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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

Three Milwaukee Photographers Capturing the City’s Essence

Gartzke, Ford and Middleton shoot for posterity

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Milwaukee’s artistic roots run deep. This week we highlight three local photographers who have captured the city’s many angles over the past four decades.

Al Gartzke

Milwaukee police had just arrested singer Wendy O. Williams for her lascivious 1981 performance at a West Side concert hall. While police handcuffed and roughly loaded Williams into a squad car, everyone else struggled to stand upright on the glaze ice and midnight snow. Photographer Al Gartzke was there.

“My shots of that were suddenly noticed by the Los Angeles Times, then in NYC, the London tabloids, Figaro in Paris, Der Spiegel,and even as far as Russia,” he says.

Gartzke outlived the notoriety of that moment and now finds accomplishment in his personal, creative fine-art photography of still life and other subjects. “I really had fun shooting an old, broken, kitschyclock mounted on a Greek colonnade base while a mystical woman in the background contemplates the clock’s broken time,” he says.

In the 1990s changing technology caught up with the visions of many photographers. Gartzke stayed ahead of the pack.

“I had always been a ‘darkroom rat’ and loved it,” Gartzke says. “But I recognized the ‘copier art’ stuff as a novel art form. My brother Art and I invested intechnology from Canon and the Leaf scanning systems as another way to serve the business clients.Our company, Polomar,had a fun sideline for artists to enjoy designing and composing works of art on a Xerox color copier because nobody had color printers at home.”

Examples of this “xeroxography” embellish one wall of the Grand Avenue Club’s art gallery on the corner of Michigan and Water streets.

In another sign of foresight, Gartzke also welcomed the onset of digital cameras. “I had an easy way of creating photos for my clients,” he says. “The turn-around time of a subject is quick, and I could retouch the shot on the spot to show what my clients wanted their customers to see.”

Francis Ford

Publicists around the world instantly recognize Francis Ford’s images of Willem Dafoe, John Waters, Divine and Richard Avedon.

“During Avedon’s tour with his ‘In the American West’series, Richard saw my portrait of him published in Art Muscle magazine,” Ford recounts. “Avedon called me and we spent months together. He had more energy than anyone I’ve ever known and really taught me. That’s how I became a Hollywood photographer for a while.”

Ford began in filmmaking and adapted the lighting techniques of classic, old-time moviemakers for his visual images. But then he gave up films.

“I like the simplicity of black-and-white still photography,” he says. “I make pictures for myself, pictures that I like. Using theater lighting in my studio, I could design the light and shadows to make my two-dimensional photos look three-dimensional. The ‘eye-of-the-beholder’ (my camera and me) is pivotal for the way I present my subjects. Photos mean much more when a human subject looks directly into the camera and breaks what Paul Sills has described as ‘the fourth wall.’”

Ford’s career has encompassed photojournalism, editorial photography and commercial portfolios. His most recent exhibition, “The Life Boat Show”at Cedar Gallery, was a visual tribute to his many friends. He cherishes photos of his 7-year-old son in 1975 and of his mother playing the piano as a voice coach for soprano operatic singers.

Ford teaches artistic photography at MIAD, where he mixes classic techniques with new technology. “The digital world is amazing; all these kids know Photoshop,” he says. “I teach my students how to layer light, shadows, designs and backgrounds when they compose their final image.”

Jim Middleton

Jim Middleton is perhaps the Meistersinger of Milwaukee street photographers.

“Street photography is a wonderful thing because I love studying people, love the people for themselves. But it’s a lost art,” Middleton says.

In the 1970s, Middleton studied at the Layton School of Art with his mentor, faculty member Gerhard Bakker, while learning portrait photography.

“I wanted to be a purveyor of private moments,” he says. “I was refining my ‘eye,’ developing a sense of my own point of view.

“I usually had a skylight studio to photograph my subjects with the mystical ambient northern light or that special kind of light, the evening twilight-of-god skies,” he adds. “I have used strobe lights and quartz lights, but ambient light is always a natural. The human eye focuses on the brightest area of a print, and I like to control the light because that’s what I want the viewer to see.

“The camera always lies because the photographer shoots only what he wants you to see,” Middleton continues. “My satisfaction was to capture the character, essence—let’s say souls—of my subjects because I do love people. When I taught at UWM, I wanted my students to take their raw, unrefined ideas and then finesse their prints to express themselves and their P.O.V.”

Middleton’s camera expeditions result in stunning, sometimes-stark images. A candid shot of a pregnant woman, overdosed and passed out naked on a bed, heralded his series “The Needle Goes In, the Life Goes Out.” When working in collaboration with Sister Jacqueline at Webster College in St. Louis, Middleton sat on the rooftop of a high-rise tenement from which rifle shots had riddled the school’s windows below.