Setting the Stage
Polish artist, Stefan Knapp, was commissioned to paint what was, at the time it was completed in 1963, the largest mural in the world. It was originally planned as a joint effort with Salvador Dalí, but the job in its entirety was ultimately given to Knapp. The mural measured 200 feet by 50 feet and covered a large portion of the Alexander’s Department Store in Paramus, New Jersey. It was a huge splash of colors and abstract expressionism, or an eyesore to passing drivers at the intersection of Routes 4 and 17, depending on how you looked at it. I was just amused by the controversy. I wasn't much interested in art, and never thought that I inherited any artistic genes – my parents never expressed an interest in any kind of art, and they never encouraged me to study art. We went to hockey games, not art museums.
Alexander's Department Store
However, there’s more to the story… My great-grandmother was only 29 years old when she died in 1898 in Stanislau, Austria, probably during the birth of her fourth child. Stanislau was located 178 miles from the town of Bilgoraj, Poland, where Stefan Knapp was born in 1921. Both towns were originally settled by Poland, annexed by the Austrian Empire in 1815, and held by Austria until the end of World War 1 in 1918 when both were returned to Poland.
My great-grandmother’s maiden name: Karoline Knapp.
I have no idea if there was an ancestral connection with the family of the artist. Records for Karoline and from that area of the world are scarce. My grandfather immigrated to America from Stanislau in 1910, and started a metal-stamping business in Manhattan in 1926. Coincidentally, or not, my first summer job was working as a cashier at Alexander's.
Stanislau - Austria/Poland
Finding My Way to Colorado
July, 1969… in anticipation of Woodstock the next month, my parents shipped me off to Vernal, Utah, for a long visit with my uncle and his family. I remember watching Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon on my uncle’s black and white television, thinking that the landscape on the moon didn’t look so different as it was in Utah.
The second leg of that trip was to see my mother’s relatives in Oklahoma, necessitating a layover at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. As fate would have it, friends of the family had recently moved to Denver and mom sent word that I would have a six-hour layover. So my friend, Doris Parker, met me at the airport and gave me a tour of the city. A couple years later, I applied to the University of Denver. The official reason for choosing Denver was the education, or so I told my parents... unofficially I came to Colorado for the skiing. Not long after graduating from college, a job opportunity brought me to Grand Junction. Any place just a couple hours drive from skiing in Aspen and Telluride had to be perfect, and it was. Powderhorn, just a short drive up the road on Grand Mesa, turned out to be the hidden gem and place where our family spent most winter weekends.
Me and My Brother
Skiing at Snowmass
The Evolution of a Career
Printing was a career that began for me totally by chance; not terribly unusual for a twenty-one year old guy fresh out of school. Photography was more of an evolution. My first job after graduating from Denver University could have been in a number of different industries, but the first offer to come my way was for selling salesbooks and other types of business forms to small businesses. I grabbed the job, took a liking to paper and ink, and started my own company a few years later. At the time, computers took up the space of a large room and IBM Selectric typewriters were state-of-the-art technology.
But it wasn’t long before the personal computer changed everything. With the introduction of Photoshop in the early 90s, I decided that I could use the software to economically produce color brochures and catalogs, and quickly got hooked on the creative aspect of image making.
When digital cameras came along, I embraced the technology because of its instant feedback. It was an environment from which I could learn about the fine points of photography. Making pictures became addicting... which is where I’m at today.
1987... the new Apple Mac computer
My inspiration has come from many artists who lived before me. As a novice photographer, I stood mesmerized viewing a painting by John Singleton Copley in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was a portrait of Rebecca Boylston painted in 1767, and what jumped out at me was the incredible texture of her gown and luminosity of colors. At that point, I vowed to make more detailed photographs.
Claude Monet is one of my favorite artists, and arguably one of the first abstract painters when he removed the sky from his paintings and focused on lily pads. By removing context, a viewer sees just the subject’s form. Georgia O'Keefe cropped some of her flowers so tightly that the image became abstract. I learn a lot from studying the work of painters.
Ansel Adams and Edward Weston are two of my favorite 20th century photographers… Ansel as much for what he said about photography as the stunning images that he made, and Weston for his innovative photos of ordinary objects such as peppers and bananas. The one thing that was critically important to both photographers was their technique. Theirs was not one-touch photography with automatic cameras. Sharpness and detail were key ingredients for them, as they are for me. I strive for texture in my images that the viewer will want to reach out and touch… much like I wanted to touch the lace of Miss Boylston’s gown in her portrait.
Rebecca Boylston 1767
The Art of Seeing
Many older artists will say that their style changed at least once or possibly several times over decades of work. My turning point from the grand landscape picture to a narrower, micro view of photography came about five years ago. It was a cold, gray winter day and I realized great pictures weren’t gonna just come knocking on the door… I had to get my coat on and go out and look.
I ended up on a gravel road not much more than a mile from home, a road that I had never had any reason to be on because it doesn’t go anywhere. But sitting there half-buried in snow was an abandoned hay rake. So I started shooting from all angles and maneuvering to include different background elements. I was captivated by an old piece of rusted farm equipment like it was the Mona Lisa. It was a totally new experience. It wasn’t Zion or the Grand Canyon, but it was fun… and even better because I didn’t need a passport or driving all day to get there. It was the beginning of a new way of seeing, and the art of seeing is what photography is all about.
Abandoned Hay Rake
Having a Camera in Hand is a Good Reason to Slow Down
Photography allows me the opportunity to look at the world in a special way that we don’t see in the fast lane of our interstate highways – capturing the little things most people would fly right by. Having a camera in hand is a good excuse to slow down and observe. Photography motivates me to look deeper, beneath the surface of vague impressions and beyond the obvious; looking for distinctive patterns and textures, or sometimes simply the overwhelming beauty of this place we all inhabit.
The process of composing a picture for me gradually eliminates background and distracting elements until just the essence of the subject remains. It’s the picture within the picture. Whether it’s a flower or a chunk of rusted machinery, a great picture will reveal something new and interesting to the viewer. It’s the ability of the camera lens to render detail that even the human eye has trouble discerning which distinguishes photography from all other art forms.