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The Panoramic World of Pat Drickey


Pat Drickey has been a fine art, architectural, and landscape photographer and he’s combined all of those talents and disciplines in a niche today that finds him making sumptuous and collectible panoramic images of the world’s great golf courses.  This short profile should whet your appetite for the much longer piece I did on him, which can also be found on this blog.

 

 

National Golf Links of America, ©photo by Pat Drickey

 

 

The Panoramic World of Pat Drickey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Omaha commercial photographer Pat Drickey knew he was onto something big when panoramic images he was commissioned to shoot of Pebble Beach Golf Course struck a chord in people. What began as an irrigation company ad campaign gig, flying him to elite courses around the world, became his own niche enterprise when the prints sold out and the Professional Golfers Association took note.

“That’s when I knew this could be a business,” said Drickey, an Omaha native whose Stonehouse Publishing company, 1508 Leavenworth St., specializes in producing iconic landscape images of premier golf courses around the world. Drickey, who takes the vast majority of the photographs himself and personally supervises the production of every single print, estimates more than 300,000 Stonehouse prints are now in circulation.

“We have branded the panoramic format for golf,” said Drickey, whose business operates out of a century-old red-brick building on the Old Market’s fringe.

In addition to being licensed by major courses, the United States Golf Association and the PGA, he has the endorsement of living legends like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, giving him access to virtually any green. From Pebble Beach to Pinehurst to Medinah to St. Andrews to many other championship courses with rich histories, Stonehouse and Drickey are recognized names with carte blanche access.

“Which is a significant deal,” he said, ”because we are becoming that embedded in the lore of golf.”

Torrye Pines, ©photo by Pat Drickey

 

 

Drickey’s neither the first nor only photographer to capture links in a panoramic way. But he believes what separates his work from others is the photo-illustration approach he uses in creating crystal-clear images of striking detail and depth. Employing all-digital equipment in the field and the studio Drickey brings exacting standards to his imagemaking not possible with film. Digital enhancements bring clarity from shadows and achieve truer, more balanced colors, he said. Even a sand trap can be digitally raked.

“It’s just incredible what you can do — the control you have,” he said.

He said Stonehouse has adopted the fine art Giclee process to its own printmaking methods, which entails using expensive pigmented archival inks on acid free watercolor paper to ensure prints of high quality that last.

“I want to produce a product that’s going to be around for a long time. The color hits that paper and stays with it — it will not fade. And that’s significant,” he said.

He feels another reason for Stonehouse’s success is its images portray the timeless characteristics that distinguish a scenic hole or course. He strives to indelibly fix each scene into a commemorative frieze that expresses the design, the physical beauty, the tradition. The clubhouse is often featured. Getting the composition just how he wants it means “waiting for the right light,” which can mean hours or days. Much care and research go into finding the one idyllic, golden-hued shot that speaks to golf aficionados. That’s who Stonehouse prints are marketed to.

Building-updating Stonehouse’s image collection keeps Drickey on the road several days a month. He’s half-way to his goal of photographing the world’s top 100 courses. One he’s still waiting to shoot is Augusta, home to the Masters.

“That’s one of America’s crown jewels. We are present at the other majors and we’d like to have a presence there. It’s just a matter of time. Those introductions have been made,” Drickey said.

Stonehouse prints grace golf books-periodicals. Drickey’s collaborating on a book project for Nebraska’s Sand Hills Golf Club course. He has more book ideas in mind.

His golf niche is an extension of the architectural photography he once specialized in. It’s all a far cry from the images he made with a Brownie as a boy. He still has that camera. A reminder of how far he’s come.

Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse Through Her Project STAND

April 16, 2012 6 comments

Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu has dedicated herself to a lifetime project portraying the individual hunanity of persons who have suffered rape or sexual abuse.  Her intent is to beyond the label of victim to show who these people are.  The work is dear to her for many reasons, not the least of which is her own recovery from rape.  She delivers a message to the world in her pictures and in her words that the hurt survivors feel is real and profound but that healing is possible.  She lets survivors, their families and friends, and the public know that the assault or the abuse and its aftermath need not define women.  She delivers this message through a support organization she formed, through photographs she takes of survivors, through educational presentations she gives, and through writing she does on the subject, including her autobiography (Stand, published in Japan).  She has been much honored for her work.  I wrote the following profile of Nobuko several years ago, when she still lived in Omaha, Neb., where she’d come to work for the Omaha World-Herald.  She and her family have since moved on elsewhere but her work continues, as does the praise for her efforts.

 

 

Nobuko Oyabu

 

 

Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse Through Her Project STAND

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly
Omaha photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s work on rape and sexual abuse first made waves in the States. Now it’s stirring things up in her native Japan. On visits there in the last year she’s exhibited her intimate portraits of survivors and given talks about her own story and her subjects’ stories of survival.

She was raped in 1999.

She’s also returned to her homeland to promote her new book, Stand (Forest Press). Published in October, it’s made best seller lists there. The book reveals the trauma of sexual assault through the prism of her personal odyssey and of the men and women she’s chronicled. Her book’s title is drawn from a national project she launched in Omaha to document survivors from across America and in Canada.

Some survivors want to be photographed at the very site they were abused. It isn’t always possible. When it is, it’s an emotional scene. The survivor seeks to reclaim power and control lost in the attack. It’s about closure. In one image a man weeps in the cabin he was molested in as a boy. Some images reveal artifacts of human suffering. A woman shows scars from cuts she makes on herself. Oyabu said self-mutilation is common among survivors as a way of dealing with post-traumatic stress. Another holds a photo of herself as a child made-up as a whore by her abusive dad. Innocence lost. Others choose places and poses that represent their recovery.

Oyabu said Stand is an expression of “how I stood up to the tragedy that happened to me and also of the stands of other survivors. Part of the meaning as well is that sometimes you can’t do anything but just stand there and wait. You can’t always be brave or do something great.”

The fact she’s openly discussing such traditionally taboo subjects in Japan has made her something of a sensation there. Major media outlets in Tokyo, her hometown of Osaka and other cities have profiled her.

“I think I’m the very first person speaking out” on this issue there, she said. In Oyabu’s view Japan harbors, much like the U.S., dysfunctional attitudes about rape and sexual abuse rooted in denial.

“A lot of women tend to be very quiet about it and just suffer silently. It’s really hard for them to be open about it,” she said.

She said a Japanese columnist questioned in print whether she’s actually a survivor after one of her upbeat presentations. Yes, the subject is sober but that doesn’t mean she has to be.

“This particular writer thought that was not appropriate at all. He wrote, ‘I wonder if it really happened to her?’ I wasn’t what he thought a survivor should look like,” she said. “So how should I look? Do I always have to be depressed? I mean, c’mon, I have a daughter. I have a responsibility to make her happy. I can’t be depressed.”

Oyabu said, “It’s kind of hard to attach faces to the issue” amid such perceptions,  “It’s kind of hard to see the reality and people don’t really want to see it. But it’s not like all survivors are in depression, stigmatized and bitter. I certainly don’t see myself that way. I’ve found a lot of people don’t see themselves that way.

“If you have a preconceived idea of how a survivor looks, you can never get the real person in the picture.”

 

 

Faces of Rape and Sexual Abuse

©photos of survivors by Nobuko Oyabu

 

 

Before her own attack, she said, “I admit I had the same attitude toward rape victims. I thought rape belongs to somebody else. I didn’t know there are so many different kinds of survivors until I met them.”

Oyabu’s black and white images express the full spectrum of survivors in terms of education, occupation, income, race, ethnicity, age, shape, size. She said, “I consciously selected these people” to represent they are not just one thing or another. Sexual assault does not discriminate along demographic lines. “It happens to everyone,” she said. Just as survivors are not all rich or poor, black or white, they are not all grim or mad. Many are content, confident, proud, defiant. Count Oyabu among these. Her self-portrait on her book’s cover shows an assertive, ever curious woman poised with camera in hand.

“My resistance was the key for me,” she said.

While large urban papers in Japan gave her positive coverage, reprinting some of her images, she said smaller rural papers displayed a more close-minded attitude and refused to run her pics. She found that “odd” considering her images are in no way graphic but merely portraits. She thinks such reluctance stems from outdated notions that survivors should not be seen or heard — a byproduct of a larger bias that fixes blame or shame on survivors.

“With sexual assault there’s so much gray area still,” she said. “Too many people think it’s the victim’s fault. In this country as well.”

That the blame game should persist in Japan, she said, is ironic given it “is the capital of pornography in the world. There’s so much human trafficking and child porn going on…and somehow the blame is shifted to the victims.” She said sex is right out front in Japan, as it is here, “and yet when it comes to sexual violence people don’t want to acknowledge it,” much less talk about it. Similarly, she said America and Japan don’t want to examine the implications of sex being so pervasive yet rarely discussed at home or school. “Not talking about it,” she said, results in high rates of sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuity, prostitution. This pregnant silence, she said, explains why most sexual assaults go unreported.

“A lot of people are in denial,” she said, “especially parents who grew up in a home where abuse took place. A lot of people have no idea what to say — they just don’t know how to talk about it. Survivors don’t know who to talk to or where to go.”

