A Thousand WordsPosted by admin on 11/19/09 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2009
We’ve often pondered the question: What could possibly account for the range of imaginative photographers Beloit College has spawned? There are dozens, many whose work Beloit College Magazine has focused on individually over the years—people like Jessie Cohen’74, Mary Lou Graham’63, Mark Moffett’79, and Marjorie Ryerson’65. Some trace their influences to extraordinary Beloit teachers like Michael Simon and Franklin Boggs, who inspired countless artists, writers, and thinkers—many of whom did not go into photography at all. Other alumni started making photographs on their own after Beloit because they had something to say, or they were almost inexplicably drawn to the medium. We’ve chosen the stories and divergent works of eight renowned alumni photographers and one exceptional teacher to more closely examine this remarkable collective of talent.
After buying a photo developing kit he’d spotted in a store window, Ray Metzker darkened his bedroom, set up the chemicals, screwed in the red bulb, and followed the instructions. But when he first pulled out the slippery roll of negatives, he saw nothing but gray. Disappointed, he moved to the fixer, and suddenly inky images of the Lake Michigan shore near his house emerged.
“That moment was so exciting,” he says. “The magic of photography was driven home very resoundingly.” A 13-year-old photo junkie was born.
In the 65 years since, Metzker, 78, has become one of the most respected photographers of the 20th century. He has won two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowships and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and he’s had nearly 50 solo exhibitions throughout the world, including a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Best known for his composite photographs—an experimental style of collaging multiple prints—he is also admired for his single-image, high-contrast urban shots. That work, evocative of Walker Evans and his mentor Harry Callahan, adeptly plays with shadow and light, structure and symmetry, and explores a melancholy sense of being alone while surrounded by people. Metzker’s later-career landscapes were lauded for masterfully capturing poignant natural chaos.
When he started at Beloit in 1949, a job in the College’s publicity department was a natural next step. He shot everything from sports events to fraternity functions to professors’ author portraits.
“I was into photography so much that one semester I was on [academic] probation,” he says, laughing.
But after a couple of years, the head of Beloit’s art department, Frank Boggs, introduced Metzker to fine art photography—Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Metzker dropped PR, declared an art major, and focused on school. But not long after graduation, he received a draft notice and spent two unhappy years sidelined in Korea. He eventually returned home to do career-altering studies with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design in Chicago. When he was out of school for good, Metzker hopped a ship to Europe, traveling, shooting, and developing for almost two years. His criteria for lodging was simple: “How can I darken this? Does it have a sink?”
One fall day in Basel, Switzerland, he entered an exhibit by avant-garde Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. “It was totally quiet, then all of a sudden the power comes on and the room went wild. Percussion, cacophony, things were banging and moving,” he recalls. “Totally unexpected, totally wild, and totally engaging.” This kinetic animation led him to “a whole exploration of juxtapositioning things, departing from the single image,” he says. “Something got into my system that I just didn’t want to set straight.” His resulting body of work, “The Composites,” earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Museum of Modern Art show in 1966. “I felt that I could possibly call myself a photographer by then,” he says.
A decade later, visiting the Greek Island of Pyros, the open sky and straight horizon were “too commonly pretty” to make interesting photos.
“I wanted to break it up,” says Metzker. “So I’d pick up some object like a branch and set that between the camera and what I was looking at.” That became “Pictus Interruptus,” a series that won a second Guggenheim, allowing him to leave full-time teaching in Philadelphia for a more flexible spot at Columbia College in Chicago. There he met Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, a highly regarded fine art photographer, who is now his wife.
On a trip to Tuscany together early in their relationship, Metzker lifted his lens to “old and gnarly” olive trees. Without the “urban shadow,” his images lightened and opened to a radically new direction.
“I don’t want to make the same picture over,” says Metzker, who is still shooting photographs. “I don’t have a preconception when I go out—‘Well, I know what I want to try and make today.’ I can only go back to where I was before and continue from there.”
Professor emeritus of art
I looked forward to Michael Simon’s photography classes like I did therapy sessions—with a mix of raw yearning and nausea.
While we squeezed onto the lumpy couch and assorted chairs in his silty basement classroom, he’d line up our photos on the chalkboard ledge.
“What is this picture about?” he’d ask in that melodious Hungarian accent innocently enough, gesturing to images of trees, friends, dogs, buildings, milk, sheets, feet.
