RAM Talks Art: Behind the lens with three Rockford photographers

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118478049828268.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118478054328268.jpg’, ‘Photo by Abbie Reese’, ‘Photographer Abbie Reese explained: “I shot this photo, ‘A Daughter Returns Home,’ in Kono, the diamond district of Sierra Leone bordering Liberia. As media liaison, I arranged the trip for a BBC News team to follow several women home after successful operations aboard the hospital ship I lived and worked on for a year.” Reese’s series of 22 photographs, Faces of the West, were recently on exhibit in Chicago at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo Drive.‘);

When you flip through the latest travel magazine or cool coffee table book, you don’t automatically associate photos of Fender® Guitars, a South American mountain expedition or an African documentary with Rockford and professionals who live and work here.

However, if you take the time to talk with some local photographers, you’ll find those images have everything to do with Rockford.

I took the time to ask some questions of three local photographers—Nels Akerlund, Steve Pitkin and Abbie Reese—to get some information about how and where they work.

When asked about their favorite assignments, the responses were varied, but with the amount of experience these three have, think of all the possibilities.

Nels said his favorite assignment was shooting for National Geographic in South America. The assignment was to climb Mt. Antisana in Ecuador using local guides; within several hundred vertical feet from the top, Nels fell into a crevasse. The threat of injury was too high, so they decided to turn around. Makes you think of all the danger and physical demands of getting those amazing photos.

In Steve’s case, the Fender Custom Shop Gallery book took top prize. After completing a book of Rick Nielsen’s famed guitar collection, Steve was approached by Fender to shoot a coffee table book for them. What an amazing opportunity, to go to Los Angeles and photograph these amazing craftsmen and the instruments they create.

For Abbie, it was in the diamond district of Sierra Leone. While she was interviewing people, others would take notice and, “in spite of cultural differences, a camera can afford amazing connections,” she said. The vibrant colors and the beauty of the people make that assignment a top project on her list.

OK, so if all of these favorite projects took place around the world, you would think the question of preference of shooting in studio or on location would be easy. Not necessarily.

For Abbie and Nels, on location is the preferred site. For Abbie, it means travel and an opportunity to capture people in their own environments. For Nels, it means testing your skills and keeping you sharp—creating a never-ending session of problem-solving.

In Steve’s case, it’s project-specific. He has been able to build an incredible studio in Rockford because of the affordability of real estate; he has access to all his equipment here, and can completely control the environment. But based on the scale of some projects he does, large collections can’t exactly be brought into the studio. And he couldn’t have close to the same space he has here in many other markets.

The list of favorite subjects to photograph came next from our photographers.

For Steve, it’s people and objects—photographing people allows you to capture their character, and photographing collections of objects allows you to see something people have invested themselves into, something they have made or invented. Creative and innovative people and objects are exciting to capture.

It’s people again as a favorite subject matter for Abbie—well, people combined with landscapes in new places. And for Nels, the favorite subject matter is people and their cultures. Just looking at all of these photographers’ images, it’s not hard to see they each have an amazing ability to capture people, places and things in a unique and interesting way.

For each photographer—all three grew up in the area—it was natural to start a business here for a number of reasons.

Whether it was family, comfort, enjoyment of the people, or opportunities afforded them here, I think it’s an asset to our community they have stayed. As Abbie pointed out, “A quote by the Wisconsin geographer Yi-Fu Tuan sums it up: ‘As for the restless spirits, perhaps even more than other people they need the succor of home, if only as the point of departure.’”

Finally, when asked who or what is the one person, place or thing you want to photograph most right now, the list looks as follows:

Steve: In July, Eric Clapton at his Crossroads Festival

Abbie: Alaska

Nels: Neil Armstrong and the Vanishing Cultures of Asia

So if photography is your thing, keep an eye out around town to see what events are going on. And, if it’s not your thing yet, give it a view—you might see things from a totally different perspective and get to see places you’ve never been through the eyes of another.

Some photography exhibits going on this summer include “How I See It” (June 29-Aug. 9 at New Dimensions Gallery, Womanspace, 3333 Maria Linden Drive, Rockford) and “Glimpse: The Arnold Gilbert Photography Collection” (July 20-Oct. 7 at Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St., Rockford). Take a look.

Rockford Art Museum Education Director Elizabeth Dailing can be reached at edailing@rockfordartmuseum.org.

from the July 18-24, 2007, issue

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