 

 

photo

 

 

In lieu of information, she said, some people suffer abuse not realizing they’ve been victimized. She notes a disturbing trend among young people she speaks with who routinely tell her they’ve been molested or raped but pass it off “as no big deal” — as if it’s a rite of passage. “It’s really sad,” she said.

Then there’s the way rape is historically minimized by society, drawing light sentences for actions that have long lasting effects.

Oyabu noted, “One of the survivors put it like this: ‘The rapist gets three to five years, the victims get life.’ And that’s exactly it. It’s not just a one-time incident. For a lot of people it takes a lifetime to get over it. I find it disturbing that society doesn’t see rapists as high risk criminals.”

The reaction her work’s elicited in Japan is not unlike its reception in the U.S.  Her STAND: Faces of Rape and Sexual Abuse Survivors Project has been a traveling exhibition across America. Her work with survivors and her personal identification with them and their trauma has made her a sought-after figure. She’s testified before Congress about the issue. She’s spoken to medical, health and law enforcement professionals. She’s presented at women’s and survivors conferences as well as colleges and universities. She’s served as visiting faculty at the Poynter Institute (Fla.) for a seminar on how the media reports rape. She and her work have been part of national awareness campaigns and a Lifetime documentary. She’s written articles for publications here and abroad.

In 2003 she received the Visionary Award from the DC Rape Crisis Center along with comedian Margaret Cho and poet Alix Olsen.

Still, her work is not always appreciated. She said while on staff at the Omaha World-Herald in 2000-2002 senior editors there nixed her doing a photo-essay series on sexual assault survivors. The material, she was told, was too intense for the paper. She said some journalists criticize her for crossing ethical lines as a reporter who documents fellow survivors like herself.

“But if you can use your personal experience to get an exclusive story,” she asks, “then why not use it as a tool?”

Although she defines herself a photojournalist rather than survivor or advocate, her work’s inextricably linked to her experience. Stand centers on the aftermath of her rape — the turmoil she felt and the healing she found. In this light, she said, the images she makes, the talks she delivers, the testimonies she shares serve an educational purpose. “The work of journalism is educating people,” she said. More than anything, she wishes to give survivors names and faces just like her own.

 

 

photo

 

 

Oyabu was a young, single, up-and-coming photographer with the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch in 1999 when she was raped. She had come to the States only a few years before to pursue her post-secondary education. She wanted to write but found her niche with a camera at Columbia College in Chicago. She went on to shoot a diverse range of subjects for newspapers in the Quad Cities.

Her life and career were full of bright promise when she suffered the ultimate violation and everything grew dark. The rape occurred far from her family in Osaka, where her father pastors a Christian church and her mother teaches preschool. It would be six years before she told her parents what happened. She said, “I didn’t want to worry them too much…I didn’t have the courage to tell,” In the wake of her revelation, she said, “my family has been very supportive.”

The violent act took place at night in her own home. She was sleeping in the bedroom of her locked apartment when the male perpetrator, a former neighbor she didn’t know, broke in using a crowbar. The petite Oyabu never stood a chance. As soon as the stranger left she ran to neighbors and called 911. The cops that caught the case treated her with care on the scene and at the hospital ER they took her to. The medical staff respectfully collected what they needed for the “rape kit” that police and prosecutors use to help convict rapists.

While treated well, Oyabu said she did overhear a doctor ask a nurse, Why is she crying? As she’s since discovered, the law enforcement and medical communities are not always as sensitive as they could be. At a 2005 University of Nebraska Medical Center presentation she told doctors, nurses and students that most sexual assaults are committed by a relative, friend, acquaintance or colleague, meaning victims “take a huge risk even to come out to the ER. You are among the first to respond to these victims when they reach out for help,” she implored the audience, “so please be compassionate to these people.”

Care must be taken with victims, she said, as the trauma of rape is exacerbated by the trauma of examination and interrogation and the suggestion — intentional or not — that somehow the victim’s at fault.

Oyabu provided police a description of her assailant, who left behind the crowbar, his hand prints, hair and other incriminating details. He was caught after only three days. The fact her rapist was captured at all, much less so swiftly, is atypical, she said. The remainder of that year is a blur of counseling sessions, depositions, trial proceedings and attempts to get on with her life. Due to the overwhelming evidence she was spared having to testify. The repeat offender was given the maximum sentence by the judge — 20 years — and is currently serving his time in an Illinois state pen. Again, she said, that is not the norm.

Even with some closure, Oyabu endured flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks and depression. She lived in fear. She rarely let her guard down around men.

The counselor she was referred to at a Quad Cities family services center helped Oyabu work through her emotions. “She made sure I understood that it (the rape) wasn’t my fault. That’s one of the biggest steps for healing.”

A counselor friend suggested she keep a journal. Oyabu said journaling provided a healthy release. Later, her entries proved a key resource for her book. That same friend asked Oyabu to participate in a project that had victims’ harsh self-portraits and words printed on T-shirts. “All I saw was shame and anger on them,” she said. “These T-shirts were faceless. I didn’t belong there — I have feeling and hope. I’m not just a statistic.” This picture of bitter fruit was not the image she had of herself or other survivors, a term she prefers to victims.

“Well, I don’t want to be bitter forever,” she said. “Survivors don’t want you to feel sorry for them or see them as some kind of damaged goods.”

She’d already discovered survivors could be anyone. After her rape several friends came forward with their own stories. “It was really a shock to me all these close friends from college were rape survivors. I didn’t know it,” she said. “I guess my friends didn’t know how to start the conversation about it. Once I was victimized they felt like they could talk now.”

Four of the five women she served on a panel with at the Poynter Institute turned out to be survivors. Smart, successful professionals like her. They’re everywhere.

 

 

 

 

Oyabu came to Omaha not just for a job but to escape the place where she was raped. “I couldn’t really stay in the same city,” she said. Also, Omaha had a lower incidence of sex crimes. The thought of it happening again plagued her. She wanted to feel safe. But that took time and work. It came with the help of Dee Miller, a fellow writer and survivor in Council Bluffs, and Pastor William Barlowe, pastor of Omaha’s Grace Apostolic Church, where she met her husband, IT specialist Patrick McNeal. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter, Ellica.

Another turning point came when she wrote a letter to her rapist. “As soon as I dropped the letter in the mailbox,” she said, “I felt a kind of joy I’d never experienced. I started to smile and laugh again. I felt like I was totally set free.” Forgiveness is a work in progress.

The next piece of her recovery was her faces of survivors work. When the Herald balked at doing anything she bolted in frustration and liberation. “I was like, Forget them, I’ll do it on my own. She did, too, largely self-funding what became the Stand project. Fees from speaking engagements and exhibits helped.

She said the project’s been “part of my healing, It’s been healthy for me.” She’s met some survivors who can’t move on or can’t find closure — still mired in their pain. “That’s totally understandable. I was there.” She’s met others who dedicate themselves to the cause — working to make a difference with survivors and first responders. Others lead fulfilling lives and careers outside the issue. She keeps in contact with many. For herself, she said, “sometimes I just can’t believe how far I’ve come and how much I’ve done the past six, seven years. I’m alive.”

The prospect of writing about her survival scared her until she found she could divorce herself from the emotion of that trauma. The process was cathartic. She’s now translating Stand for an English language edition to be published in the U.S. by year’s end. Her photo project lay dormant the past few years as she worked on the book and adjusted to motherhood. This year she may capture new images for the project on two trips she’s making to Japan, where survivors who surfaced after her last appearances there requested to be part of her archive. In the future she may revisit her original portrait subjects to further chart their journey of recovery.

Meanwhile, she’s contemplating her next project. Exploring sexual assault in Asian countries interests her. Whatever she does, she won’t be afraid to take a stand.

Resources:

NATIONAL SEXUAL VIOLENCE RESOURCE CENTER
Nobuko is a honorary board member of NSVRC. NSVRC serves as the nation’s principle information and resource center regarding all aspects of sexual violence.

Clothesline Project of Japan
a project of survivors and their remained families of sexual abuse express their thought in drawing on T-shrits.(in Japanese)

Parents United of the Midlands
a site whose mission to bring light to the darkness of sexual abuse

Advocate Web
free resource for victims and their families

Welcome to Barbados
a Tori Amos inspired website for rape and sexual abuse survivors


Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party

February 18, 2012 2 comments

 

The Mercer name is exalted in Omaha for the family’s embedded presence as downtown commercial-residential property owners and managers, historic preservationists, aesthetic arbiters, and the primary visionaries, developers, and protectors of what’s known as the Old Market.  The Old Market is a small enclave of late 19th and early 20th century brick warehouse buildings that comprised the city’s wholesale produce center.  Under the Mercer’s leadership these stuctures took on new life in the 1970s to house an eclectic collection of restaurants, artist studios, art galleries, trendy shops, and loft condos.  For a few decades now the National Register of Historic Places district has been one of the state’s top tourist attractions.  The subject of this story, artist Vera Mercer, is a native German who married into the family just as the Mercers were transforming the area into a cultural hub.  She played a vital role, along with husband Mark Mercer and father-in-law Samuel Mercer in establishing some of the anchor sites there, including the French Cafe.  Her photography is prominently displayed in the restaurant.  The Mercers own a few eateries in the district and Vera plays a hand in them all behind the scenes.  Additionally, her large-scale, Baroque-style food still lifes can be seen in one of these spaces – The Boiler Room.  The Mercer’s La Buvette is a bistro style eaterie with an impressive wine selection and it’s often where Vera and Mark can be spotted.  She also runs her own gallery, The Moving Gallery, that features work by European artists.  Though she’s long been a key player in the Old Market, Vera has been a low-key, little-know presence outside that gilded arena.  That is until recently, when a book of her paintings and exhibitions of her work have received much notice here and in Europe.  I had never met Vera until doing this short 2011 piece about her for Encounter Magazine.  What I found is a charming woman who is an artist through and through.  Her photography and painting, equally compelling.

