In the 1980s, Chuck Kimmerle was a young soldier stationed in Germany. He traveled Europe in what free time he had. Equipped with a Cannon G III camera given to him by his father as a high school graduation present, he snapped photos to send home to his family in Minnesota.
In Germany, he shot castles. In Holland, he shot tulips.
“I became really dissatisfied with the quality and purpose of the pictures. All they showed is this really pretty part of Europe,” Kimmerle said in an interview at his Casper home. “Everything just showed place. It all seemed pretty shallow to me … I was capturing what was there, but that was it. No feeling, no depth, nothing of interest other than pretty.”
Such are the dilemmas of artists. And it was in this way, agonizing over the pictures he took, that Chuck Kimmerle’s life as a photographer began.
Today, the Nicolaysen Art Museum debuts “A Formal View,” an exhibit featuring Kimmerle’s collection of black and white photographs of the northern plains, Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest.
Kimmerle’s minimalist style offers a stark contrast to the grandiose, panoramic views common in Western photography, said NIC curator Lisa Hatchadoorian.
There is his photo of the open prairie, a sole cloud hovering above one last patch of snow. The shot of a lone pronghorn standing along a deserted country road, looking questioningly at the camera. And the picture of a rainstorm, a great wall of gray fury, receding from the prairie.
“It’s the overlooked, the landscape that’s around us every day,” Hatchadoorian said. “It’s taking the aspects of the landscape that people don’t see and putting them out front.
“He makes me see the world in a completely different way.”
Now 52, Kimmerle has traveled a long way since his days in the Army. He spent 20 years as a photojournalist working at newspapers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. He was one of four photographers working at the Grand Forks Herald in 1997 when the Red River overflowed its banks and devastated the city and surrounding region. The paper was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in spot news photography that year.
Kimmerle went on to spend 10 years as a staff photographer at the University of North Dakota before moving to Casper with his wife in 2010. Today, he is a freelance photographer. His work has been featured in the Worldwide Photography Awards Gala and Outdoor Photography magazine. He is featured in the January edition of Popular Photography and will have photographs appear in Black and White Photography magazine later this year.
Kimmerle’s photos tend toward what is known as a formal aesthetic. That is, the subjects are often well organized within the frame: a row of grain bins set against the prairie or a line of trees forming the shelter block of a field.
He finds such views aesthetically pleasing. At the same time, his view behind the camera has been shaped by his environment.
Eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota is an unforgiving landscape. The world there is flat, with few trees or other objects to break up the monotony of the horizon. Kimmerle initially had little love of the landscape.
“I started to see things that before I would totally dismiss out of hand as totally worthy subjects,” he said.
Sitting inside his home studio in Casper, he pointed to a photo on the wall. It shows a long row of shelter trees disappearing into the white of a North Dakota snowstorm.
“I just really responded to the way that these really stark trees faded into nothing in the background,” Kimmerle said.
Kimmerle doesn’t often know what prompts him to click the shutter. But common elements he looks for in a picture include shape, texture and a sense of mystery.
A shot of a small dingy moored in Lake Chelan in Washington epitomizes his work.
Kimmerle was riding his bike along the lake one day last spring when he noticed the boat. It sat alone amid the wide expanse of water, rocking gently in the wind. What, he wondered, was a small boat doing all by itself in a large lake?
Kimmerle threw down his bike. Working his way along the shore, he took one shot, then another. Mountains ringed the lake, the ridges along each shoreline falling away towards the far shore. It seemed to him as if the mountains were pointing towards the boat.
He finally got the picture he was looking for while standing on the deck of a lakeside cabin.
Kimmerle used a 30 second exposure. The picture shows the boat, framed by mountains, alone upon the lake. The boat’s stern exhibits a blurry quality, almost like a brush stroke from an impressionist painter that suggests the boat’s gentle movement.
Pictures like this are the reason that Kimmerle shoots in black and white. Color photography is inherently about the color, he said. By contrast, photographs in black and white are about the shape and texture of the image, he said.
There’s also this: “Black and white instantly is not real because you’ve taken the color out. It allows me to interpret the scene, as I saw it,” he said.
Kimmerle doesn’t necessarily want his viewers to feel what he felt when he took the photo. His pictures often have titles with straight forward names like, “Shelter Belt number 1” or “Dingy.” The goal is not to lead the viewer to one conclusion or another, Kimmerle said, but to prompt an emotional response to the image, whatever it may be.
And that in part explains why he focus on lesser-visited regions, places like the northern plains and the Red Desert of Wyoming. He prefers going to places to find images people haven’t necessarily seen and, hopefully, inspire a new emotional response.
“I need to go beyond pretty,” Kimmerle said.