By Mike WilmerEditor's Note: If you are in the New York City area and wish to see Hank Gans' exhibit "At the Water's Edge," go to Park Avenue Plaza, 52nd Street and Park Avenue, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through the July. Click here to see an online preview.
Hank Gans spends his days capturing perfect moments with his camera and then sharing them with us as only a great photographer and master color printer can. He considers himself lucky to have found his passion, but it came at a price. To show us the world through his eyes, he's taken risks, both personally and artistically. People think a photograph involves just a click of the shutter--an instant in time. For an artist like Hank, each exposure is a link in a chain of creativity that winds back through a life well lived.
Hank's love affair with photography began at 7 years of age when his mother handed him a manual camera, a Kodak Pony 135. That decision was inspired by her work. "In 1955, my mother was the assistant to two top New York photographers," Hank writes. "Mark Shaw, who was JFK's favorite photographer, and Howard Zeiff, who later became a feature film director."
At age 10, Hank found he preferred photography to other activities at a summer camp in Maine. "I wasn't good at tennis and was even worse at team sports, but I just loved the peace, quiet and coolness of the camp's darkroom, as well as the magic of developing and printing my own photos."
The following summer, Hank repeated his camp experience, emerging into the sunlight only to photograph camp activities. So by age 11, he had acquired a substantial amount of darkroom experience. "I did not return to the camp the next year, so I set up a darkroom in a bathroom in our Connecticut home. I'm afraid that wasn't universally appreciated. My sister recently recalled the agony of having to wait for me to finish a print before she could use the bathroom."
College in 1966 landed Hank his first job as the photographer for the University of Connecticut's zoology department. Success there led to doing multimedia for a play in the drama department in his sophomore year. He went into New York to meet the play's author that summer and ended up moving to Manhattan, becoming the photographer for the highly regarded, avant-garde Open Theater Company.
In 1973 Hank took the "front desk job" at the American Society of Magazine Photographers national office. One day Larry Fried, ASMP's president, needed an assistant for an assignment and asked Hank if he could do the job. Hank was so good as a freelance assistant that Larry recommended him to many other ASMP photographers. Finally, being much in demand, Hank had to quit the desk job to assist many of New York's top photographers. Both Fried and Henri Daumann, the ASMP vice-president, whose work graced many of the covers of TIME
magazines, often contended for Hank's time as their assistant. During this period, Hank was able to learn from the likes of Yousuf Karsh, whose famous WWII portrait of Churchill became an iconic image of wartime resolve.
(On one assignment with Larry Fried, an interesting experiment took place where a "thought photograph" was created by Israeli Uri Geller whose ability to perform amazing feats of mental wizardry is known the world over. Click here
to read a fascinating discussion with Hank about that day.)
After four years as a freelance assistant, Hank acquired his first big commercial client, Ciba Geigy Pharmaceuticals, giving him the ability to set out on his own. From afar, success can look easy. Not so, says Hank. For example, to break into doing album covers for such musical talents as Sarah Vaughn
, Morgana King
, Michel Legrand
and Grover Washington, Jr.
, Hank tells of making many cold calls on record companies. "Cold calls are never fun," he says, "but almost everyone breaking into the business has to make them. And when a prospective client recognizes your talent during a cold call and hands you an assignment, the pain of the many previous rejections quickly becomes a distant memory."
On assignment as a commercial photographer, Hank demonstrated his willingness to go the extra mile and, on one occasion, his good humor. He was asked to photograph a train as it traveled through the Cajon Pass, just outside of Los Angeles. The client said to pick a spot overlooking the pass and take the shot as the train rolled through, but knowing he would only get off a few exposures in that 10-20 seconds, Hank chose to "stay with the train" by following it through the pass using a helicopter. "I was leaning out of the helicopter, secured to the aircraft by a parachute harness that had been bolted to the back wall of the cockpit. That's what it took to avoid getting the helicopter's struts in the shot. Even with the high winds produced by the blades, that worked well--except that the train was two hours late and I'd had too much coffee before taking off! That generated an awkward moment as I tried to relieve myself while hanging out over a mountain in that harness."