 

©Vera Mercer

 

 

 

Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Encounter Magazine

 

Vera Mertz Mercer occupies a paradoxical place in Omaha. She’s a world-renowned photojournalist and art photographer, yet her work is little known here. She’s a vital part of the Mercer family’s Old Market dynasty, yet few recognize her influence.

Forty years after coming here, this German native is finally getting the attention that’s eluded her thanks to several projects featuring her work, which ranges from evocative street-market-figurative portraits to richly textured still lifes of food-animal-plant motifs.

A new book, Vera Mercer, Photographs and Still Lifes (Kehrer, 2010), includes a selection of her photo reportage and still lifes. Following well-received exhibits in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, plus a show in Lincoln, Neb., she has a single work on display in the 12th Annual Art Auction and Exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, October 8-November 6. Her biggest exposure though will be her first Omaha solo exhibit, Vera Mercer: Still Lifes, opening in January at the Bemis.

“Given the Mercers central role in the development and sustainability of the Old Market, and their longstanding role in Omaha’s art community, it was surprising to me she had never had a one-woman exhibition” here, said Bemis curator Hesse McGraw.

He said the show will reveal “an under-recognized jewel and legacy of the contemporary art community. I’m interested in the deep intensity of Vera’s photographs. They have a timeless quality that is both classical and highly contemporary. The works are unsettlingly rich in tone, composition and content. It’s surprising these decadent, grotesque, deep-hued works also have a sense of levity. They possess a rigor that is very rare.”

 

 

 

Vera Mercer at an opening

 

 

More 2011 exhibitions of Mercer’s work are slated for Mexico City, Japan and Italy. Her emergence on the art scene follows a stellar career in Europe photographing famous artists and their work (Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol), authors (Norman Mailer), playwrights (Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco), performers (Jacques Brel), street scenes and markets. Her first husband, artist Daniel Spoerrii, was active in theater. Her father, Franz Mertz, was a noted set designer. Both men introduced her to the avant garde and she flourished in the heady company of artists and intellectuals.

Mercer trained as a modern dancer, teaching for a time, before Spoerri gave her her first camera. Photography’s expressive possibilities fascinated her. Self-taught, she develops and prints her own work. She prefers shooting with high speed film. She likes grainy, dimly lit images. Her lush still lifes are made with a 4-by-5 camera.

In Europe she met sculptor Eva Aeppli, the wife of Samuel Mercer, an attorney who divides his time between his native Omaha and France. Aeppli’s astrological sculptures adorn the Garden of the Zodiac in the Old Market Passageway. The Mercer family has owned property there for generations. The couple befriended Vera, who later married Samuel’s son, Mark. As an artist and gourmand she fit right in with these cosmopolitans and their affinity for artistic and epicurean delights. Her discerning eye and palette helped shape the Old Market into a cultural oasis.

 

©Vera Mercer

 

 

 

Mark manages the family’s many properties. He and Samuel, a 2010 Omaha Business Hall of Fame inductee, have been the primary agents for preserving this former wholesale produce center and repurposing its warehouses as shops, galleries, restaurants, apartments, condos.

The ambience-rich Market, a National Register of Historic Places district, has become Omaha’s most distinctive urban environs and leading tourist destination.

Overshadowed in this transformation from eyesore to hotbed is Vera Mercer. She’s applied her aesthetic sensibilities to some iconic spots, such as, V. Mertz, which bears her name. She and Mark own La Buvette, an authentic spin on the French cafes they know from their Parisian haunts. More recently they opened the Boiler Room, a fine dining establishment with Vera’s large format, color still lifes integrated into the decor.

Her black and white photo murals of Parisian cafes are among the distinctive interior design elements at the French Cafe, which Samuel Mercer developed with Cedric Hartman. Her photo project for the cafe first brought her to America.

 

 

 

 

While a familiar figure to Market denizens for her culinary endeavors, her photography is decidedly less known, though in plain view. She’s exhibited her work in galleries around the world but seldom locally. This despite the fact she oversees the Moving Gallery. Mercer said, “I could easily show there but I think that’s not for me to do that.”

There are practical reasons why so much of her work is showing now after years of scant exhibition activity. First of all, she doesn’t believe in over-exposing herself. “I think one should not be overseen,” she said.

Then she’s been busy. “I had lots to do,” she said, referring to her many Mercer Old Market duties, including launching restaurants. She keeps the books for the two the Mercers still own. Several “intense” photo installation projects she did in Asia with designer John Morford kept her occupied.

So, all along she’s been practicing her craft, just not exhibiting. But she’s built a tremendous body of work.

“I work every day a lot on photography,” she said.

Exhibiting isn’t everything. The culinary arts are creative, too. “Making a restaurant is something so beautiful. It’s something for the people. It’s just like a painting,” she said, before adding,“It’s just like theater, too.”

She’s a bit taken aback by all the attention directed her way these days, but she’s “not surprised.” Always open to change, she’s now experimenting with some new portraiture techniques, ready to reinvent herself again.

 

 

Jim Krantz and David Bialac: Art Conversation Through the Generations

October 28, 2011 4 comments

©David Bialac, “Untitled”

 

 

A few weeks ago I mentioned I would be posting a story about another photographer you should know about, and here it is. His name is Jim Krantz and he does work of the highest order, so high in fact that he was named Advertising Photographer of the Year by the International Photography Awards in 2010 and International Photographer of the Year at the IPAs Lucie Awards. Jim has an exhibition opening in his hometown of Omaha on Nov. 4 that has deep meaning for him because it displays his work alongside that of the man who first inspired and nurtured his artistic leanings and who gave him his first camera – his late grandfather David Bialac, who was an artist himself. Look for my story in next week’s The Reader (www.thereader.com). If you’re into photography and to stories about the journeys that photographers make in their life and work, then you’ll find plenty of captivating things to see and read on this blog. You’ll find stories here on such noted photographers as Larry Ferguson, Don Doll, Monte Kruse, Pat Drickey, Jim Hendrickson, Rudy Smith, and Ken Jarecke. You can choose their stories individually by clicking on their names in the Categories listing on the right or just choose Photography. Or you can search for my stories about them in the search box.

NOTE: The Krantz-Bialac show is called Generations Shared and it runs Nov. 4-27 at the Anderson O’Brien Gallery in Omaha’s Old Market.

 

 

Jim Krantz

 

 

Photographer Jim Krantz and His Artist Grandfather, the Late David Bialac: An Art Conversation Through the Generations

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

An aesthetic conversation that began decades ago continues in Generations Shared. The Nov. 4 through 27 exhibition features work by internationally renowned photographer Jim Krantz alongside that of his late maternal grandfather, David Bialac, an Omaha painter, sculptor and fine furniture-maker who was Krantz’s first and perhaps most important artistic mentor.

Krantz, who assisted Bialac for a time, says, “My grandpa had a very good reputation.” Krantz believes Bialac (1905-1978) should be better known and more appreciated today. He views the new exhibition at Anderson O’Brien Gallery in the Old Market as a tribute to the man he credits with kindling his own creative passion.

The tribute subject owned Dave Bialac Builders in northeast Omaha. At his 52nd and Hamilton Streets home studio he developed an alchemy-like enameling process that involved arranging multi-colored glass shards and powder on glass and copper plates and then firing them in a kiln. The bonded-fused objects took on trippy abstract patterns. His distinctive work adorned custom kitchens and decorative installations and sculptures he designed for some of Omaha’s most distinctive homes and public-private spaces, such as the Mutual of Omaha lobby.

“He signed his pieces,” says Bialac. “There was a lot of pride and craftsmanship in what he did. He did custom woodworking for a living but his real passion was his artwork.”

 

 

©David Bialac, “Untitled”

 

 

Every Saturday morning Krantz, the devoted young grandson, joined Bialac in his home studio for what the old man jokingly called “baking cookies.” The self-taught abstract expressionist and his boy apprentice made this a ritual for years. After Bialac suffered a severe stroke he gave Jimmy access to an expressive tool all his own via the studio camera he kept to document his work: a Minolta SR-T 101.

Krantz recalls his grandfather’s wizened admonition: “Jimmy, I want you to work with this camera. Make some pictures, but remember the kinds of things we did in the studio.” It proved an irresistible invitation for the protege. Out of obligation to his elder and his own curiosity Krantz experimented. The camera might as well have been a new appendage as inseparable as he and the Minolta became.

