David Husom Photographer
Minnesota Center for Photography RIP. But why?  
Friday, August 1, 2008, 12:25 AM
As is bring covered in both the Minnesota media and photo and art blogs across the country, the Minnesota Center for Photography closed its doors today. MCP began as pARTS, a small gallery above an auto body shop that had a certain charm in spite of its smelling like paint so bad you often felt you needed an oxygen mask to enter. It then moved to a basement on Lake Street and eventually became MCP. A third move took them to a beautiful gallery in a former photo studio in the up and coming art neighborhood of Northeast Minneapolis. For the sake of full disclosure I will say I was in a group show at each of the first and second locations, and taught two classes in the darkroom during their first year at the final location. I never had any official connection to the organization however, so these are my own thoughts as a former Minnesota photographer who now lives nearby in Wisconsin (and since I am ineligible for most of the benefits of the MN fine art photo world, I am just an innocent bystander— but, with a bit of history).

Although the closing is being presented as a surprise by some, rumors have been circulating for months. And although it is being presented as a sign of the economy or lackluster fundraising, the rumors have pointed to excessive spending, using operating budget funds for programing, staff conflict (that one is at least 10 years old however), overly ambitious shows of international photography (the recent Three Gorges China show is often mentioned), or the move to the more expensive space four years ago. However, I think there was a bigger problem—lack of support from the Minnesota photo community.

News reports point to the broad based support MCP had in the community, however discussions I have had over the years with board members and staff have pointed to the opposite. On a couple of occasions in recent years I had sent students to events at MCP. When I asked their impressions, they invariably came back and reported the same thing: "It was just a bunch of old people." I am reminded of a friend in Japan who used to say, in less than perfect English, "It is the taste of old men." I know this was not just a MCP problem. At another arts institution in Minneapolis I had a friend approach me at an opening and exclaim: "Photography is alive and well in Minneapolis, just look at the crowd here." I looked around, and upon not seeing anyone under 50 said: "It may not be dead yet, but if you stand on your tiptoes you can see the end in this room." Where were the young photographers? I would guess they were just not very interested in much of what MCP had to offer, nor did they feel a part of it. Maybe if MCP had not turned its back on the young local photographers and paid so much attention (and money it seems) to out of town talent it would have gotten more support.

A bigger issue however is that the Minnesota fine art photography scene has always had a heavy dose of animosity hanging in the air. This is another topic a board member and a former staff member told me in private. Some blame it on the perception of too much grant money going to the same few people. Or a variation on that, the same people being asked to show their work at invitational or "juried" shows—the MCP Photo Lotto / Bravo being a case in point for many in the community. Others blame the lack of support for local artists from the Walker, or the second class status of local artists at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Still others see the sometimes nasty competition between the University of Minnesota's Art Department and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The removal of the McKnight Grant from the U of MN and moving it to MCP also brought forth an attack of venom in the community over the past few years. (Again for disclosure, I did teach full time at the U of MN Art department, and classes and workshops at MCAD, but left them both over a dozen years ago. I also was in Photo Lotto / Bravo a few times, but not at the current location, and got my McKnight Grant back when Film in the Cities gave them out over 20 years ago).

Is this problem just the way photographers are? According to a former staff member, and from what I have seen, the ill will of Minneapolis fine art photographers is not present in other cities; Los Angeles being a perfect example. Nor do I see it amongst the artists of out-state Minnesota or rural Wisconsin where I now live. In fact I see just the opposite; we all work together for the joint good of the local arts community. I certainly did not see problems amongst commercial photographers in Minnesota when I was on the board of the Minnesota Commercial Industrial Photographer Association. From photo journalists I also hear of the strong support they often give one another. So what is up with the Twin Cites fine art photographers? Maybe it is time to take a good hard look at WHY.

Here are just a few of the stories:

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Just a Couple of Cell Phone Photos of the Mississippi River 
Friday, July 18, 2008, 10:04 PM
Going under the bridge on the back channel of the Mississippi River last night. The swallows have left their mud nests now. It is amazing they stay up there with all the traffic and road construction this year. Cell phone photo by David Husom. Copyright 2008 by David Husom.

Lake Pepin in the spring. Mississippi River flooding had kept the boats from going into the harbors yet, so it is a very peaceful scene. Cell phone photo by David Husom. Copyright 2008 by David Husom

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4035 Flags Memorialize US Soldiers Killed in Iraq as of 4/15/08 
Wednesday, April 16, 2008, 05:12 PM

In front of Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis 4035 white flags were set out to memorialize the 4035 US soldiers killed in Iraq as of April 15th 2008.

Cell phone photograph by David Husom

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Documenting the Ashland Ore Dock for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) 
Sunday, April 13, 2008, 03:08 PM
I recently completed a project for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documenting the old Soo Line Railroad ore docks in Ashland Wisconsin. Built in 1915, the 1800 foot long 80 foot high dock has not been used since 1965 and is literaly falling down into Lake Superior. It is the last of five docks that at one time served northern Wisconsin's ore industry. Although controversial, the dock could not be saved.