All was going well with his career as a commercial photographer, so it came as something of a surprise to his clients when, in 1985, Hank decided he to take a one-year sabbatical to live with the Hopi Tribe at Keams Canyon, Arizona, so he could photograph the American Southwest. "I attributed this decision to a soul searching discussion I had with my mentor, the great color photographer, some say the father of color photography, Ernst Haas. For eight years I had done lots of client work, but very little for myself. I wanted to spend time exploring my innermost depths as a human being and as a photographer. Ernst, who had seen some of my personal work, encouraged me to do this; so I left New York for a year of photographing the mysteries of the Colorado Plateau, living with the Hopi tribe whose reservation was the geographical center of the area I was photographing."
But things didn't go as planned. "It took seven months before the Hopi even began to trust me," Hank writes. "When the end of that year came around, I was having a great time as a member of the Hopi community and as a teacher of photography at the reservation college. At that point I was also just starting to get some incredible images of the Four Corners area." So one year became two, and two became three. "I could have stayed far longer than three years, actually, but my first wife told me she'd had enough of the desert and needed to get back to water. So we moved to the coast of Maine after 34 months with the Hopi--an experience I will always treasure. I'd consider doing it again, if I could. Jay Maisel, who I consider my other mentor, reviewed my work toward the end of my years with the Hopi and said that I was emerging from the desert a better photographer. I had matured…at least as a photographer."
Hank's move to Maine produced many stunning images, but it was in 1993, when he was asked to be the still photographer on a motion picture project on nearby Cape Cod, that Hank's life took yet another unexpected turn. Because of his computer skills and his knowledge of finances, Hank ended up being one of the film's producers. At the end of shooting on location he was invited to come to Hollywood to be part of the post-production team. After the movie won "best film" at several international film festivals, Hank was asked to work on other feature films. One major earthquake and a number of films later, Hank found himself sitting in a film production office, not knowing if it was night or day, and, worse, not caring. He said, "In the year 2000, I took stock of my life. While I was busy working in film production, I knew that I was far better, far more successful and far happier as a still photographer; I missed the creativity, the fulfillment and the lifestyle."
"Then one day, the second day I had ever spent with the woman who would become my second wife, I picked up a camera again and produced an amazing series of excellent photographs, all on one roll of film." Although Hank was surprised by how quickly it all came back to him, it was no surprise to his fans. In fact, if anything, those years away appeared to enhance his ability to produce images that satisfied both his aesthetics while pleasing the people who collected his work.
That brings us to where Hank is today. Using a Canon 1Ds Mark II 17 megapixel Digital SLR
camera, Photoshop CS2
software, and a modified Epson 7600 Inkjet Printer
CavePaint pigment inks as his primary tools, Hank says that for the first time he truly has total control over the interpretive process that encompasses his art.
When asked if printing his own work gives him an edge, Hank responds, "I'm sure of it! Interpreting an image is highly subjective. Achieving the necessary subtleties can often only be done after hanging a test print on the wall for a day or longer so my wife, who is also an artist, and I can react to it. Once during the printing of my latest exhibit, I spent four 18-hour days printing just three images! It would have been impractical, if not impossible, to invest that kind of time and have that degree of personal involvement in the creation of those prints had they been produced by a lab."
And so it goes for a true fine art photographer.
Hank's career has already spanned decades, and he's still going strong. The secret to his seemingly tireless creativity can be found in his striking photographs, in his enjoyment of the process of photographing, itself, and in his willingness to take risks. "If I begin to feel restless and dissatisfied", he says, "it's time to make a change." Going from New York City's busy streets to life with the Hopi Tribe was typical--an extreme transition that stimulated all of his senses.
His creativity was sparked yet again by the move from the dry, mile-high desert to the watery world of Maine's coast. That period produced many of the images in his current photo exhibit, entitled, At The Water's Edge
. Of that exhibit, Valerie Gladstone, who writes for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Artnews, had this to say: Hank Gans is "... a man especially tuned to the glory all around us. We should all be thankful he bears witness with his camera."
We couldn't agree more!Enjoy two Hank Gans photo galleries: At The Water's Edge and The Great American West
. To see more of Hank Gans work, check out his site at www.hankgans.com
.Mike Wilmer is a Brooks Institute of Photography graduate, has been a professional photographer for over 3 decades, and established The Photography Forum in 1987 and the Gadgets and Gear Forum in 2005.