Their contract called for Krantz to return the camera once Bialac recovered, so they could resume working together. Bialac never got better. “It was a shame because he was an amazing, vital, creative force trapped in his body after the stroke. It’s got to be the most debilitating thing because his mind was racing and there was no way to respond. So all I was left with was memories and a camera,” says Krantz, who went on to study photography and earn a design degree.

As a professional Krantz gained a rep as a visual stylist who makes any shoot, regardless of subject matter, a rigorous exploration of light, space, form, shadow. He conquered the Omaha ad market before moving to Chicago 12 years ago.

Today, Krantz enjoys a high-end career as a advertising, documentary and art photographer traveling the world for Fortune 500 clients and personal projects. His signature commercial work came on a Marlboro tobacco campaign. His post-modern The Way of the West imagery earned him International Photography of the Year prizes as 2010′s best advertising photographer and top overall photographer.

 

 

The Way of the West, ©photo by Jim Krantz

 

 

More recently his images from inside the forbidden zone of Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster have captured attention via his book and exhibition, Homage: Remembering Chernobyl. His Chernobyl work comes to KANEKO in April.

The Chicago-based Krantz, who retains strong Omaha ties, loves the idea of showing his work with that of his Saturday morning studio session mentor. More than most exhibits, the show examines creativity as legacy, a theme much on Krantz’s mind as his career’s reached new heights and he’s recognized how indebted he is to teachers like his grandfather.

He speaks of feeling connected to Bialac and sensing his guiding hand. As a kid, he never considered those weekend idylls with “Poppy” as classes, but in retrospect they were. Among the lessons taught: focus and discipline.

“He was a very warm and loving guy but he was very concentrated on this stuff,” says Krantz.

As the boy alchemist’s helper, Krantz says he’d studiously watch his grandfather manipulating “threads of glass on a plate, then staring at it, and with tweezers moving it in such a nuance of a move” before transferring them to the kiln. “I had no idea what he was doing — all I knew was this was serious shit.”

“My grandpa was a very eccentric man, I have to say, doing very abstract, very unusual things. I’m telling you, this guy was out there, but he had this quality of craftsmanship. He’d take his copper enameling and then he’d build big huge installations of wood furniture and whatever and they’d all be applied to the furniture. His work’s amazing. Really quite strong. Really beautifully crafted.”

The Krantz family possesses a nice collection of Bialac’s work, but many pieces have been lost to time.

Krantz describes Bialac as someone who straddled the Old World and Modern Age as a creative.

“He was from another generation,” says Krantz. “I don’t even know where he got his initial inspiration because he came from working class type people and he got sidetracked somehow deep into very abstract thinking, concepts, art, color and design, and then it evolved into sculpture with natural elements and all of these things — brass, rock, metal, glass, enamel.”

The studio where he and Bialac bonded over art is fixed in Krantz’s mind.

“I remember it so well. It was an immaculately beautiful space, really organized. A very busy shop. You could just tell he was really meticulous and thoughtful about everything he did. I remember the work that came out of it was so different than the setting. I’m not saying clinical but it’s funny how the space did not feel like the product, which was kind of very free form and organic. That’s why process was so important to him.”

As time goes by Krantz feels ever more the reverberations of Bialac’s work in his own.

“Over the years I’ve been looking back at my work and his work and it’s like the parallels are so strikingly similar, even in our own visual vocabulary, and I know it’s all from just literally every Saturday standing by this guy’s side watching him work. It’s just part of me.”

Most of their communication was nonverbal, with Kranz observing his grandfather communing with pieces, responding to subtle variations, tweaking this or that. And while they never formally discussed methodology, Krantz gleaned some direction for his own artistry and field of vision. He realizes now he adopted, intuitively, from Bialac a way of apprehending the world.

“I did the same thing with the camera he did pushing those little things around. I was always aware of everything I saw in the viewfinder because he always told me, ‘What you see on this plate — how do all these things fit?’I put a camera to my eye and I see a rectangle. There’s a tree branch here and a rock there and a person over here. All of these things become abstract shapes.

“It isn’t so much documenting, it’s arranging. So I started to learn at an early age that I can look through this camera just like I looked at that plate. Once you have the shapes in the right spot then you can relate to them on a more personal level. The thing that was wired into me early was I knew how to put things on that plate and I could transfer it to the rectangle of a camera.”

He doesn’t know why his grandfather offered him the camera but suspects he noted in him a kindred spirit. “It’s possible he was predisposed to it, I was predisposed to it,” and the camera served as connective medium. Whatever the reason, Krantz found in photography what he’d never had before and gladly lost himself in.

In his artist’s statement he writes, “My camera became a part of me and I photographed everything I saw…and have never stopped.” Like Bialac’s work, photography is a process. It begins with a camera and subject, then knowing where to stand and when to shoot, taking the shot and finally developing and printing the image. Not so different than what goes into making a three-dimensional art object. Leaving oneself open to interpreting and discovering things is key.

As Krantz writes, “Photography, too, had the familiar quality of surprise I was accustomed to when the enameled ‘cookies’ would emerge from the kiln.”

Photography gave this “dorky kid” a potent process to call his own. “All of a sudden I had a little bit of an identity. Everybody loves to have something you do.” He says his open-minded parents (his family owns Allen Furniture) provided the freedom to pursue his passion “as far as photography could carry me. They knew I loved it. They encouraged me.” At 18 Krantz was so enthralled by the expressive possibilities he built his own darkroom at home and began educating himself.

He described his magnificent obsession to Rangefinder Magazine:

“I was amazed by the process in the darkroom and was swept up by the art and science of photography. I searched out books and images from every source and grew very attracted to the West Coast photographers, studying the work of (Ansel) Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Wynn Bullock, Minor White…”

 

 

A very young Jim Krantz with an iconic mentor, Ansel Adams, ©photo Jim Krantz

 

 

His parents agreed to his driving his Renault, alone, to Calif. to take a workshop from the great Yosemite documenter, Ansel Adams. Krantz had just graduated from Westside High. On his website, www.jimkrantz.com, is a picture of Krantz, looking even younger than his years, posed beside the icon’s home mailbox. Other pictures show the acolyte with the veteran imagemaker in candid moments.

The first day Krantz met Adams he ended up printing images with him in his state-of-the-art darkroom. “I was nervous, I was unsure of myself.” He recalls few details other than the bearded sage offering critiques of his beginner’s work.

Krantz felt compelled to learn everything he could and venturing off to seek a master’s advice was part of that. “I just had the sense this was something I had to do,” he says. In Adams he found a grandfather surrogate.

“It was very familiar. Adams talked about arrangement, shape, form, tonality. I thought, ‘This is the same thing I learned from my grandpa.’ Both were very passionate, focused, attached.”

 

 

©Jim Krantz, “Frontier”

 

 

The icon’s approach to nature informed how Krantz treated grand landscapes. Krantz repeated that 1970s trek west multiple times to work with Adams. “I’d drive out there, take a workshop, and come home all inspired. I was always the youngest one in the class.” “Now,” adds Krantz, who’s continued taking workshops from other photographers, “I’m the oldest guy in class.”

The workshops are intensive immersion experiences he throws himself into and comes out of reinvigorated. “I continue to go and I continue to learn.”

All the work he exposed himself to and all the photo grammar he learned early on emboldened him to try new things. Among those who’ve consciously influenced him, he says, is Wynn Bullock. “This guy worked on a totally different level. His work resonated with me on a much deeper level,” says Krantz. Bullock’s evocative Navigation by Numbers is embedded in Krantz’s mental file of essential images. As are images by Paul Caponigro, Fredrick Sommer and others.

“Sometimes people don’t really understand where ideas come from. The whole concept of the source of ideas and where they start in a person’s life and then how they manifest later, I find kind of fascinating. You don’t know where these thoughts develop and how they develop or why, but there’s catalysts in your life.”

It’s clear to Krantz his grandfather was a major catalyst. He couldn’t have known where it would all lead, saying, “I never had a clue any of this would kindle and turn into something like this.” He feels fortunate to have had a nurturing start.

“Between encouragement and interest and passion, it’s like a stew that simmers,” he says. “I had all the right tools at hand: the love of my parents, their approval, my interest, my grandpa’s input, my desire to do this.”

 

 

©Jim Krantz, “Untitled”

 

 

He’s never lost his enthusiasm.

“When I have a camera in my hand, and it’s no different today than before, it’s like a ticket to anywhere. It’s the damnedest thing. It’s such an amazing vehicle. It’s like, ‘I wonder what types of images are going to go through this thing this time?’ I’ve had some bad experiences and dangerous ones and some joyful and astounding ones…you just never know what you’re going to get. I just never want it to stop.”

He balances big budget ad projects with scaled down personal work, applying the same rigor to each while employing wildly different technical approaches.

Advertising shoots, like Way of the West, are at one end of the spectrum with their crews, talent, lighting rigs and set pieces. It’s then he works in “a transmedia” space. Using a RED digital camera he combines motion and stills, animating still frames and harvesting high output stills from motion. He works collaboratively with computer geeks and editors.

“All of this combined together transcends further than any of these by themselves are capable of really expressing,” Krantz says of the merging.

