Encounters with Remarkable Men

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Autobiographical retrospective of my forty year career as a photo-journalist and portrait photographer


  • Encounters with Remarkable Men40 Years of Photography by

    Douglas Elbinger

  • Encounters with Remarkable Men40 Years of Photography by

    Douglas Elbinger

    All photography in this collection Copyright 2010 by Douglas ElbingerPrints of individual photographs are available for purchase at


    Published by Meridian Studios, Inc., 2010 Edition 3.6

  • Encounters with Remarkable Men40 Years of Photography by

    Douglas Elbinger

    All photography in this collection Copyright 2010 by Douglas ElbingerPrints of individual photographs are available for purchase at


    Published by Meridian Studios, Inc., 2010 Edition 3.6

  • 1DedicationThis book is dedicated to my mother, Ruth Denenfeld, who always provided love and encouragement; to Ruth Frishman, who gave me my first camera; and to Tony Spina, chief photographer of the Detroit Free Press, who gave me my first job.

    Tony SpinaChief PhotographerDetroit Free PressEast Lansing, MI1991

  • 2Justin Kestenbaum, Ph.D.Professor of HistoryMichigan State UniversityEast Lansing 1990

    Acknowledgements & Gratitude

    I will never forget the day I developed my first roll of film in soup bowls in my bedroom closet. I was fourteen years old.

    I remember the instant I opened the closet door and held the wet film up to the window, looked at the film and realized I had found my calling. Since that day there are many who guided me along the way. My heartfelt gratitude goes to my family, friends, mentors, colleagues, staff and especially every one of my clients, who over the years encouraged me to keep exploring with my camera. You know who you are.

    Special thanks to a few of my photographic mentors: Bob Benyas, Tony Spina, John Collier, Justin Kestinbaum, Jack Dehn, Charles Lewis, and Wa Lui. They made this all seem possible.

    For many years I followed Congressman Bob Carr on the campaign trail, learning the political process from the inside out. Bob Carr is also a remarkable photographer in his own right. On the campaign trail, I also met Carol Conn, who was instrumental in assuring that I had good access to the MSU Celebrity Lecture Series, the Michigan Festival, and endless political events from which many of these portraits originate. Special gratitude goes to my brother, Lewis Elbinger, who is one of the more remarkable people Ive ever met. He has been a spiritual and intellectual guide all my life. We are true brothers.

    To Miles Chance, dear friend, accomplished photographer, fly-fishing guru, world traveler, has a unique sense of humor that helped me keep my perspective over the years.

    To Nancy McCaochan, dear friend, yogi, shaman, and English professor has graciously asked me the right questions and helped me stay focused on my mission to complete this book.

    And to my wife, Judy Brysk, whos love and companionship makes these adventures all the more worthwhile.

    Doug ElbingerBloomfield Hills, MichiganJune 2010

  • 3 At various times, he told me, as he looked at the plate of sushimi before him, savoring the textures with his eyes, Ive been the governors personal photographer. We had just met, but I could tell that Doug Elbinger was not like anyone I knew. Both unassuming and intense, he was keenly aware of his surroundings and the people in itas if he were capturing images with every glance.

    I wasnt exactly sure what being the personal photographer for Michigans governor entailed, but I was duly impressed with the photos on Dougs website, www.elbinger.com, that I viewed days after our initial meeting. These were not the standard fare of the portrait studio. Dougs pictures were distinctive. His subjects were simultaneously more life-like and more beautiful, emit-ting a vitality thats missing in most portraiture.

    Photographers frame the world they see, capturing the dance of light and shadow as it moves through nature, culture, and individual hu-man lives. Doug is one of those rare people able to perceive the beauty in the dance and to record it for others to see as well. Whether tag-ging along with Marianne William-son on her rounds as inspirational speaker, standing backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, mingling with policy makers at the state capitol or hanging out with his fishing buddies, Dougs innate desire to see beyond appearances into the inner spirit of his subjects makes his photographs unique.

    On my most recent visit to his studio in Okemos, Michigan, Doug shared the photos in this book with me. I was fascinated. As I turned the pages, I felt as though I were looking at the annals of late 20th century life. The Bea-tles and Rolling Stones on stage, Robert Kennedy and B.B. Kingsome of the most influential figures in American culture and politics appeared before me. I became aware that I was holding history in my hands.

