the hard but wild throwing pitcher Tim Robbins portrayed in Bull Durham. A tall, lean, free-spirited kid whose oversized ego hid an underlying naivete and vulnerability. That may be a pretty close take on what Monte Lee Kruse looked liked pitching for Creighton University in the mid-’70s, before he became a noted photographer. The 6’5, 200-plus pound left-handed power pitcher must have cut an intimidating figure on the mound.
Kruse was good enough to get drafted by the Chicago White Sox, but knee injuries prevented him from ever playing an inning in the professional ranks. But this is not a story about Kruse the athlete. He long ago traded in a ball and glove for a camera as his means of self-expression.
The point is that many who know Kruse today as a talented freelance photographer of gripping human scenes would be surprised to learn he played competitive sports at all. Kruse is too complex to pin down easily. Just when you feel you have a bead on him, his story throws you a curve.
Someone who knew him back when – former Creighton athletic director Dan Offenburger – recalls Kruse as a “quiet, kind of country kid. Intelligent. He kind of marched to the beat of a different drummer.”
At 35, Kruse still exudes a commanding presence that sets you a little on edge. His sheer size is daunting enough. Add to that the force of his mercurial personality, blunt manner of speaking and piercing eyes and your first impression of Kruse is that of the brooding artist. He admits he can be temperamental.
“I swear a lot and I can be a real pain in the ass to work with because I’m real nervous and I try to get everything just right. I really push people,” he said. “But when they see the end product…well, I haven’t had a client yet that’s been dissatisfied.”
After spending a little time with him though his big, overgrown kid’s mug and down-home informality put you at ease. Just beneath the rough-hewn exterior is the keen sensitivity and intelligence that characterize his work.
In the stark black and white tones of his photos you sense his nearly spiritual kinship with and empathy for the disenfranchised of society. You feel the sensualist’s appreciation for faces and bodies and his appetite for life.
“I’m out to experience life to its fullest extent,” he said almost as a motto.
The documentary, fine art and commercial photographer travels widely on assignment across America and abroad. Home for Kruse is not so much a place as a state of mind. That seems about right for someone who has lived out of his car in leaner times. Perhaps as a reminder of those times his tiny hatchback is loaded with personal possessions.
Much of his photojournalistic work documents the lives of people on the fringe of society, where Kruse has been himself.
Anyone seeing his gut-wrenching images of the mentally ill homeless or AIDS patients is struck by their strong emotionalism and stark, naked truth. His photos combine the best elements of art and reportage. They are at once interpratative and restrained, as enigmatic as life itself.
In 1987 he spent three weeks documenting a Chicago AIDS hospice called The House. The resulting photos have been published in several newspapers.
“It was awful. All the guys I photographed are dead now. You have to keep up kind of a wall. If you get too involved, you’re not going to be able to function. I do get choked up a little because I get to know these people real well. But you still have to get your f-stops right and the image right,” Kruse said. “You do that the best you can and then you leave. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a social worker. My job is to go in there and photograph these people and write about them. That’s how I can be a doctor or shaman. Then it’s up to the public to disseminate the information.”
Far from any cool, impassive detachment, however, his photos are clearly the work of a caring observer. In fact, Kruse pursued the AIDS story because a close friend of his, Gary H., was stricken with the disease.
“When you see somebody dying of AIDS you better feel something. You don’t have to spread it across the page. You have to have restraint and tell the information, but you better have a sense of compassion. Objectivity is for journalism class. When you get out in the real world you’re going to have a point of view and it’s going to come through.”
Many of the most telling shots depict a patient named Bill. In one, he writhes in pain while taking a bath. In another, he prays in his bed of despair. And in another he receives a nurse’s tender attention.
Most images snatch glimpses of hope, such as a patient and his friend embracing on a stoop or planning their future together on a walk.
A lingering portrait is that of Daryl, a patient with one finger pressed against his temple. The caption quotes Daryl saying, “If I had any guts I would take a gun to my head and get it over with, but you know what, I won’t do it because I believe a cure will be found somehow, someway. Maybe I am gutless, I don’t know.”