The possibilities are delicious and a bit delirious. “It’s funny because I feel like I’ve got more to learn now than I ever did before. I feel as though I’m starting from scratch because there’s a huge learning curve with this.”

To portray cowboys in Way of the West, he says, “I wanted to show this in a much more contemporary, edgy, urban, hip way,” much like snowboarders or skateboarders. “All these guys are cut from the same cloth. My vision of these cowboys isn’t sepia-toned. It’s a very cool, strong, hip energy. I don’t like the word techie but the processes I used are current — the way the film’s handled, the angles, the perspectives, the colors, the styling. I wanted it to have a style and a sense of fashion and yet the core of it be the Wild West.”

The other end of the spectrum finds him going to Chernobyl or Cuba or Cambodia, alone, with a single camera and a fixed lens. “It’s pure seeing and pure responding,” he says. “Not only is it poignant and important and talks to people on a very different level, it’s a lot more visceral, it’s a lot more about human emotion.”

All of it, from the epic to the intimate, he views as part of a bi-polar continuum.

“That’s how I visualize how these two things interact because, you see, one without the other doesn’t work. and it’s always been that way for me. The basis of all of this is having a very strong fundamental background. That allows you to take chances.

Technical proficiency will lead to artistic freedom. You first learn how to record but then you learn how to interpret. Then at that point you can do lots of things because a camera is basically an instrument and it’s played like anything else.

“A stylistic approach can only happen after you’ve developed enough to understand where you’re going, how you see the world and having the confidence to do it the way you see it. And quite frankly it’s taken me a long time.”

For all the “flattering” honors to come his way he says, “I don’t look back very often. I spend more time looking forward than backwards for sure. But more often than not I’m just looking at right now.” Generations Shared is a notable exception. “It’s important to me,” he says. Once he conceived the show he had to find a way to create companion images that echoed his grandfather’s abstract works.

“I had to develop a process I’d never even considered or heard of before in order to reinterpret what he did with copper and glass plates in a kiln. In essence I’m painting negatives and then these painted negatives become the positives which become the art. It’s the only way I could really figure out to communicate-express these same abstract sensibilities.”

He says the images he created may look photo-shopped but they’re actually “pure photography.” At its core, he says, the exhibition “is a dialogue about what a mentor is and how threads of knowledge and information are transferred — DNA or life experience, I don’t which one it is. But input equals output. What goes in comes out. And it’s like this river just flows.”

Anderson O’Brien Gallery is at 1108 Jackson Street. For hours, visit www.aobfineart.com or call 402-884-0911.

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From the Archives: Photographer Monte Kruse Works Close to the Edge

October 13, 2011 3 comments

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.

Home is often a room at the YMCA or a hotel. Omaha is as close to a permanent haven as he has, spending several months of the year here.

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.”

 

 

Creighton University

 

 

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,

August 21, 2011 5 comments

Larry Ferguson is one of the most collected and published fine art photographers in the Midwest. I have long been aware of the artist and his work, yet it was only witinh the last couple years he became a subject for this writer.  I suspect I will be writing more about him in the years to come.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in conjunction with an exhibition he had at Creighton University. The black and white works in the show were drawn from various series he has done over the years depictiing the views afforded by rooms he stayed in and various touchstone places he’s visited in his many travels. Like many photographers I’ve met over the years, he maintains a very cool studio space.

 

Larry Ferguson Studio

 

Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing,

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Photographer Larry Ferguson’s lush black and white imagery displays a mastery of technique and composition. But it’s not so much the work’s subject or execution as the evocative subtext bound up in it that is most arresting.

His new exhibition at Creighton University’s Lied Art Gallery, The View From My Room, is drawn from pictures he’s made of scenes outside the many rooms he’s inhabited over 30 years. The rooms, located in Nebraska, other parts of the U.S. and the far corners of the globe, offer a road map of sorts for the Omaha artist’s journey through life and craft. Aside from a few landscape and cityscape images, nothing dramatic or sumptuous is revealed, but rather the prosaic, mundane fixtures and rhythms of life as it proceeds around us. That’s the point.

Ferguson shows the holy ordinary of moments and places, some he has personal ties to and others he merely intersects with, but all of which express deep stirrings in him. It is, he said, “a travelogue through my emotional life.”

This work is the first of several ongoing series he’s photographed since the late ‘70s to be organized into an exhibition. Besides views from his rooms, these series variously focus on “skyscapes, treescapes, grain elevators, nudes, private moments and all the great loves I’ve had in my life,” he said. “All are very long term, special projects that eventually will see the light of day.” Selections for these series are made from his archive of 250,000 negatives at his 17th and Vinton Streets studio.

He hopes the work provokes viewers to contemplate its underlying themes. “Rarely do people ever talk about what’s underneath it and in fact behind it,” he said.

On one level the photographs, all shot in wide angle on tripod — nothing’s hand-held — offer a visual chronicle of his haunts and journeys, near and far. But it as much the interior as the exterior journey and landscape he considers in Room.

“They’re really very internal and very emotional for me,” he said. “They are definitely some sort of record about what I’ve been doing but they’re not really in the aspect…a documentary photographer might work. It’s more introspective than that. They signify and give a physicality actually to the stories I can tell about the places. They are the evidence that what I did actually did happen and does exist. They jog that memory of the experience and what it was all about.”

Therefore, each image “is imbued” with meaning, as in the almost obligatory view from the farmhouse in Maxwell, Neb. he grew up in. It looks out onto a distant wind break of trees. The larger world beyond that horizon is where he dreamed to go, he said. This vision and yearning take on added meaning in the context of the show’s many images from his far flung travels — evidence he’s fulfilled his dream.

 

Larry Ferguson

 

 

He spent many a summer with his feisty, spry grandmother, Frances Lawhead, at her Silvergate, Mont. cabin, which overlooks a snow field. The view from the cabin bedroom he slept in resonates with the warm embrace of hearth and home inside and the wonder of nature outside.

Fragments of a Lincoln, Neb. neighborhood are viewed through lacy curtains his then-girl friend Sally Donovan put up after she inherited the house from his good friend, photographer John Spence. The living room window becomes a nostalgic frame of reference for the observations, conversations and meals shared there.

With few exceptions his work is the antithesis of any deliberate, preconceived, picturesque style.

“I’m not here to make pretty pictures, ever,” he said.

He rejects the notion one must “go somewhere that has this exotic locale or spectacular scenery in order to make pictures. I’m always exactly the opposite,”  he said. His credo is that “ordinary common life is extraordinary. That’s why the view right outside your window,” he said, “is so incredibly important. It’s more than the picture, it’s what it’s about that makes it work.”

He admits he only embraced this come-what-may philosophy after some false starts. He’d go somewhere anticipating a spectacular view or vista, only to be disappointed when it wasn’t all that and then he wouldn’t shoot anything.

“Then I would kick myself later for not having made the picture because it wasn’t spectacular, but not being spectacular is what it was about. That’s when I concluded you have to accept what’s there.”

 

 

Approaching Rainstorm, Near Crawford, NE, ©photo by Larry Ferguson

 

 

Whatever the scene holds it evokes linkages-associations to his life and work. Viewed in this light, something as blase as a dirt hill can be a rich vein of narrative. “It’s nothing, yet it’s everything,” he said.

What compels him to make a picture in any given spot, at any given time is intuitive.

“A lot of times people ask me, ‘How did you make that picture?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know.’ The pictures make themselves,” he said. “Something just says, Make that picture, and I do. People ask me, ‘What were you thinking about when you made it?’ I don’t consciously think about it. I couldn’t possibly tell you because it’s all internal, it’s all emotional. That’s how I respond — I respond viscerally to it. I trust my feelings and my instincts.”

On his many travels, whether to Mexico or Argentina or China, he goes where the spirit moves him, snapping pics as opportunities arise. The resulting images may feed into any of his long term projects. He shoots whatever he “discovers along the way.”

“When I travel I don’t have an itinerary. I have a start date and an end date and usually a destination point somewhere in between,” he said. “And then what happens between those times is plain and simple whim. Wherever I go, you know, it’s always, Well, let’s point the camera and take that image, whatever it happens to be. And that’s kind of how I work.”

It’s how he came to spend so much time in Guanajuato, Mexico, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato. He went there as part of a months-long, 10,000 mile trek he made in 1984 through Mexican jungles and mountains to photograph archaeological digs. Once he stumbled upon that city’s treasures and oddities, he couldn’t tear himself away. Images he made of one of his finds there, the home of artist Diego Rivera, are included in Room.

The happy accidents that result — compelling patterns of light and shadow, pleasing forms, symbolic shapes, complex compositions — are rooted in preparation.

“It’s that thing of preparing yourself to be ready to do it when it happens,” he said. “That’s what it takes. You have to get to where you practice and practice until you no longer think about it. Then it just happens automatically.”