    Intrigued by the contents, I began asking questions. The following interview is an outgrowth of these questions and my awe.

    An Interview with Douglas Elbingerby Nancy McCaochan


    Doug with Robert F Kennedy at Lansing Airport rally, 1968

  • 4Nancy: How did you become interested in photography?

    Doug: Ive always been inquisitive. Even as a child I wanted to know why it is and how it works. I used to take my toys apart to see what made them tick. At an early age I learned that painting and drawing helped me understand the world around me. Encour-aged by those who told me I had an aptitude for art, I became proficient at using charcoal, pastels and oilsall by the age of 12. I first picked up a camera to photograph something I wanted to paint. It was then I discovered that the camera was my path to learn how and why.

    Not content to take pictures, I wanted to learn how to develop and print my own photos. In the basement fruit cellar, I learned to develop film and make prints, following instructions Id found in the World Book Encyclopedia. At first I was amazed that I could make images at all. Then I began to realize that I could make images that spoke for themselves. Before the digital age, there was an arduous task to making quality photographs. It took great skill and sensitivity to coax an image into being through the various chemical baths of devel-oper, fixer, and wash. Bringing images to life from negatives required patience and a feel for when they were done.

    In high school I volunteered to be the photographer for the school newspaper and yearbook, and came to realize the power of the craft I was so avidly learning. My friends thought of me as a magi-cian because I would take pictures one day and appear at school the following morning with snapshots of them and their activities.

    About this time I learned that once I put a camera around my neck and called myself a photojournalist, doors would open and oppor-tunity abound. In school I was excused from class to photograph special events and was allowed to wander the halls at will. I was given permission to be back stage at plays and on the sidelines of football games. This special treatment fed and inspired the chroni-cler in me. I liked the role of being a witness to the events which are now history. Being there with my camera seemed to validate the significance of the event. My early camera-around-my-neck, carte blanche entry to important events surprised me at first. It got me on stage with the Beatles, and a few weeks later enabled me to get past the (by todays standard) light security surrounding the Presi-dent of the United States. This feeling of privilege has carried with me in my career and has deepened to become a sense of personal responsibility to tell the truth through my images.

    Nancy: Was your early photography experience limited to the high school paper and yearbook?

    Doug: No, actually, it wasnt. While still in high school I apprenticed with Tony Spina, Chief Photographer for the Detroit Free Press for a while. I got to know him because I won a scholastic photography contest in the 11th grade. The contest was a part of an annual Detroit Boys Day Convention. As a prize, the winner got to be anyone he wanted to be for a daythe mayor, a councilman. When I was asked what I wanted to be, I said the editor of the Detroit Free Press. It was during then that I met Tony. He saw something in me and my pho-tos, took a liking to me, and told me that if I ever needed something to call him.

    (l-r) Miles Chance, Congressman Robert Carr, Tony Spina, and Doug Elbinger at the opening of Tony Spinas exhibit in East Lansing

    Portrait of Doug by Lady Ostapeck, New York, 1975

  • 5I assisted him on several assignments and eventually he became my mentor. It was Tony who taught me that wearing a couple of Nikons around my neck would get me in almost anywhere. One camera at a concert or a political rally and you might be a fan; two cameras, however, meant you were serious about taking pic-tures. Only a real photojournalist would have 2 or more cameras. The practical reason for this is that when one ran out of film, you pick up the other and keep shooting. Each camera had a differ-ent lens enabling more variety of view, and of course you must always have a back up because they do break down. In my spare time, I went everywhere I could with Tonyon as-signment and into the dark room. In those days there were not many how to books about photography, and there werent any courses that I could find in how to take pictures. The way anyone became a photographer was to apprentice with someone. And so I learned by doing. Eventually I began to be paid for my work; during the summers I was hired on as a stringer and paid by the job. In this capacity I was sent to Lansing, for example, to take photos of political events. It was at these functions that I began to meet people who would eventually become clients.

    Nancy: It seems as though you picked up a camera and never looked back. Did you ever make a conscious decision to become a photographer and if so, what influenced you to make this your lifes work?

