Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Janesville’s Den Adler has looked at life through a series of different lenses.
At one time, the Waunakee native considered entering the priesthood after graduating from St. Francis Minor Seminary in 1961.
In the late 1950s, he pondered his potential as a baseball coach.
In the end, his focus has squarely been on writing and photography, and his work has accounted for more than a snapshot in a storied creative career.
Defining himself as an “advanced amateur,” Adler’s work has garnered acclaim in competition. In 1989, he won first, second and third place in the Rockford Lens & Shutter Club’s “Winter Wonderland” contest. In 2011, four professional architectural photographers selected his work for the judge’s choice award in Open House New York’s “Focus on Architecture” contest.
Locally, Adler’s photography can be see at Raven’s Wish Gallery, 101 W. Milwaukee St., Janesville, and his novel, “To Become a Priest—A Love Story” can be found at Amazon.com. Two books about Janesville he penned with his wife, Judy—”Images of America” and “Postcard History”—also are listed on Amazon and are available at Book World, 2451 Milton Ave., Janesville.
On the side, Adler said he continues to write stories about trips he took throughout North America in 1976, 1982 and 2006, and he still is digitizing thousands of Janesville Fife & Drum Corps and colonial reenactment photos to make those available to the people who took part in those events.
In addition to Judy, Adler’s family includes the couple’s son Eric, daughter-in-law Shauna and two granddaughters—Vivi, 16, and Cici, 14.
1. How did you first get involved in photography? I’m usually ready to shoot, and I watch for things. If I don’t have my camera, I plan to return sometime when the light will be at its best. On daily walks, I sometimes stop to shoot so often that I get little aerobic benefit.
2. With everyone carrying around cameras in the form of cellphones these days, what has been lost/gained as it pertains to the art of “real” photography? Better cameras are more flexible and powerful, but photography is still more a matter of seeing than of technology. I like more people taking more pictures—for themselves or to share. But the longevity of digital images is uncertain, and experts advise us to print at least our favorite photographs for safekeeping.
3. Not including your phone, how often do you carry a camera around with you? I have it in the car with me, or on hikes, most of the time, just in case I see something I want to shoot.
4. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. When I studied to be a priest, I argued about and looked for loopholes in school rules. For example, the seminary forbade “keeping company with or corresponding with, girls.” I pointed out to classmates that it said nothing about “a girl.” A priest-professor whom I tried to talk out of giving me a demerit suggested I quit the seminary and become a lawyer.
5. What person in history would you most like to meet? I have several books and articles about Wisconsin Dells photographer Henry Hamilton “H.H.” Bennett (1843-1908), whose studio and equipment are still at the Dells on display by the Wisconsin Historical Society. He was a perfectionist, and I’d love to explore and photograph the river and rock formations with him.
6. Are you more of a night owl or an early bird? Night owl. So was Dad, whom I phoned between 10 p.m. and midnight but not before noon. So are my son and one of his daughters. I do much of my writing and photo editing at night.
7. If you had taken a different career path in life, what profession do you think you might have pursued? In 1957 and 1958, I coached in the pre-Little League baseball program organized by the Waunakee High School coach. He hired me as his assistant and later suggested I look toward a career in coaching baseball.
8. You used to work in the photo lab that was formerly inside Woodman’s. Back in those days, was it common to come across photos that probably shouldn’t have been brought in for development? Sometimes; not often. We printed what was legal.
9. Do you consider yourself to be a professional photographer or more of a hobbyist? I’m not a pro, so I get to shoot what I want when I want. I’ve done weddings for my sisters but no one else. My writing and photography have been published in books, magazines and newspapers. I like architectural photography and have six photos in the book “Buildings of Wisconsin,” which was produced by the Wisconsin Historical Society and published by the Society of Architectural Historians and the University of Virginia Press. Some call photographers like me “advanced amateurs.”
10. What is your favorite/least favorite type of photography? I like natural-light photography, including portraits and indoor architecture. I enjoy the challenge of fast action in sports, nature and railroad photography, but sculpture is easier to pose than people. I like landscapes, especially mountains. I’ll consider shooting most subjects I see.
11. What was your favorite childhood toy? Our sandbox, with toy road-building equipment, diggers, bulldozers and dump trucks to re-shape the sand.
12. Do you prefer reading books or watching movies? Share a good book you’ve read or film you’ve seen most recently. Reading—usually nonfiction. Recent favorite re-reads are “Optimal Aging: Get Over Getting Older” by Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten, “A Diary of the Century” by Edward Robb Ellis and “Life Itself: A Memoir” by Roger Ebert. All include good stuff about aging, which I’m doing as you read.
13. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? I’d like to play guitar better and to draw with colored pencils, but my photo and writing projects keep me busy. The dumbest thing a teacher told me as a kid was that there is always enough time for anything we really want to do.
14. What was the longest plane flight you have ever been on? Where did you go, and what was the purpose? Chicago to Amsterdam (and back) to visit Dutch friends in 2003. My longest train trip, however, was in spring 1983, when I rode Amtrak 16,000 miles around North America in 30 days. I did similar but slightly shorter trips in 1976 and 2006.
15. Is there a particular photographer whose style you tend to follow, or have you tried to form your own style over the years? Many photographers and artists have influenced what and how I shoot. Many railroad and nature photographers and artists—famous and unknown—have helped me. I often look through photography and art books, magazines and newspapers for ideas and to enjoy others’ work.
16. When it comes to portraits, people always claim to have a “good side.” Do people really have a “good side”? I don’t remember ever noticing a portrait subject’s “better” side. If someone suggested it, I’d shoot that side for them.
17. In your opinion, does technology simplify life or make it more complicated? Mixed bag. Can you imagine what it was like to live and work on farms before they were wired for electricity? But cellphones—which are so handy in emergencies—have gotten beyond me. I still have trouble with my laptop and printer.
18. What is the best way to learn about photography? Take lots of pictures and study them for what pleases you and what doesn’t. Study other photographers’ and artists’ work. Take classes and read books.The digital era is great for letting us experiment at no extra expense (no film and developing charges) and by taking as many pictures as we want. The internet lets us find, enjoy and learn from great photographs, artwork and architecture online.
19. Which photo have you taken that was the most difficult to get? On Feb. 25, 1979, I photographed a Milwaukee Road snowplow train west of Janesville. To avoid getting the same shots as 20 other rail fans shooting the train, I drove ahead several miles and slogged through knee-deep snow in a cut below a wooden bridge, where I stomped an escape route up the side of the cut and then waited more than an hour in the cold for the train. Later, I learned the train crew stopped for lunch. Other photographers walked onto the bridge, looked down at me near the tracks, said, “Way too dark down there,” and left, searching for a better shot. When the train came, I got my shot, and it won a winter photography contest at the Northwestern Illinois Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
20. What’s the deal with photographers asking me to say “cheese” when I have my picture taken? Apparently, a famous politician started it around 1940. I’ve always hated it, and I won’t ask anyone of any age to say “cheese” or in any way try to force a smile. Portraits of people not smiling usually show truer images of their character.