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Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) cover story on famed rock photographer Janette Beckman, whose images of punk and hip-hop pioneers helped create the iconography around those music genres and the performing artists who drove those early scenes.  She’s been visiting Omaha for a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, working on a portrait of the city.  An exhibition of her photos of hip-hop pioneers and Harlem bikers is showing at the Carver Bank here through the end of November.

 

Janette Beckman

 

 

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Photographer Janette Beckman made a name for herself in the 1970s and 1980s capturing the punk scene in her native London and the hip-hop scene in her adopted New York City.

Dubbed “the queen of rock photographers,” her images appeared in culture and style magazines here and abroad and adorned album covers for bands as diverse as Salt-N-Pepa and The Police. Weaned on Motown and R & B, this “music lover” was well-suited for what became her photography niche.

She still works with musicians today. She’s developing a book with famed jazz vocalist Jose James about his ascent as an artist.

Her photos of hip-hop pioneers along with pictures of the Harlem biker club Go Hard Boyz comprise the Rebel Culture exhibition at Carver Bank, 2416 Lake Street. Beckman, documenting facets of Omaha and greater Neb. for a Bemis residency, will give a 7 p.m. gallery talk on Friday during the show’s opening. The reception runs from 6 to 8.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts stint is her first residency.

“This is a new experience. It’s very refreshing. It’s kind of nice to get away from your life and open up your mind a little bit,” says Beckman, who describes her aesthetic as falling “between portrait and documentary.” “I truly believe taking a portrait of somebody is a collaboration between you and the person. I really like taking pictures on the street. I don’t want hair stylists and makeup artists. I don’t tell people what to do. I want to document that time and place – that’s really important to me. I want it to be about them and their lives, not about what I think their lives should be.”

Carver features a personal favorite among her work – a 1984 photo of Run DMC shot on location in Hollis, Queens for the British mag Face.

“They were just hanging out on this tree-lined street they lived on. I said, ‘Just stand a little closer,’ and they did. I love this picture because it expresses so much. It’s a real hangout picture and such a symbol of the times, style-wise. The Adidas with no laces, the snapback hats, the gazelle glasses, the track suits. It just expresses so much about that particular moment in time. And I love the dappled light on their faces.”

Salt-n-Pepa, ©Janette Beckman

 

 

She made the first press photo of LL Cool J, complete with him and his iconic boom box. She did the first photo shoot of Salt-N-Pepa while “knocking about” Alphabet City. In L.A. she shot N.W.A. posed around cops in a cruiser just as the group’s “Fuck tha Police” protest song hit.

She says her hip-hop shots “bring up happy memories for people because music is very evocative – it’s just like a little moment in time.”

The early hip-hop movement in America paralleled the punk explosion in England. Both were youthful reactions against oppression. In England – the rigid class system and awful economy. In the U.S. – inner-city poverty, violence and police abuse.

“Punk really gave a voice to kids who never really had a say. Working-class kids and art school kids all sort of banded together and started protesting, basically by being obnoxious and writing punk songs that were kind of like poetry, expressing what their lives were like. There was the shock factor of wearing bondage apparel and trash bags, putting safety pins in their noses. Really giving the finger to Queen and country and all that history. It was like, ‘Fuck you, it’s not that time, we’re fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore.'”

Her introduction to hip-hop came in London at the genre’s inaugural Europe revue tour.

“No one knew what hip-hop was. It was just the most amazing show. It had all the hip-hop disciplines. So much was going on on that stage – the break dancers and the Double Dutch and Fab 5 Freddy, scratching DJs, rapping, graffiti. All happening all at once. It blew me away.

“I met Afrika Bambaataa, who’s pretty much the father of hip-hop.”

Weeks later she visited NYC and “there it all was – the trains covered in graffiti, kids walking around with boom boxes, people selling mix tapes on the street. I got very involved in it.”

“New York was broke. Politically it was a mess. These kids had no future. Hip-hop gave this voice to the voiceless. They were singing ‘The Message’ (by the Furious Five). Where I was living there really were junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. It was no joke. You could see it unfolding in front of you and yet there was this vibrant art scene going on. Graffiti kids stealing paint from stores, breaking into train yards at night and painting trains in the pitch dark to make beautiful art that then traveled like a moving exhibition around New York. It was just fantastic. A real exciting time.”

She got so swept up, she never left. When big money moved in via the major record labels, she says. “everything changed.” She feels hip-hop performers “lost their artistic freedom and that almost punk aesthetic of making it up as you go along because you don’t really know what you’re doing. They were just experimenting. That’s why it was so fresh.” She expected hip-hop would run its course the way punk did. She never imagined it a world-wide phenomenon decades later.

“In the ’90s with Biggie and people like that it got massive. People are rapping in Africa and Australia. Breakancing is bigger than ever now..”

While capturing its roots she didn’t consider hip-hop’s influence then. “I was just in it doing it. I was just riding the wave.”

Portraying folks as she finds them has found her work deemed “too raw, too real, too rough” for high style mags that prefer photo-shopped perfection. “I don’t really believe in stereotypes and I don’t believe in ideals of beauty.” She’s even had editors-publishers complain her work contains too many black people.

 

 

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Go Hard Boyz biker club pic, ©Janette Beckman

 

Beckman’s surprised by Omaha’s diversity and intrigued by its contradictions. She’s shot North O barbershops, the downtown Labor Day parade, her first powwow, skateboarders doing tricks at an abandoned building and a South Omaha mural. She’s looking forward to taking pics at a rodeo and ranch.

She came for a site visit in July with one vision in mind and quickly had to shift gears when she began her residency in August.

“I wanted to photograph people on the street in North Omaha and I found there’s nobody on the street, so I had to try to wiggle into the community.”

Her curiosity, chattiness and British accent have given her access to events like the Heavy Rotation black biker club’s annual picnic at Benson Park. That group reminded her of the Ride Hard Boyz she shot last summer in New York.

“I was riding in the flatbed of an F-150 truck driven by one of the guys down this expressway with bikers doing wheelies alongside, All totally illegal. It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in years. Although it’s rebel in a way, the club keeps kids off the street and out of drugs and gangs. They’re the greatest guys – like a big family.”

The end of Sept. she returns to the NewYork “bubble.” An exhibit of her photos that leading artists painted on, JB Mashup, may go to Paris. She’s photographing a saxophonist. Otherwise, she’s taking things as they come.

“I try not to make too many plans because they tend to get diverted.”

Rebel Culture runs through Nov. 29.

View her Omaha and archived work at http://janettebeckman.com/blog.

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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 5 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.”

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