    Doug: Although there were many reasons that I chose photogra-phy as a profession, three stand out as being the most significant. One of my early childhood memories is seeing a book of Civil War photographs by Matthew Brady. The year was 1960, and I was 10 years old. The mania of the civil war centennial had just begun. I was sitting alone one evening on the couch in my parents home flipping through the pages. I saw the faces of the actual people who made the war happen. Here I was one hundred years later, looking into the same faces and sharing the same moments in time that Brady had experienced! History came to life for me that day. The more I read about Brady and studied his photographs the more he intrigued me. Finally it hit me that this man had the singular vision to record the events unfolding before him using the highest technol-ogy of his time, -- wet plate photography.

    He was always in the right place at the right time with his camera. For some unknown reason, this made a lasting impression on me. Several years later, while I was shadowing Tony Spina, I made the conscious decision to become a photographer.

    Another event, also in 1960, that influenced my early photographic interests was the election of John Kennedy. President Kennedy represented a new era of possibility and hope. My awareness of my place in history was awakened. It occurred to me that what are now current events will soon become historical ones.

    With this motivation I began photographing the events and people around me, hoping to preserve what my life was like as I lived it. I was making a sort of personal journal, but instead of writing in a book, I was making visual, snapshot entries. I had no other conscious goal than to satisfy my never-ending curiosity. Subconsciously, I think

    Doug with George Winston Backstage at the Wharton Center, East Lansing, 2006

    Doug with former Michigan Governor Milliken and former Attorney General Frank Kelley

    Doug with Tom Izzo East Lansing, 2004

  • 6I had the desire to be a modern day Matthew Brady, documenting people and events so that a hundred years later people would look back in awe as I had when I saw his photographs of the Civil War.

    The 3rd influence that shaped my career was a book by the early twentieth century philosopher George Gurdieff, titled Meetings with Remarkable Men, an autobiographical journal of his travel and exploits in search of meaning in his life. I read this while in college and thought that I, like Gurdieff, should dedicate my life toward the pursuit of truth, knowledge and beauty. I chose to use my career as a photographer to enable me to do just that.

    Nancy: The title of your book seems to reference the Gurdieff book. Is that deliberate and if so, in what ways are the men who appear in it remarkable?

    Doug: Yes. It is deliberate. I thought encounters to be more ap-propriate than meetings, since it more accurately describes both the circumstances in which the photographs were made and the impact that the various men have had on my life. Early on in my career I learned that it is not what you look like but who you are that gives character. All of the men on these pages have uncommon and distinctive character. Some of them are people Ive known all my life, and some are individuals with whom Ive had truly brief encounters. Nonetheless, theyve made an im-pression on me. Ive read their books, seen their plays and movies, listened to their music, and pondered their ideas. Some are per-sonal friends, some are business associates, and some are political leaders most of whom I admire.

    I chose the men for this book because they fascinated me. In some way they have affected me, inspired me, and fueled my intellectu-al or artistic curiosity. I am attracted to intellect. In all cases, these are men with ideas, talent, and vision. None of these men are mediocre. A few of the faces in this book belong to (in my opinion) woefully misguided men; I went to see them, I took their pictures because I wanted to see for myself who they were and hear with my own ears what they had to say. In each case and whatever the circumstanc-es, I considered their portraits self-portraits, taking pains to make them as attractive as I would want to be. With few exceptions, most of these faces are beautiful and exude kindness, sensitivity and wisdom.

    Nancy: Youve said that there were no classes in photography when you were young. What, then, was your major in college?

    Doug: I proudly confess to having a full scholarship to attend Michigan State University, which I did from 1967 - 1971. I was in the Russian program at Justin Morrill College a residential college. As you may have guessed, Im a history buff, but my academic work, in addition to a major in Russian, was in linguistics.

    Nancy: Talk to me a little about those early days.

    Doug: I worked for a short while as a stringer for the Detroit Free Press while I was a student at MSU. I was also

    Doug with Hillary & Bill Clinton East Lansing 1992

    Doug with Arnold Newman, Detroit, 1994

    Doug with Senator Albert Gore Sr., 1998

  • 7a staff photographe...


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