Kruse has known degrees of desperation himself. A string of carthetic events helped shape him and now informs his work.
By 1977 he had abandoned the sports and college scene altogether, only recently having discovered photography. A passion for the medium and life led him on a cross-country odyssey that eventually landed him in California, where he learned his craft and worked as a fine art photographer. He knew he’d found his life’s work.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that can match the excitement of my sports career.”
In Calif. he photographed his first nudes, which he continues to shoot today. He also did landscapes until tiring of that genre. “It didn’t fit my temperament, so I started doing people – photojournalism. I was kind of shy to begin with and then I just gradually got used to it.”
He said it’s no accident his work focuses on people. “I think that’s just a reflection of me. I’ve always loved people. I’ve always loved talking to people, finding out what it’s all about. If I’m not around people I get real nervous. I have to be flooded by humanity.”
©Photo by Monte Kruse
He returned to Creighton a few years later to study under Rev. Don Doll, a Jesuit priest and world class photojournalist whose work Kruse greatly admires.
“I had a period where I was really spinning my wheels, caught between doing fine art work and photojournalism. One reason I came back to Creighton was Don Doll. He’s a great photographer. He’s inspiring to talk to. If I had a mentor it would probably have to be him. I also went back to Creighton because I have a lot of friends here. After I get back home from being gone three months I sometimes just like to come to Creighton and walk around the campus.”
Kruse graduated from the school in the late ’70s and later served a hitch in the U.S. Army. There was a trip to the Middle East, too. His life and vocation were turned upside down in a three-year span during the ’80s when both his parents died.
“My father died all of a sudden. I don’t know what happened but I had an explosion in my work where I got really intense.”
Then his mother became terminally ill with cancer and Kruse spent three months caring for her. “My mother died and I went through another metamorphosis.”
It was while working those tragedies with the help of his photography that Kruse found his unique visual style. He prefers a highly naturalistic style that employs available light for dramatic effect. He brands himself with the tag, “Found Light Photography.”
Like many young artists trying to establish themselves Kruse struggled making ends meet. He found it difficult getting his work published because so much of it graphically shows aspects of the human condition readers would rather not be reminded of.
“The toughest thing to do is docuementary work. There is not a market for it,” he said. “People don’t want to look at that stuff and they don’t want to be made aware of it.”
He suffered through some hard times before breaking through. “Two or three years ago I missed a lot of meals I was making so little money. When I was in really bad shape , yeah, I lived out of my car. If it hadn’t been for the support of people like my brother, Mark, I would have been a derelict in the streets. My brother actually kept me afloat for two or three years.” He said Mark, who lives near Omaha, is one reason why he remains here.
“I can’t survive without Mark. He’s the only person I have left out of my (immediate) family. He’s done so much for me. It’s kind of difficult to leave somebody who’s been that close to you for that long. We don’t see each other for two or three month periods, but on the other hand it doesn’t really matter. If you love somebody what’s the difference if you’re gone a year? I think it’s important for an artist and his work to have a center. If you don’t, what are you? You’re nothing.”
Kruse said his off-the-beaten-path lifestyle is distorted by some into bigger-than-life dimenstions. What some see as eccentric is really practical in his eyes.
“There’s kind of a mystique and romantic notion people have about me. But the YMCA is actually a nice place to live. If you’re in town for two weeks why should you pay $50 a night at a hotel when all you’re going to do is sleep there? I’m out to purchase my freedom, and if I had to live in a pig pen for the next three years I would do it.”
A crucial piece of Kruse’s freedom is being able to “do work that really matters.” He said, “I can’t really explain it, but it’s what keeps me going.” He discovered how to secure that freedom a few years ago by doing corporate photography, which pays far better than photojournalism. He snaps candid shots of CEOs and rank and file workers for annual reports, newsletters, brochures and other corporate publications. His local clients include Creighton University, the Catholic Health Corporation, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Ramsey Associates Inc.
