Photographer Monte Kruse’s new series of Hummel Park images is featured in the November exhibit at Connect Gallery. His ‘Incredilble Likeness of Being’ seen above focuse on his theme of mankind’s collision with nature.
Photographer Monte Kruse Pushes Boundaries
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.”
- Fashion, photography and the art of the nude (thestar.com)
- ‘Censor This’ erotic photography exhibit in Harrisburg draws critics before it opens (pennlive.com)
- Marie Claire: Nude Is The New Black, If You’re White, That Is [Color Patterns] (jezebel.com)
- Exploring the Female Nude (thelastnoel.blogspot.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)