But, since the dock is deemed an important historic structure, the current owner was required to have the structure documented before demolition could begin. The documentary photographs needed to meet Library of Congress archival standards, requiring 4X5 black and white film and making traditional (not digital) prints. Also since parts of the dock are only accessible by crossing the ice, the photographs had to be taken in the winter. I lucked out and had a perfect, almost balmy, 30 degree day.

I admit that I normally work in color, but the truth is that black and white negatives are still the most archival medium. However I could not help but make a few color images as well. The inside of the dock was like a cathedral. What a wonderful space!

Click on the image to see a larger version of the dock interior from the water-end. Photo Copyright 2008 by David Husom.

The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) collection is a part of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Eventually the photos will be available online for researchers:


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Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Artist Environments at the John Michael Kohler Art 
Friday, January 25, 2008, 12:16 PM
We had a chance to go to Sheboygan Wisconsin to the John Michael Kohler Art Center to see the Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Artist Environments exhibit. I had been in a show at the Kohler once, but never made it there to see the galleries. What a treat!

When so much of the art world is tied to money, ego, fame, prestige and worse, it is easy to forget that what it should be about is the experience of making and seeing. Here is an exhibit of artists who were not gallery artists, grant recipients, art fair participants, folk artists, outsider artists, or tenured faculty. Instead they were people who worked with a passion just for the love of making personal art and surrounded their lives with it. The show includes some well known names like Sabato (Simon) Rodia creator of the Watts Towers, Fred Smith of the Wisconsin Concrete Park, known to anyone who had ventured into northern Wisconsin and passed through Phillips, and Tom Every who has built the Forevertron in North Freedom, WI (which I have yet to see in person, but it is on my list!). But there are so many others that I was completely unaware of.

Historically the show begins with Levi Fisher Ames who around the turn of the 20th Century traveled the back roads of Wisconsin with trunk-loads of carved wooden animals, trinkets and an art museum of wonder. Loy Bowlin of McComb, Mississippi billed himself as the “original rhinestone cowboy” and decorated every square inch of his modest house with glitter and rhinestones. It was a four year process to dismantle the house, restore it, and re-assemble it within the Kohler galleries. Nek Chand has filled 10 acres of rolling hills near his home in India with marvelous life size sculptures. Emery Blagdon, built the Healing Machine to redirect energy through hundreds of hanging sculptures.

Milwaukee artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein worked with chicken bone sculptures, but more importantly did paintings and photographs that were often surprisingly ahead of their time. Long before Robert Heineken did his “found negatives” by contacting magazine pages, here was Von Bruenchenhein playing with the double exposure of both sides of the page printing through. Mary Nohl, an art school graduate, filled her cabin-sized house and Lake Michigan shoreline yard with her creations. Vietnam War vet Dr. Charles Smith built the African American Heritage Museum and Black Veteran’s Archives in the suburbs of Chicago so that the people of the neighborhood would not have to go to a museum to see art. What is amazing about the show was how it is able to capture the environmental aspects of the work even removed from their original locations.

What I have always found fascinating is how many of these environmental artists are in the Minnesota - Wisconsin area. Although not in the exhibit, the catalog for the show does include Cochrane Wisconsin visionary artist Herman Rusch, who I met when I was a student (I am clueless now as to why I did not photograph him and his work that day). The catalog does offer a good answer to the question as to why all this concrete art ended up here: the Dickyville Grotto built by Father Mathias Werneru in the 1920’s. Even Simon Rodia is believed to have been influenced by it when he worked for a time as a construction worker on the project. The Grotto is wonderful and well worth a visit—it is located near the Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa border. But for some reason I had ignored its influence on small town bathtub grottoes (a Midwestern phenomena where a tub is sunk in the ground a stature of the Virgin Mary or a Saint are placed in it) and the life-long projects of people like Rusch, Smith, James Tellen and Minnesotan Carl Peterson and Wisconsinites Paul and Matilda Wegner until I read the catalog.

I recall over the years seeing the work of lesser known concrete artists, including a great one in the St. Cloud area. There was a little house in the back of the lot surrounded by tall bushes near where I grew up in Minneapolis. The kids in the neighborhood discovered that behind those big bushes was a virtual fantasy garden of ponds, bridges and a small castle. One day, when I was in high school, I walked down the alley and there behind the garage was a pile of busted-up concrete. Someone had removed the secret garden of art.

Carl Peterson transformed his St. James Minnesota garden with concrete, rock and shell structures. Some are on permanent display outside of the Art Center. (Cell Phone Photo of JMKAC Courtyard by David Husom)

Also at the Kohler Art Center are the best bathrooms you have ever seen anywhere. Each was designed by an artist. (Cell Phone Photo of Mens Room at the JMKAC by David Husom)

Parts of the show are held over see: www.jmkac.org/SublimeClosingDates
For more on Visionary Artist Environments see: rarevisionsroadtrip.com

And speaking of Kohler, the Kohler company has ties to the Art Center but they have their own museum and showroom in the nearby town of Kohler. (Cell Phone Photo of Kohler Design Center by David Husom) Click on image to see larger version.

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