“In an indirect way my corporate work finances my more humanistic work. For a lot of years it was rough and even now it can be rough, but I have nough people that back me today. That backing can go -it’s always tenuous. But I think my clients are my friends.”
A $3,000 or $4,000 corporate job can underwrite his taking riskier, lower paying assignments, such as his accompanying Rev. Ernesto Travieso and about 80 healthcare professionals and students to the Dominican Republic in 1988. The medical caravan went to the country under the auspices of Creighton’s Institute of Latin American Concern. Kruse documented caravan members delivering medical care and supplies to impoverished natives at rural clinics that took three to four hours to reach by backpack and mule.
“Monte came with us and had a good rapport with the people there,” said Travieso. “He made a documentary slide presentation on the project and it was really, really beautiful work.”
Kruse feels his own travails have helped him understand other people’s plight. “Sometimes I look back on when I was on my ass, with nothing to do, and how people looked at me. It wasn’t very pleasant. I learned never to make judgments upon people. You just accept them the way they are.”
Last year saw Kruse do several documentary projects. One brought him to Los Angeles’ skid row, where he photographed the mentally ill homeless for a national photo agency. “As I was leaving that shoot I was choked up. The homeless have rights, too. They’ve kind of chosen a different way of living, unless they’re mentally ill, but this is how they live, and it should be accorded them.”
After completing the AIDS and homeless shoots and having his mother die Kruse was drained. “I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to do something a little more upbeat.’” Fortunately a Kennedy Foundation project on mental retardation surfaced. He described the assignment as “very upbeat, very human.” For it he traveled all over the U.S., spending two weeks with each of his mentally retarded subjects. One was a girl living just outside Sheldon, Iowa, near his hometown of Little Rock. ”This farm girl is an absolute angel. I photographed her taking care of sheep on her father’s farm. She sews, she does everything.”
Inspired by the film My Left Foot, Kruse returned to Sheldon last summer to record the daily lives of a married couple with cerebral palsy. The photos are running as a special feature in the Sheldon Iowa Review, a prestigious small town paper. He said the project is “something that I’ve really been invovled with. It’s taken a lot of my heart and soul, and now we’re having to go through the woes of trying to get it published.” Editor Jay Wagner confirms that while Kruse can be “a bit demanding, when you’re working with someone as talented as Monte I guess it doesn’t matter. He’s got a great eye.” Wagner calls the pictures “powerful.”
Kruse recently went to Fargo and Grafton, N.D. to profile developmentally disabled individuals there for the Catholic Health Corporation. He approaches the disabled like all his subjects.
“I just think that they’re people like you and I. On a certain level you can communicare with them and have a helluva good time, or a helluva bad time. You’ve got to let them be who they are.”
That philosophy underscores his general technique for getting people to be themselves before the camera. “You’ve got to observe people and if you stay with them long enough they’ll always fall into who they are and what they do. Then you can tell them to hold that. I only photograph people that want to be photographed and want to tell their story.”
He was in Chicago recently making arrangements to photograph some of the city’s cultural icons, including author Studs Terkel, columnist Mike Royko and blues musician Louie Meyer, for an American artists series he is shooting with the aid of a grant. He plans going to New York, L.A. and other locales for more artist portraits.
“There’s so many people I’d love to do – Eudora Welty, Jacob Lawrence, Sonny Rollins, Gregory Peck. I feel I have to do Gordon Parks, the filmmaker-photographer-writer. I’ve read about him and what he went through and it’s always kind of kept me going.”
His goal is to publish the photos in a book someday. with the help of corporate sponsors. It may sound crass but Kruse enjoys the business side of art. “A lot of it is just getting out there and pressing flesh. You’ve got to hustle.”
Now that he has tasted success, he isn’t about to let it slip away. He said that while he “didn’t mind being poor at the time, I could never go back to living like that. I’m into fine dining, I love fine wines, I love women. To hell with the starving artist bit. That’s a myth of the past.”
- Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing, (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)