In the beginning we’d silently stare at the black-and-white photos. But once he pointed out how the subject was framed, how near or distant the camera, where the light hit, whether it was shot from above or below, etc., we saw all we had missed—and what the image conveyed about its photographer.
“What is Todd saying about these people?” he asked one day, gesturing to powerful pictures of drunken students greasily gleaming at disconcerting angles. “Does he like them? Does he feel like one of them?” Suddenly we saw the stepped-back disdain, fear, longing—while Todd (and many of us when it was our turn) protested that it was “just a photo.”
It was an exquisitely uncomfortable, enlightening, yet oddly gentle spiritual vivisection. Those who didn’t drop the class immediately often took the course over and over, becoming addicted to the unlayering, metaphors, literary parallels, universal truths, and existential questions: What is a photo? Why take them? Who are you?
In addition to using the camera as a lens into the self, former students talk about Simon’s intuitive personal interest—asking if they were depressed, suggesting therapy, offering unexpected life advice.
“He’d see right through you and expose your weaknesses and find these hidden strengths,” says John Dolan’82, a former student who’s now a professional photographer. “He was seeing things in the pictures I didn’t know existed. He was leading me into areas I wouldn’t have gone. It was really thrilling and terrifying at the same time.”
Ronelle Coburn’90 says of Simon: “He gave little pieces of myself back to me that I didn’t even know were missing.”
When he started teaching at Beloit, Simon, born in Hungary in 1936, had lived through “a war and a holocaust and a revolution.” These personal tragedies taught him the importance of grappling with one’s mind—an approach likely furthered by a distant relative who was a student of Sigmund Freud’s in Vienna. “I don’t recall too much of our conversations directly but I’m sure that strongly influenced me,” he says.
In 1956, at age 20, Simon moved to the States with about 30,000 other post-revolution Hungarian refugees, receiving a scholarship to Penn State in electrical engineering. Quickly realizing he’d be “the world’s worst engineer,” he drew on an early interest in photography, moving to New York City and assisting photographers. Though he eventually started a lucrative photo business, he realized after a few years that he preferred a more contemplative life.
In 1968, a series of serendipities landed him, his wife, Carol Winters Simon’82, and their young daughter, Amy, at Beloit (a son, Nicholas, came a year later). Teaching immediately gratified Simon; he aimed to help students more deeply observe the world—and themselves.
“You remember what Margaret Schlegel says in Howards End?” he says. “‘Only connect.’ I think a teacher is successful when one connects her or his students with self-discovery.”
Simon is modest about his own photographic career—yet he has photos at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; he has written Hungarian Photography—A Comparative History, and seen the publication of The World is Beautiful: The Photography of Michael Simon, edited by Thomas H. Wilson.
Taking pictures taught him about his interests and himself. “It’s very difficult to understand all the stuff that’s within us, and photographs tell much more about the maker of the photograph than the subject matter,” he says. When Carol recently hung his photos in their Maine home, he noticed, “They’re all about quiet. There’s very little action. And that’s what I enjoyed and that’s what I still enjoy.”
These days Simon basks in that quiet in Maine, where, retired, he lives among the trees and a pond, taking daily walks with his dog through the forest. He’s not taking too many pictures. “I’m not in a rather photographic mood right now,” he says. “I’d rather just look.”
One of the first photos Lewis Koch’71 ever made was of Martin Luther King addressing a fair housing rally on Long Island. Koch was a teenager when he captured this piece of history. The picture still hangs on his “wall diary,” an oversized bulletin board in his studio, along with other photos and objects that tell the story of his life—including his time at Beloit College.
The curiosity about the world that drew him to major in history also influences the images Koch chooses to make and the stories he’s brought to life through his work over the past four decades.
Koch’s first major photography project after graduation was a history of the African-American community in the city of Beloit, a story that starts with migration from Mississippi just before World
War I with the promise of factory work. The project was a partnership, pairing images Koch curated and made from the early residents’ family collections with personal stories.
“We wanted to tell a history that hadn’t been told,” he says. “I very deliberately wanted to reveal a broader spectrum that hadn’t been given its due.”
At Beloit, Koch studied with Michael Simon. He says one of Simon’s unforgettable lessons is the subjectivity of photography—that there’s something of the photographer in every image.
Koch’s documentary work and another early collaboration he participated in—the book Wisconsin Images—confirmed Simon’s lesson for him. “Even in documentary, there is subjectivity,” he says.