Imagemaking Celebrated at Joslyn: ‘The Misfits’ and Magnum Cinema

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

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I love writing about film, and several of my new posts will reflect that.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in 2003  to report on an exhibition of Magnum photos and a screening of the classic film The Misfits at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The connection between the photo agency and the film is explained in the piece, but suffice to say that my main interest was in writing about a film I always admired, even as a kid, when its adult themes were well beyond my years.  But the melancholic work resonated with me even then, perhaps because I so strongly identified with its outsider characters and their vulnerability.  Every time I watch the movie I glean new insights from it.  Of course as I got older I learned that this was the last film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last that Montgomery Clift made, and that the marriage between Monroe and the film’s screenwriter Arthur Miller was effectively over, all of which lends the performances a tragic certain patina.  Kevin McCarthy, who played Monroe’s husband in the opening scene, was the special guest at the revival screening of The Misfits.  I did an advance phone interview with him and he was just a delight to speak with.  I saw on the news that he passed away the other day.

My friend and fellow Omaha native Gail Levin, a documentary filmmaker, took the measure of the potent forces at work in the film and on the set in her film, Making the Misfits.  Find other posts on this blog about Gail and her work, including her documentary about James Dean.  One of her latest films profiled Jeff Bridges.

 

 

 

 

Imagemaking Celebrated at Joslyn: ‘The Misfits’ and Magnum Cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It is only fitting a photographic exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum capturing candid moments of movie legends should kick off with a screening of the legendary film The Misfits, a picture resonating with so much of what makes the movies alluring.

From iconic stars who met tragic deaths to an enormously talented writer and director dealing in potent themes to a majestic Western landscape filmed in moody black and white and riddled with rich metaphors, The Misfits has it all. The film, apropos its title, is an evocative tale, sparely and honestly told, about the disenchantment and yearning of drifters and dreamers hanging on to an endangered way of life in the vanishing wild of the Nevada desert. It is a quintessentially American story about pursuing individual freedom and expression in a conformist world and following dreams, even if deferred, with the aid of a star.

Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is presenting, in his usual boffo style, this one-night only tribute to The Misfits on Saturday October 11 in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The doors open at 6 p.m., the event begins at 7 and the film unreels at 7:30.

Among the Crawfordesque touches planned are searchlights, red carpet fanfare, horse riders, a trick roper and reenactors portraying the film’s two stars, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Special guests include actor Kevin McCarthy, who plays Monroe’s jilted husband in the film. McCarthy will speak before the picture. Legendary producer and former Paramount Studios exec A.C. Lyles was also to have appeared, but will instead be presiding at the memorial services of two Hollywood greats that recently passed away, Donold O’Connor and Elia Kazan.

As with past film events (including Ben-HurPsychoKing KongThe SearchersWest Side Story), Crawford’s secured a restored print, from United Artists, for the show.

After the film, audience members may enjoy a cash bar, cash hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the museum’s atrium, get autographs or photos of McCarthy and Lyles and see a sneak preview of the traveling exhibition Magnum Cinema: Photographs from 50 Years of Movie Making. The exhibition, which runs through January 4, 2004, includes images that a team of photojournalists from Magnum, a renowned, worldwide cooperative photo agency started in 1947 by famed imagemakers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, took during the making of The Misfits. In all, the exhibit displays 111 works by 39 leading photographers culled together from Magnum’s archive of more than one million photos covering the breadth of human endeavor and experience.

For a long time, The Misfits, that elegiac tone poem to the passing of the American Wild, was regarded more as a morbid curiosity than a successful filmic drama. Besides being a psychologically-complex, symbol-filled, post-modern adult Western where the only “action” comes late in the last reel and where the only “hero” is a broken down cowboy in crisis, the movie has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion.

Clark Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away unexpectedly at age 45 in 1966.

 

 

 

 

Rounding out the supporting cast were dynamic Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, Actor’s Studio veterans with Clift, and powerful character actress Thelma Ritter.

Then there were the on-the-set intrigues that played out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans that wrote and directed The Misfits. The script was authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a SalesmanThe Crucible), the towering intellectual icon of American theater, for his then wife Monroe. Directing the picture was Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese FalconThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Asphalt JungleThe African QueenMoby DickThe Man Who Would Be King), the great maverick adventurer-artist of American cinema.

By all accounts, the collaboration between Miller, Huston and the other artists involved was relatively congenial. Miller, the insular egghead, wore his pensiveness like a badge of honor. Huston, the unabashed sensualist, presided over the set like a lion on the hunt. Monroe, the bright but brittle star, variously charmed and confounded everyone with her child-like persona and neurotic flights of fancy. Gable, the macho, devil-may-care journeyman, bore all the distractions like the true gentleman and professional he was. Clift, the complex, introspective method actor riddled by insecurities, tried fitting into this dysfunctional family.

Adding to the tension were the personal dramas playing out during the project. Gable felt out-of-step with the times given the studio system he became a star in was dying, the pictures he became identified with were not being made anymore and the kinds of rebel parts he built his persona on were going to younger actors.

Hounded by the press since their headline-making marriage a few years before, the unlikely match of the serious writer Miller and the blond bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began shooting. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

In a phone interview from his Sherman Oaks, Calif. home, McCarthy recalled Marilyn’s difficulties in the brief scene they have together in The Misfits. In it, she rushes up the steps of the Reno courthouse where McCarthy, her estranged husband, is hoping she will rethink her decision to divorce him, but instead she brushes him off with the enigmatic line, “You’re just not there.”

What should have been a simple take turned into an ordeal.

“She was having trouble remembering her lines in sequence,” McCarthy said, “and John Huston was getting to the point where he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t hear her. He’d ask, ‘Did she say all her lines?’ And I’d go, ‘No,’ or the guy running the boom would go, ‘No, she’s missing some of the stuff, Mr. Huston.’ She came running up the steps maybe 16 or 17 times. Well, finally, after a lot of procedures and wrangling, they put a microphone underneath my tie and ran a wire up my pants leg, all the kinds of things you didn’t do then…So, I was pinned to the spot where I was standing, and when Marilyn finally said everything, Huston turned the camera around and did a take with me. And I was through with the picture.”

Ironically, McCarthy said,it was a film I reluctantly took because I was too vain to be playing a scene where I was gone in 28 seconds or something like that when my buddies Eli Wallach and Monty Clift were playing full-blooded, fully-written parts.”

The palpable strain caused by Marilyn was made worse with Miller always looking over her shoulder on the set. Then there was the script’s lack of any clearly defined narrative driving force or traditional happy ending and the demands on the players to drop all hint of vanity in portraying a motley crew of losers in emotionally raw scenes rare for that era of American cinema.

 

 

 

 

Miller came up with the story, which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine, after an extended stay in Nevada to establish residence in Reno for his divorce from his first wife. Besides the dissolution of his marriage and the bloom of new romance with Monroe, his plays were being dismissed and he was reeling from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, where he’d been called as a witness and refused to name names in the Communist witch hunt proceedings.

It was in Reno where Miller was introduced to similarly displaced persons as himself. Not surprisingly, the three major male figures in the film are cowboys who, as Bruce Crawford puts it, resist “modern civilization encroaching on them and their free-spirited way of life.” Gay (Gable) is an aging, spent, but still gallant horse wrangler, Purse (Clift) a sweet-natured rodeo rider and Guido (Wallach) a cynical war veteran turned bush pilot. The men prefer living a hand-to-mouth existence rather than “work for wages.”

Perhaps projecting himself into the characters, Miller has each stubbornly hold fast to some ideal of freedom and vision of happiness amid this harsh new era reining them in. When Monroe’s nurturing character, Roslyn, comes onto the scene she forms them into a loose family of misfits, each of whom is running away from something or towards something. Perhaps, as Gay says, they’re all trying “to find a way to be alive.” In Roslyn, who awakens promise and desire in the men but ultimately chooses the older Gay, Miller seemed to be imagining a hoped-for reconciliation with Monroe.

Unusual for Huston, The Misfits revolves around a female figure. With the exception of Katharine Hepburn’s turn in The African Queen, no actress so dominates one of his pictures as Monroe does in the part of Roslyn, the human equivalent of the wild mustangs the men try corralling. When, near the end, she expresses disgust at the idea the horses will be sold to the dog food factory, she makes the men question themselves and their methods. In using trucks and a plane to round up the animals for such an inglorious end, the men realize they’ve corrupted the very thing they love.

For Crawford, the denouement is “the end of an era…the end of the West as we once knew it. It’s the last roundup. The cowboys are left knowing they’re going to have to find another way of feeling alive and validating their lives.”

Anyone who knows Huston’s work can see the story echoes the recurrent theme of his pictures — a group of people banded together in search of some prize or goal that proves elusive amid the human conflicts and dramatic fates that arise. And, like much of Miller’s work, the story examines the uneasy gulf between ideals and reality, the challenge of remaining an individual in a corporate era of crushing anonymity and the need for and difficulty of maintaining human-family relationships in a world where people act, by nature, at cross-purposes to each other.

Fateful quests are not only intrinsic to Huston’s work, they operate on more than one level, said Michael Krainak, a professor of film history and appreciation at Metropolitan Community College and the man who headed-up Joslyn’s film series in the 1980s.

“Besides a material quest there’s a spiritual quest. His characters search for meaning in their lives. In many cases not all the characters are aware that is happening. So often, characters like Bogart at the end of Sierra Madre never even benefit from it. They’re oblivious to the changes taking place and to the lessons being learned. Huston equated that to the tenets of the existential philosophers. His films tend to end in material failure because for him the ends are irrelevant.

