Fritz Kaeser – Roch and rocks |

Fritz Kaeser – Roch and rocks

Tim Willoughby
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
KaeserThis photo by early ski photographer Fritz Kaeser shows, left to right, Doris Willoughby, Frank Willoughby and Frances (Willoughby) Herron.

Treasure-seeking tourists rifle through backwoods cabin sites for bottles, blacksmith nails and other items of interest. The most common items unearthed are rusted cans that once contained an indispensable miner’s foodstuff: Pet Milk. Those mining-era purchases of condensed milk helped to fund the studios of one of Aspen’s post-war shopkeepers.

Fritz Kaeser was the grandson of one of the Swiss immigrant families that founded the evaporated milk company that became Pet Milk. Fritz began his college studies as an artist at the Art Institute of Chicago, switched to photography, and then honed his skills as an assistant to Hollywood portrait photographer William Mortensen.

Fritz and his wife, Milly, fell in love with Aspen during their first visit to ski in the 1930s. They immediately bought land and built a summer house at the junction of Conundrum and Castle creeks (the one Ted Bundy hid in after his escape from Pitkin County jail). During the early years of their Aspen residence, Fritz developed as one of the early ski photographers, winning the Grafex World Wide Photo Contest for a picture he took of Andre Roch turning through powder.

When World War II began, Kaeser joined the 10th Mountain Division, contributing to that group’s legend as a photographer for its newspaper. After the war he opened an Aspen photo gallery/studio in the building that became the Mother Lode on Hyman Avenue between the Wheeler Opera House and the Crystal Palace.

Milly studied dance with Martha Graham and performed with the Hanya Holm’s company. Later in life she took up sculpting, creating bronzes with religious themes. Their interest in the arts made them fans and supporters of Aspen’s summer, but cold winters sent them to the snow-free south. In 1950 they built one of the first homes east of Tucson, at the edge of the saguaro forest, and settled into spending winters in Tucson and summers in Aspen.

Fritz’s Pet Milk inheritance enabled him to pursue a lifetime devoted to his hobbies. In addition to his fine art photography, he became a desert rock hound. He bought two giant redwood water-storage tanks and connected them to create a spacious studio (this Tucson workshop was featured in Sunset Magazine). There he tumbled and polished rocks, cut larger ones into slabs and bookends, and crafted jewelry to sell in the summer.

He opened his rock shop in the Aspen Grove building just after it was built. His bowls of agate and jasper were a boy’s delight, and I accumulated many in trade. Fritz wanted fluorescent rocks, so I collected Aspen Mountain’s calcite for him. Fritz rewarded me most when I found rose quartz, which he tumbled into round, smooth pebbles.

The rock shop closed after Fritz’s interest waned. He left us with a life’s work of photography, mostly shots of Aspen and the surrounding area. Like most photographers who were drawn to the area, he photographed the Maroon Bells in every season and from all angles. His collection can be viewed in the Snite Museum at Notre Dame University.

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