Another body of work was based on photos he made during a year in India with his family when his son—now a senior at Beloit College—was in elementary school. The work resulted in Koch’s first solo book, Notes from the Stone-Paved Path: Meditations on North India, which pairs black-and-white images with pages from a variety of texts.
The pairing of objects and text, which often occurs randomly in life, fascinates Koch. His most recent book, Touchless Automatic Wonder, explores this phenomenon even further. In the introduction to the book, published in September 2009, Koch says:
“I like seeing things and I like words. There is something revelatory about the two together, an almost Pentecostal feeling of seeing in tongues.”
Koch strives to inspire questioning through his photographs. “The question is more important in my work than the answer. The answer is nearly immaterial. To continue one’s curiosity about the world is to remain alive.”
George Tatge’72 still applies one of the most important lessons he learned studying photography at Beloit College when he takes pictures today.
“Unless I have a project that I’ve been paid for, I go out and let the world inspire me,” Tatge says.
Former Beloit professor Michael Simon has been a significant influence on Tatge.
“In a class exercise he prohibited us from looking through the camera. ‘Just set the F-stops and go out and point the thing at whatever moves you,’ he told us. When we saw prints of what we’d taken, we realized the camera is a completely subjective instrument, one capable of reflecting each one of our personalities and psyches.”
Tatge now lives in Florence, Italy, and has been in that country since shortly after graduating from Beloit. He was born in Turkey to an Italian mother and an American father and lived most of his youth in the Middle East, including Turkey, Libya, and Lebanon. He became interested in photography after his mother gave him her camera when he was 14.
When he arrived at Beloit, Simon—then a brand-new professor—urged Tatge to study with him. Simon would become a mentor and a friend.
“I hated school until Beloit,” Tatge says. “When I was finally able to study what I wanted to, then I loved it.”
Tatge, an English literature major, also met his wife, Lynn Farnsworth’72, at Beloit.
He has taught workshops around the world and says he always gives credit to Simon in his biographical notes. His work has been exhibited in many countries and his photos can be found in major museum collections in the United States and Europe.
Tatge’s commercial work is often in color and includes portraits, wineries, architectural interiors, orchards, and other scenes and subjects almost exclusively in Italy.
Tatge says his artistic work is his true love.
His most recent traveling exhibition, Presences, illustrates how people have left their mark on the landscape by altering it for their own use and leaving behind items that change it permanently.
Tatge says he doesn’t necessarily consider himself an environmentalist. “Many of my images depict places that are suffering. Inevitably they are a commentary on what man is doing to the landscape. But my main intent is to continue exploring my place in the world and my psychic makeup.”
John Dolan’s wedding photographs make you want to get married. As part of a photo movement that started in the early 1990s, Dolan, 49, helped restore the genre back to its former glory: wedding pictures as journalistic, well-crafted embodiments of historic, personal moments, not predictable, pasted-smile cheesiness.
“When I’m shooting a wedding I’m looking for the essence of the moment and of these incredibly intimate circumstances,” he says. “Every wedding follows the same script, but it’s always incredibly rich and deep and poignant.”
This sense of intimacy and present-moment nostalgia is palpable throughout Dolan’s wide range of work—from Condé Nast editorial to Lexus ads to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s wedding to the naturalistic portraits he takes of Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld and their kids each summer.
Dolan’s ability to get feeling on film is something he attributes partly to now-retired Beloit art and photography professor Michael Simon, who “took me and turned me inside out,” he says.
Dolan came to Beloit as an aspiring sports photographer and “Joe photojournalist,” and left as something else entirely. Simon taught him that photos should capture essential truths. “He would always say, ‘If you’re photographing a chair, you’re looking for the “is-ness” of the chair, the essence, the chairness’ … So taking a picture of a person—that was the picture of the person but hopefully more—was the crucial point.”
After graduating, Dolan apprenticed with renowned photographer Sylvia Plachy (actor Adrien Brody’s mother) in her Queens, N.Y., attic studio. Her encouragement of Dolan’s instinctual, passionate side led to a flash-bulb moment at his brother’s wedding during a Hungarian dance circle: “I heard Sylvia’s voice saying, ‘You have to become part of the party, part of the moment.’ So I entered the circle and the dance became more intense because of my presence. And those pictures of shooting without thinking helped me take this whole new route for years.”