“What gives the quest meaning is the process itself, and you take something from that or you don’t. The ones who don’t often die physically or spiritually and the ones who do are able to carry on. It’s like Syndey Greenstreet’s great reaction to Peter Lorre when they discover the falcon is immaterial in The Maltese Falcon — ‘Well, what are you going to do?’”

 

 

 

 

Consistent with Miller’s ideology, The Misfits is replete with references to the impermanence of things.

“Gay speaks a line that’s very Milleresque,” Krainak said. “He says, ‘Well, nothing’s it,’ meaning nothing lasts forever. And Miller seems to be saying, Well, if that’s true, then that’s a guarantee of change. A theme of Miller’s has always been this idea of rebirth and reinventing yourself. The humanistic ideas in Miller’s work that are also evident in Huston’s work is this final goal of self-acceptance. To survive the wreckage of your life by seeking shelter in relationships and, more than anything else, by carving out your own meaning in life. The successful characters in Huston’s movies seem to confront the element of choice, You either choose to live an authentic life or an anonymous life. In this movie, becoming anonymous is to ‘work for wages.’”

In The Misfits Gay finally concedes the passing of his ways, but goes out on his own terms (or sword). He utters a line summing up his defiance and regeneration: “A man who’s afraid to die, is afraid to live.”

At the end, he and Roslyn drive off at night in search of a new path. They look out to see the mare and her colts running free, and they smile. She asks, “How do we get home?” He looks up at the night sky and says, “We’ll follow that star and get there.” As Krainak said, “What they’re left with is the quest — to get back on the trail. Instead of the the sunset, they ride off into the evening star. It’s a very Hustonian ending in that there’s promise for redemption or rediscovery or self-knowledge, but no guarantee.” In Crawford’s mind, “That has to be one of the most beautiful, haunting endings in film history.”

Krainak, a Huston buff, said that for years a running argument among cineastes has centered around the question of whether The Misfits is more a Huston film or a Miller film.

“It’s clearly both, but ultimately I think it’s Huston’s film,” he said. “In typical Huston fashion there’s this physical, larger-than-life task that a bunch of ne’er-do-wells on the edge of society attempt and fate somehow intervenes. In The Misfits it’s not so much tempting fate, as in Greek tragedy, but more of an Anglo-Saxon fatalistic attitude that says, If there’s a worst thing that can possibly happen, it will happen. The Anglo-Saxons had a wonderful word for it — weird. It’s indeterminate. It’s a more modern existential attitude toward fate. The character Guido even says something like, ‘I didn’t know that could happen.’ I think that’s so much what The Misfits is about.”

According to Krainak, the Miller-Huston pairing was more than a philosophical fit, but an artistic one. “One thing Miller’s got in common with Huston is a minimalist approach,” he said. “With Huston it was always a minimalist shooting script, shooting style, choice of film language, use of camera and editing. With Miller it was simple sets, lighting and everything focused on characters. Huston had to work very hard to create a visual dynamic when working so close with the figures of these characters in a setting and landscape that is so specific and very important.”

From his extensive reading about The Misfits, Krainak found Huston, with Miller’s blessing, eschewed color cinematography in order to bring out certain dramatic-symbolic points. “Huston definitely wanted stark black and whites in the background and the setting, with the characters, at least as I interpret it, as the shades of gray. That’s how it plays out in the imagery. It’s really a beautiful black and white film.” The atmospheric photography is by Russell Metty and the neoclassical jazz score is by Alex North.” Krainak added that, unlike most films, The Misfits was shot chronologically in order to capture a sense of “immediacy and spontaneity,” vital qualities in a story about impulsive free spirits.

Krainak said the film came at “a very self-indulgent” point in Huston’s career when, in addition to working with Miller, he was collaborating with such artists as Truman Capote (Beat the Devil), Ray Bradbury (Moby Dick), Jean Paul Sartre (Freud) and Tennessee Williams (The Night of the Iguana). “It was a very psychologically-charged period where he was exploring interior adventures or the landscape of the mind as opposed to exterior adventures or the landscape of nature.”

Why The Misfits was, until recently, dismissed as an interesting failure rather than a singular achievement can be explained by its “dense, cerebral, ‘European’ feel and by its star-crossed history, said Krainak, who puts an intriguing spin on the theory by suggesting “a killing off of a Hollywood era” took place with the deaths of  Monroe, Gable and Clift and with the way Huston and Miller “underplayed these icons.”

He explained, “These were aging, wounded icons. Monroe was so vulnerable. Gable completely falls apart in a scene that everybody refers to. Clift takes a bad fall and wears bandages the rest of the film. Their audiences were not used to seeing them that way. What Huston and Miller did with these stars was a precursor of the American cinema renaissance of the late 1960s. The drama, thanks to Miller’s screenplay, and the imagery, thanks to Huston’s direction, made it a film dominated by character as opposed to pure action or star persona.”

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Combat Sniper-Turned-Art Photographer Jim Hendrickson on His Vagabond Life and Enigmatic Work

August 30, 2010 2 comments

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Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years.  But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.

Combat Sniper-Turned-Art Photographer Jim Hendrickson on His Vagabond Life and Enigmatic Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.

The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.

 

 

Jim Hendrickson

 

 

His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.

Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.

The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”

Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.

As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”

His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”

As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.

“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”

In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.

“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”

He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”

In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.

“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.

As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.

“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.

“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”

While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”

He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.

Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.

 

 

Morrie Camhi

 

 

Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.

“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.

A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.

“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Negro going in colored entrance of movie house...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today.  Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana.  This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.

“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”

It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”

Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.

More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”

As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.

“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”

For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”

The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.

“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”

Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.

“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.

That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”

Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”

Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.

“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”

It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.

With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”

Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and  still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”

“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”

When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.

The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”

Photographer Monte Kruse Pushes Boundaries

August 22, 2010 3 comments

Camera lens. Derivative of File:Camara.jpg

Image via Wikipedia

I first wrote about Omaha photographer Monte Kruse more than 20 years ago, and even in all the intervening years and stories and personalities I’ve come across, he still rates as one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met.  One day I will post that story, as it’s always been one of my favorites — I think because of the subject and for the way I captured the essence of his otherness.  Monte definitely marches to his own drummer. Like a lot of creatives, some can find him strange or difficult, but that’s just Monte being Monte.  Of his talent, there is no question.  When I encountered that first time he was doing great humanistic work and as I recall more or less living out of his car, flitting between places and assignments.  He’s come a long way since then.  The last time I ran into him, which was for the following story, he had a downtown loft that served as both residence and studio.  I believe he’s still there, but I don’t know for sure.  What I do know for sure is that wherever Monte lands he’ll always find a way to do things his own way.

This blog also contains stories of mine about several other Omaha-based photographers, including Jim Hendrickson and Don Doll, who are friends and mentors of Kruse, as well as Rudy Smith, Larry Ferguson, and David Radler.  By the end of the year I will be posting a major piece on 2010 World Photographer of the Year Jim Krantz. Additionally, the blog features pieces on many filmmakers, including Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler, Dana Altman, Jon Jost,  John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.

Photographer Monte Kruse Pushes Boundaries

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Omaha photographer Monte Kruse muses about his darkly erotic work “pushing the limits” and getting “him noticed” he sounds every bit the impetuous artist that he is. A sensualist in his life and in his art, Kruse makes striking nude images that actually fulfill his expressed intention to “stretch the bounds” with “edgy work” that elicits strong responses from viewers.

The large-format black-and-white images, which explore the male and female body in evocative contexts, have attracted the very attention he seeks via a slate of local gallery showings displaying his work and the recent gift of one of his prints, Debris IV, to the Joslyn Art Museum permanent collection. While holding court at an Old Market bistro one spring night, the enigmatic Kruse discussed what lies behind the improvisational approach and primal effect he has hit upon with his latest series of nudes.

“I was making money shooting standard portraits but I said to myself, ‘I’m not doing anything that stirs interest or makes people think. How can I do that?’ And I thought, ‘Well, the best way to do it is to photograph the nude, but not the classical nudes of beautiful bodies entwined on a beach with the ocean in the background. Instead, I wanted to do something more like snapshots — images that come out of found moments that have some mystery to them.’ So, I looked at a lot of film noir. I liked the darkness and the moodiness of it. The mystery of it. The detective-style quality to it. And that’s what I was searching for,” he said that night above the din of the busy bistro.

 

 

 

 

The result, he explained, “is photojournalism, combined with mystery writing, imbued with a mood. It’s the kind of work not typically seen. It’s not real pretty. It’s dark, it’s personal, it’s edgy. It’s not so much about the person as it is the moment — the specific truth of the moment. I don’t want anything posed. I go in without any preconceived ideas, except to bring out a certain element of intrigue. It’s like a diary. It’s my experience with that person in that moment. There’s one like that of me and my girlfriend naked in a hotel room. It just happened. Another time, someone I was with took a shower and, boom, I shot it. Once, in a hotel, a person opened a window across the way and I said, ‘That’s it — I’ve got a photograph.’”

