Out of the ashes: Snowmass photographer ponders what’s next
December 23, 2009
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Richard Shenk isn’t sure what his future as a photographer holds. The 69-year-old Snowmass Villager is still recovering from the airplane crash, in April 2008, in Louisville, Ky., that burned more than half his body. He gets around in a wheelchair, and much of the time he is accompanied by aides who help him in his activities – traveling to Craig Hospital in Denver for rehabilitation and adjustments to his wheelchair, and in his Basalt studio, where Shenk keeps his printing equipment and thousands of negatives from 35-plus years as a photographer.
Shenk, who moved back to Colorado this past April after a year of treatment in hospitals in Kentucky, Ohio and Denver, is in good spirits, and considering what he has been through, good physical shape. He maneuvers his wheelchair adeptly. He uses a computer slowly, but unassisted. In his studio is a custom-built, sit-down bike that he rides every day. A devoted athlete, he has returned to downhill skiing, though he’s now a sit-down skier who uses a mono-ski. He goes to the studio virtually every day to work on his back catalog of film.
But as for what’s next in terms of shooting fresh images, Shenk doesn’t know what he is capable of, or what new doors might open.
“The truth is, I’m afraid,” he said. “It’s sort of a dichotomy and a conundrum. I’ve always been a prolific photographer. I probably have 25,000 negatives dating back to 1974, ’75. There’s still stuff that I haven’t printed, that I need to print.”
How to add to that catalog is the problem. Going to the far-off corners of the globe where he once found material might not be possible. “I’m handicapped. Travel to some of those remote places would be difficult,” he said.
While he wonders what lies ahead, Shenk has also been uncommonly busy with the present. A solo show of his work, featuring more than 20 pieces, opens at the Joel Soroka Gallery with a reception on Wednesday, Dec. 30. That comes in the wake of his participation in Bold Perspectives, a group exhibition of black-and-white photography that showed at the Aspen Chapel Gallery in October.
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Shenk says his recovery – which included relearning how to eat – has instilled in him, as much as anything, a sense of patience. “Along the way people promise you things. You learn not to be surprised if some things don’t come true,” he said. Which probably explains why he is taking a somewhat understated approach toward the upcoming exhibition.
“Yes, I’m excited; yes, I’ll be fulfilled; yes, I’ll be overwhelmed,” he said. “But I take things with a grain of salt.”
That casual attitude also stems partly from Shenk’s outlook on the art-making process. Showing the work can be gratifying, but it is only one step on the journey. In terms of pure artistic satisfaction, sharing his work with the public probably doesn’t compare to the moment when he prints a piece, sees it in full-sized glory, and discovers that he’s got something that is, to his own eye, worth the effort.
“Getting it together is the thrill,” Shenk said. “I only mount the prints that are special, and I exude pride every time I mount a print. Every time I say, ‘Darn, did I do that? Darn that’s good.’
“Ansel Adams always said, The negative is the score; the mounted print is the performance.” Shenk takes that axiom to heart; he says he can spend up to a week on a single print.
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Shenk’s fascination with the camera began when he was a kid. As a college student at Tulane University in New Orleans, in the late ’50s, he captured images of the racial integration of the school. While building a career as a real estate developer in Cincinnati, he always made time for photography, and showed his work regularly. Over the years, his focus has shifted to various different styles. One early interest was abstract images, emphasizing shapes, patterns and composition; he later spent several years making one-of-a-kind hand-colored pieces. The upcoming exhibition focuses, at gallery owner Joel Soroka’s request, on the abstract work, though there will be a few hand-colored pieces as well.
A constant interest has been musician portraits. Among Shenk’s favorite images is a shot of Bruce Springsteen from 1976, when the singer was beginning his ascendance. The image features a silver necklace. “This was almost a feminine thing. At first I thought it was a spot on the print. Now he wears a big, heavy cross,” Shenk said. Shenk also recounts trying to set up a shoot with Fats Domino outside the singer-pianist’s home in the devastated, post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; and photographing the surviving members of Buddy Holly’s Crickets two years ago in Deadwood, S.D. “Maybe I’ll impose on Goldberg” – Michael Goldberg, owner of Belly Up Aspen and a rock photographer in his own right – “to go to the Belly Up,” Shenk joked about his next artistic phase.
Before the crash – in which he was flying solo in his own plane – Shenk’s major interest had been in travel and culture photography. Having hit a wall with abstraction, he began going to Asia and made images of tribal people and their customs in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and some of the most remote areas of India. At the time of his accident, he had been planning his first trip to Papua/New Guinea.
In a variety of ways, photography has been part of his recovery. Among the first encouraging words he heard when he awoke from a seven-week coma was that his five Hasselblad cameras had survived. (The backpack that contained them disintegrated.) Shenk has given prints to several of the caregivers who have worked with him at Craig Hospital. Recently, he came across a 1972 photo of his deceased father, and gave it to his mother as a 95th birthday present. “These are not meaningful projects for people other than me,” Shenk said. “But to me, they are meaningful.”
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Simply getting back to his routine has been most helpful. “Being able to come back to something and practice it the way you have in the past is a joy and a sense of pride. It’s got to help your recovery,” he said.
When he sees the exhibition hanging in a gallery, Shenk has little doubt it will also be meaningful, and helpful. “It’s a bit overwhelming, and overjoying, to see all the work in one place at one time,” said Shenk, who has had one previous show at the Soroka Gallery, about a decade ago. “Selling it is nice. But seeing it, that’s the first piece.”
The next piece is figuring out how to proceed in making new images. “Basically I just have to figure out how get out there with a camera and take pictures,” Shenk said. He has seen objects and scenes that could make for worthy subject matter, but the logistics might require another set of legs and hands. “I’ve thought about explaining to an aide, having him go get what I’m seeing. I have to do some thinking and studying about what my future picture-taking might be.”