His approach is rare in commercial photography, a profession that often values cool distance over warm engagement. “In the ad world, people always talk about being ‘edgy’—I’m not sure what the antithesis of edgy is. But no edges!” Dolan says of himself, laughing. “I’m always playing that game of ‘What will this feel like in 10 years?’ The essence of a photograph is: ‘This moment will not be here again. These people will not be here.’ So there’s a weight to it.”
After working two summers in Chicago’s financial district, Jim Hedrich’61 knew even before graduation that he didn’t want a career in economics, his major.
“I never regarded my college experience as a trade school,” he says. “It wasn’t training for anything but life.”
After graduation, Hedrich decided to join the family business, Hedrich Blessing, a highly regarded Chicago-based commercial photography firm. To prepare, he attended Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, studying photography and design.
After finishing the program, Hedrich enlisted in the Navy and spent most of his time on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and at U.S. Naval headquarters in Saigon. He also made personal photographs all over East Asia.
When he hired on with Hedrich Blessing after five years in school and four years in the Navy, he started as a photo assistant. “I slowly built my own reputation,” he says. He got a big break when the art director for a major magazine company hired him to shoot a few covers.
Hedrich also brought a new dimension to the firm’s work.
“I started out doing architecture because that’s what the company did,” Hedrich says. After teaming up with a young architect specializing in building interiors, he made Hedrich Blessing among the first firms to specialize in interior architectural photography.
Hedrich worked in every state but Alaska and across the globe. He photographed hotels around the world for Ritz-Carlton, made images across Mexico for tourism ads, and took pictures of private yachts in Europe.
“It was rare that a shoot would last more than a week, so we had incredibly long hours,” he says. “We’d eat standing up and barely sleep. We’d be totally exhausted but feel really good about what we did.”
Hedrich never wrote down how he set up a particular shoot because he didn’t want to do the same thing twice. “It bit me once in awhile when I’d solved a problem once and then ran into it again, but then I got to approach it from another perspective.”
Hedrich retired in 2003 and now travels with his wife, making photographs for his personal archive. In the last three years they’ve visited Antarctica, India, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.
In 2001, Hedrich’s son graduated from Beloit.
“I have a very high regard for liberal arts education, and I’m a living example of the flexibility that degree gives you,” he says.
Joan Sharman Truckenbrod’67
Joan Truckenbrod is obsessed with salmon. They embody her fascination with all that is transitory, transformational, and cyclical. “They are for me totally spiritual,” says the renowned digital art pioneer and professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I’ve been to Alaska a couple of times videotaping them jumping at the falls. They’re swimming against a current we couldn’t even stand in. Then they return home, give birth, and die. And their bodies feed the baby salmon. I’m just holding my video camera with tears running down my face.”
This moment of deeply observing natural phenomena with new technology encapsulates much of Truckenbrod’s work—she has since used those images in installation pieces as video and printed fiber.
Truckenbrod, raised in the Chicago suburbs, started at Beloit as a math major with an interest in computers. But after a humbling calculus class, a subsequent shift to a sociology major, and a junior year studying Islamic art in Istanbul, her horizons expanded. A year after graduation, art and design classes at Northern Illinois University led Truckenbrod to a Master of Arts degree and a job teaching digital art, then a zygote of a medium.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Truckenbrod wrote software to make computer-generated imagery when almost no one was doing so; in 1988 she published the groundbreaking book Creative Computer Imaging. Her early works range from stark black-and-whites to wild, complex swirls of color, with figures often visible within.
Her latest work layers passions for cultural critique, nature, technology, and transformation. “Lightening in My Blood,” a multimedia installation, comprises a seven-by-four-foot fabric chrysalis cast with two simultaneously playing videos. One is of jumping salmon and the other of a nursing home, filmed with a camera set on her mother’s wheelchair. The piece touches on loss, home, despair, rebirth, and transitions. Truckenbrod is especially concerned with how elderly are treated and hopes to advocate for change with her work.
Though technology has been a portal to endless discovery, Truckenbrod has always merged the organic and the virtual. She used physics formulae for invisible natural phenomena—like the wind blowing hair—to make abstract images and in 1996 was granted a Fulbright to work on a digital loom in Norway. Yet she is no silicon-worshipper.
“It sounds silly, but the technology has never been important to me,” she says. “But it has allowed me to make the kind of work that I want to make—because it was a new media, I didn’t feel constrained.”