Striving for verisimilitude, Kruse often uses found locations and objects rather than sets or props, relying on available light and “a gut feeling.” When not shooting in a studio, he employs minimal artificial lighting and staging. The idea, he said, is to let the process be as natural and instinctive as possible. “I’m photographing without safety nets. I don’t want to do things that are going to be perfect. I don’t want to have it all sketched out. The more off-handed I get, the better I get. I let the subconscious free. I want to be surprised by my own images. The whole thing is just moving and keeping your energy flow up and shooting different angles and not being afraid to take chances. It’s like jazz — it moves from one thing to another. It’s free-flowing. It just goes.”

Later that same night in the Old Market Kruse retreated to his spacious Bemis loft apartment/studio, where he showed some acquaintances the very pictures he was describing. Upon seeing the pulp-fiction-like images, the assembled agreed the photos capture private, unguarded moments suggestive of any number of storylines or histories.

Snapped amid such naturalistic settings as bedrooms and bathrooms, the images offer views of nude individuals and couples in intimate, impromptu moments of a post-coital nature, although nothing overtly sexual is revealed: the shape of a voluptuous woman leaning with a nonchalant attitude in a hallway; a half-glimpsed man standing over a woman lying on her back in bed, gently stroking her pelvis; a well-hung man descending a staircase; a woman with a full bush getting dressed. The pictures, both stark and dreamy, offer a post-modernist’s view of the human form and make the viewer acutely aware of his/her role as voyeur and as purveyor of certain attitudes.

Janet Farber, associate curator of 20th century art at Joslyn Art Museum, said, where images of “the traditional nude” focus “on the beauty or the form of the human body in an isolated context,” Kruse’s images explore the nude in “contextual-narrative” ways that imply certain socio-psychological-sexual dynamics. She said his interest in evoking an atmosphere imbued with subtext is achieved in various ways.

“He’s really paying attention to the range of tones and the intensity of black and white. He creates a tension within the image that allows room for the viewer to bring something to it or add something to it in terms of the implied action. One of the ways he does that is by leaving important bits of information out. Quite often his models are anonymous or somehow their identity obscured. I think that’s part of the effect that brings into play the imagination of the viewer.”

Kruse said his increasing output of male nudes, which has included pictures of gay men interacting, compel people to confront things they may rather avoid, such as homophobia. “I’m not necessarily trying to shoot provocative images, but let’s just say the male nude is always something a little bit scarier. Anytime people see the male nude then all of a sudden there’s the assumption that you or the subject is gay, which doesn’t matter. People are going to bring those attitudes. But with my new series I’m trying to evoke some political questions about what love is and isn’t and what’s wrong with viewing the male body and what’s wrong with the gay culture. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

He said by presenting the male nude in different ways, he hopes people see beyond questions of sexual proclivity and instead view the male body as a natural and legitimate subject and one not yet exploited or perverted like the image of the female body. “When people ask, ‘Why are you interested in the male nude?, I say, ‘Well, because it’s beautiful.’ The female nude has been done to death. It’s a cliche. The male body has just as much validity as the female body. It’s just me pushing the parameters a bit. I take these snapshot-like images and blow them up into huge prints that people are forced to confront on a wall, where they’ll love it, hate it, whatever.”

Carol McCabe, who has printed many images by Kruse at her Professional Darkroom Services, said she saw the artist go through a phase where he ratcheted up the emotional tenor of his work to the point of shock value. She said where his work was once “more literal and straightforward” it now displays a “much more formal, sophisticated” and subtle interplay between elements in tension, whether shades of light and dark or moments of action and repose.

She said while “there’s a lot of physical power in the images, a big piece of what he wants to do is create ambiguity, as seen by his interest in androgyny. I think he pushes the envelope with his work more than anyone else I’ve seen in Omaha. He brings a passion and honesty and compassion to his work that makes people respond.” McCabe said Kruse is also meticulous, going to great pains to study how master visual artists have used light and paying close attention to every detail in the darkroom.

During a recent shoot in a side corridor at the Bemis building where he resides, Kruse photographed a nude male in a series of primal, pent-up “action” scenes against the backdrop of a brick wall. Beyond some minimal track lighting overhead, the only fill light Kruse brought to the location was something he calls “my genius light.”

Without any firm idea of what he would shoot, Kruse tried conjuring some compelling image into being out of thin air. He moved everywhere in the tight space, searching for angles, compositions, shadows, texture, depth, mood, feeling. He had the model, Greg, try any number of clinging, crouching stances along the wall, having him insinuate his body like a snake slithering across a rock face. In some cases he had Greg hoist himself up on a lead pipe and then twist his body and turn his face from the lens. In others, he had him make like he was scaling the wall, ala Spider-man, or else like a cat burglar or prowler caught with his pants down.

 

 

 

 

In a photo session Kruse charms his model like the seducer he is in order to get the results he wants. “You’ve got to be able to read people. You have to become their friend for that moment. You have to develop that trust. You have to be alert. You have to be open. You have to take risks.” he noted. In an almost constant patter, he reassures and directs his subject: “Beautiful, hold it right there. Bring your legs down. Bring ‘em up. Now, a little bit further down. Throw your head back. Yeah, that’s it. It’s gorgeous.” He also exchanges quips. “You kind of look like Jesus up there,” he told Greg, who at the time clung from a wall with his arms splayed out. “I’m feeling a lot like him right now,” answered a flushed Greg.

A frequent model for Kruse is Claudia Einecke, Curator of European Art at the Joslyn. Recently, she dropped over Kruse’s place while he was shooting painter Helen Braugh. After finishing with the petite and politely British brunette Braugh, he turned his attention to the sleek, blond Einecke, a German emigree who oozes a pouty sexuality without trying. As she nonchalantly sat on the arm of an easy chair, hands propped on her knees and long legs opened, Kruse clicked away from the floor with his Canon AE-1 camera. He also favors a Pentax 645.

Einecke described what it’s like being the object of his intense gaze: “Although it looks like he’s just waiting for something to happen,” she said, “there is an energy and a tension there because he’s making those things happen. It’s always impressive and interesting to see Monte at work and the concentration he brings to it. He’s always looking for the unplanned. Usually, his best photos come out of moments he recognizes that you and I would probably not see as photographs. Monte reminds me that at first I thought his new work was just awful, but now that I’ve gotten used to these images there are some that I think are really lyrical, beautiful and gentle.”

In some recent images, Kruse goes for extremities — capturing the taut muscles and bulging veins of, for example, Greg straining to support himself at the Bemis. “Where before I was dealing in found moments,” Kruse said, “now I’m trying to step-up the intensity. I’m after something real urban, real dark, real menacing. I’m pushing the model to the extremes. I’m capturing the pain, the tension, the exertion, the danger. I want to make it real hip, real cool, but not contrived.” In other shoots he’s done along these lines, he achieves ambiguity in images of naked men caught leaping through the air without a familiar context to ground their actions in. The models “are not objects,” Einecke said, “but are subjects in a narrative. You don’t know what’s going on, but you feel something is going on.”

 

 

 

 

For Kruse, photography is all about the possibilities it affords as a medium of self- expression and personal growth. The life of this former Iowa farm boy was transformed when he turned his back on a promising baseball career while a Creighton University student in the 1970s to pursue photography. With world-renowned photojournalist Don Doll and sculptor Richard Hunt as mentors Kruse developed into a sought-after image maker adept at capturing poetic human scenes for such diverse sources as news publications, galleries, corporations and private clients.

In the photo-journalistic vein, he has documented AIDS patients, homeless individuals, developmentally disabled residents and poverty-stricken natives of foreign lands. For the art market, he has shot a wide variety of stunning nudes. For a personal series of artist portraits, he has photographed such leading lights as author Studs Terkel, the late actor Jason Robards and filmmaker Sydney Pollock.

Ever the iconoclast, Kruse long ago eschewed a mainstream career for independence. His romantic idea of being an artist found him living out of his car between assignments and adventures in Israel, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. He took his obsession with photography to the limit. “If I had a choice between buying film and food, it was generally food, but it was a really close call. I’ll be honest — I stole, I cheated, I lied — I did everything to keep going. And now I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that. I’m not as desperate as I was.”

With age and maturity he now lives a settled life, supporting himself by working as a hotel doorman. This solid foundation actually frees him to experiment more with his work. “Before, I was so desperate to please and to get other jobs that I’d shoot this stereotypical stuff. My photography was based on pictures I’d seen. Now, I’m doing individual images that are uniquely my own. I’m less self-conscious. I’m more confident. If I don’t want to work with you, I can say the two magic words in the English language, ‘F_ _ _ you.’ Plus, I can create here. When I lived in other places, like New York, I couldn’t create because I was so caught up in just surviving and making the rent. Here, I can shoot all day long.”

Finally, Kruse feels photography is what ultimately defines who he is and what his legacy will be. “I pick up the camera, man, every day. I shoot images every day. I’ve shot countless images in my life. My photos are like a diary of my life. I can look back at photos I shot years ago, and it’s like yesterday. They’re proof of my existence on earth. I think the last picture I’ll take, if I can, is of all the people gathered around my bedside.”

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