Honoring Our Photographic Mentors: Studying with Swedlund
Content Contributed By: David Gremp
By the time I moved to southern Illinois in 1972, with the intention of advancing my photographic knowledge and experience, Charles “Chuck” Swedlund had already transformed what had been a rather conservative, photojournalism-driven photography department into an exciting, fine-art-infused program. All I heard from the photo students I met was, “Chuck this!” and “Chuck that!”
They were hyperventilating over making their own tri-color prints, hand-made photo books, photo buttons and documenting their own personal lives in wildly expressive ways. And those that had taken Chuck’s photo-history class were racing to antique stores, junk shops and flea markets in search of tintypes, stereo cards, carte de visites and the ever-elusive daguerreotype! And all because of Chuck.
Prior to this time, I had received my entire photo education from the Time-Life photography-series books, which had ignited in me what I thought were some pretty strong emotional and creative fireworks. But that didn’t hold a candle to what Chuck brought to the table. Chuck was the bomb!
Upon being accepted into SIU’s then-new graduate program in photography, I was thrilled to receive my T.A. assignment: working with Chuck. While processing his black-and-white copy slides for lectures, and hanging his vanloads of photo-history “specimens” in the department’s huge display case every two weeks wasn’t glamorous, it allowed me to develop a mutually respectful relationship with the man, and to touch and smell every photographic process ever invented. In short, it made the history of photography come alive.
And when Swedlund lectured, it brought that history, and contemporary-photo excitement even more to life than those Time-Life books had done. Chuck had studied with Callahan and Siskind. He knew Josephson, Jachna, Metzker and Sinsabaugh. He had his own personal anecdotes to share on Henry Holmes Smith, Clarence John Laughlin and Frederick Sommer. He had strong opinions about Les Krims, Edward and Brett Weston, and Ansel Adams, who’s claim to fame at the time was having sold one of his images to Hills Bros. to be printed on their coffee can!
Chuck’s primary influence on me wasn’t so much the work that he was doing at the time, which consisted mostly of tri-color dye transfers and Kwik-Prints, but more from his intense work ethic and passionate persona that he brought to school every day, and the excitement in his eyes and voice as he viewed and critiqued students’ work. He seldom shared his past work with us. It wasn’t until his three-volume set of “Circa 1955″ was published by Stephen Daiter Gallery a few years ago that I realized the width and breadth of his early work and the amazing quality and consistency of his vision.
Yep, those were the days. And Chuck continued on with that same contagious flair and energy for another quarter of a century after I graduated and flew the Chuck coop on my own as a photographer, writer and teacher. But there hasn’t been a single class of my own that I’ve walked into and wondered to myself, “What would Chuck say about this?” Or, “How would Chuck handle that?”
P.S. Lest I forget to mention Chuck’s “influence” on my own photo-book collection. At least that’s whom I blame whenever my wife asks, “Where did all these books come from?”
P.P.S. Speaking of books, here is a short list of Swedlund books that are currently available:
- Photography: A Handbook of History, Materials, and Processes by Charles Swedlund (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981. Available on Amazon and eBay)
- Charles Swedlund: Circa 1955 ((Chicago: Stephen Daiter Gallery, 2011)
- The Whole Show Charles A. Swedlund (2054 Press & Anna Press, 2012)