When he graduated from Beloit in 1972 with an economics degree, Ron Nicolaysen didn’t know what to do. So after a stint at his father’s food-importing business, the native New Yorker hit Europe with a friend. He traveled, mulled, moped. Then photography “came upon me overnight,” Nicolaysen, 60, says from his sleek yet comfortable loft in midtown Manhattan. “I literally woke up one morning and from that point on I was tunnel-visioned.”
He got a gig assisting a well-known fashion photographer and then worked for a variety of commercial shooters. “I was happy every day,” he says. “Even if I was cleaning toilets.”
When he realized people were his passion, he headed to Milan, hoping to build a solid fashion portfolio. Though he landed in Italy during the dead quiet of August, beginner’s luck was with him—with all the photographers on vacation, local magazines had pages to fill. Eventually he was snapping for Grazia, Italian Vogue, and others, leading to steady work from Condé Nast publications like Glamour and Self.
The world became his office—from the Far East to Tunisia, the Caribbean to South Africa. Warm climates all. “I was in heaven,” he says. For 20 years, he never took a break. “My life was a vacation. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”
But his true love was photography and the locations—not the models and clothes. After two decades in motion he was fried. Yet again stymied about his direction, he did construction work in New York. “I wanted a job that would make me physically tired,” he says. “It allowed me to gradually reconstruct myself.”
When he picked up a camera again a few years later, he “started shooting as if it was a new hobby,” and decided to trade commercial photography for art. His work now includes abstract, celestial-looking macro photos of oil and water in petri dishes and arresting environmental portraits of artisans and others who work with their hands.
Nicolaysen also teaches workshops from his loft; his students shoot throughout the city. And he recently found what he’d do forever if finances allowed: portraits of human trafficking survivors. In 2008, for a U.N.-sponsored project with the Maria D’angeles Foundation and Tiyatro Global (run by Helen Richardson’73), he traveled to Argentina and created a series on escaped and rescued women and children “exposed to a range of experiences that are unbelievably horrific.” He hopes this unsentimental yet deeply affecting work will help bring attention to the booming international industry of slavery and forced prostitution.
In one of these photos, a smiling woman holds up a baby in a bedroom with sky-blue walls covered with star-like plaster, a tacked-up poster of Jesus, and lava-like carpeting—it looks like hellish heaven. To Nicolaysen, context is as essential as people; he is still thrilled when serendipitous surprises—like plaster stars—appear, illuminating some meaning in an image. This unconscious magic is present in his shots of glamazons in the rainforest and planet-like oil bubbles. “You have to want to look around and discover things in my photos, hopefully,” he says, “little details.”
After one semester at the New York Institute of Technology in his hometown of Long Island, Chuck Savage’76 applied to Beloit College. When accepted, he headed west and enrolled in school, sight unseen.
“I just moved in the direction I felt intuitively was the way to go—that’s what got me to Beloit,” he says.
Savage’s interest in radio led him to major in theatre, with a focus on lighting and set design. He took several art classes but no photography. However, he got to know Michael Simon through friends who were photographers.
After graduation, Savage took a job in Beloit’s theatre department as technical director for a year. He started dabbling in photography, in part to capture lighting and design work for his own portfolio.
Savage started a graduate degree in interior design at Northern Illinois University, then transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he switched to photography. He eventually founded a commercial photography firm with a partner, and for six years built the business and grew as a photographer.
Savage’s 10-year cluster reunion was held the same year he decided to strike out on his own. “I contacted Ann Bausum’79 (then editor of Beloit College Magazine) and said I’d be willing to photograph the campus while I was there,” he says.
As he was taking photos, Hal Wilde, vice president for external relations at the time, introduced himself. “He talked about his vision for someday doing a book because it’s such a beautiful campus,” Savage says.
Savage did more work for the College and the book began to take shape. The editorial team included other alumni and Michael Simon. They agreed that the unchanging campus and surroundings, including its buildings, Indian mounds, and the Rock River were anchors of the College, so Savage first focused on them.
“I had a body of work that had the timeless beauty and depth I was hoping for, but it was missing something,” he says. “I found what it was missing–life. People.”
He began photographing people, and by 1991 the book Beloit College: A Contemporary Portrait, a Timeless Testament was in print. He returns to Beloit every few years to make photographs, and today, his images form the backbone of the College’s photography collection. Savage’s work with Beloit College led to a specialty in photographing campuses.
“What I like about campus photography is it really incorporates everything I’ve learned as a photographer,” he says. “I want to do a job where I don’t have to make too many compromises. It allows me to be me as a photographer.”