Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brian Lanker

Brian Lanker, the Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, died this week. He was only 63 years old. I worked with him back in the days when I was a footloose reporter in my twenties jumping on planes at a moment's notice for Life magazine.

We worked on several stories together in the eighties, including a particularly memorable one on American hermits. We hiked into the most remote locations to find our subjects, and slept on the hard ground or, when the night got too cold, in the back of a small jeep. He took a photo of me pulling in my canoe in the North Woods Lake Country of Minnesota, where we spent three days with Knife Lake Dorothy after canoeing across seven lakes and carrying our canoes on our backs through the intervening portages. I have that picture hanging on my wall. On Monday, when I heard Brian had died after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just 10 days before, I stood before that picture, and I understood for the first time how people look back on an earlier time and it can seem like another life, almost as if it was lived by someone else.

I felt sad that I didn't keep in touch with Brian after I left Life. He was the sort of large-hearted man who would have been easy to stay connected to, but I got so caught up in the raising of my children, my large extended family, the workaday grind, I let that era slip away from me.

Brian was a force of nature, a photographer who was so genuinely curious about his subjects, and so gentle and perceptive in the way he asked questions that he often helped us young reporters do our job at greater depth than we might have managed otherwise. Most photographers I worked with back then were only interested in the photograph, the interplay of light and shadow, the composition and the angles, and we reporters knew how to stay in the background so as to disturb as little as possible the scene within the lens. We knew how to watch and gather rich details of character just from the observing, and how to circle back later for the rest of the story. Brian was different. For him, the words were as important as the photographs. The words informed his photographs. He showed such intoxicating interest in his subjects that they just unfolded before him and gave everything to his camera.

Brian met his wife on assignment. When he was just starting out in the early seventies, he proposed and then photographed a story on a couple giving birth. It was his photograph of the just-born infant on her mother's abdomen, "Moment of Life," that won him the Pulitzer in 1973.

Brian kept in touch with the couple, even taking them with him to the Pulitzer ceremony. The couple later divorced, and Brian and the woman fell in love. They married and lived in Eugene, Orgeon with their two daughters and a son. Brian was such an adoring father. He talked about his children constantly in ways that left me feeling as if I knew them a little. Those children are now grown. Two of them were to be married in the fall. When they all understood that Brian would likely not be make it to the summer, they moved their weddings up to last weekend. His daughter was married on Friday, and his son on Saturday in the family home. Two days later, their father died.

He went so fast. Ten days. He was on assignment in Los Angeles and started feeling unwell. He came home and went to the doctor. By the time it was found, his cancer was at such an advanced stage nothing could be done, they said. I read that when he realized he was dying, Brian whispered, "There's just so much left to do." And now he is gone. I am honored to have worked with him. His loss makes me want to reach out to others from that time who live in my heart still, but who may not even realize how much larger and richer they made my life. I need to tell them while there is time.

The photograph above of civil rights activist Septima Clark is one of Brian's most famous. It graced the cover of his best-selling book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. "I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking," Ms. Clark said. "I consider chaos a gift."

Brian knew how to open the way for such sharing, and knew how to let it in, too. Once, he spoke to an audience about what moved him to do this book. “When I started," he said, "I thought these women would be great role models for my daughters. By the time it was finished, I realized that they were also great role models for my son. For what distinguished them was not their gender but their character, and the lessons to be learned from their lives are a living example to us all.”

Update on March 18, 2011: 
I found this editorial about Brian Lanker at, the website for the newspaper in Eugene, Oregon where he made his name after leaving his native Topeka, Kansas. I share it here because it offers a deep and true glimpse of the artist at work—and of the man: 

In 1989, Lanker collaborated with poet Maya Angelou on a book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. It became one of the most successful photography books of all time, currently in its 14th printing with more than half a million copies sold.

Every photo in that book is remarkable, but one image stands out for its elegance and place on the book’s cover—a portrait of 89-year-old Septima Poinsette Clark, the “queen mother” of the civil rights movement.

The logistics of getting that photograph were formidable. Lanker had to wait for days in a motel room in Jones Island, S.C., to interview Clark, who had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair in a nursing home.

In a 1991 interview with close friend and former Register-Guard sports editor Blaine Newnham, Lanker recalled the challenges: “How do you take someone in a nursing home, in a wheelchair and on oxygen, and give her the dignity and the strength her life embodied? It transcends the reality of the circumstances I had to work with.”

Lanker finally met Clark and arranged to take her picture the next day. Because one side of her face was paralyzed, he decided to profile the other. When a well-meaning attendant put her hair in a bun, Lanker waited for her regal cornrows to be let down. Eventually, Lanker had 15 minutes in which Clark was able to sit in her wheelchair without oxygen.

“I asked her to bring a hand to her face,” Lanker recalled, “and she did so in a most majestic and unusual way. I made that photograph, and it was the only one like it.”


  1. I am in awe to have read that, from someone who knew him.What a moving, beautiful tribute. I am sorry for your loss, the world's.

  2. oh god. i know this photograph. i didnt know the photographer, but i cried to read your story. he had a beautiful life, angella. yes, too short. but wondrously lived. my condolences to you; and a hug.

  3. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for this important link in your history. I am especially sorry for his family. We are experiencing something similar in our family as my third daughter's boyfriend of two years, mom, was recently diagnosed with breast, ovarian and stomach cancers. Our children, who are only 19 and 20, seem to be headed toward a someday, forever bond. They are so young and yet, my husband and I were only 22 when we married. What if the chemo continues to not kill the cancer...Sometimes things happen in their own time. A young marriage so that a mother can attend her youngest son's wedding? Oh sigh, I know that Brian was blessed in the knowing that his children are well-loved.

    Thank you for your gentle tribute to a man who left this earth, unfinished. Your words always touch my soul.

  4. What a strong and loving tribute, Angella. . . and a privilege to accompany you on this reflective journey. I am especially struck by Septima Clark's wisdom - and Brian Lanker's in creating the space for her to speak - "I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.'

    A gift indeed. Thank you.
    Love, Claire

  5. Angella, What a beautifully written piece. I am sorry you, and all who cared for him, lost such a man. The past does seem like a different life, lived by someone else, yet is was you. All you acquired then, all you learned, informs your moments now. We are richer for those who've shared themselves so generously. Peace. xo

  6. I am too awestruck .
    Sorry for your loss, and I will gather myself after this long day of being awestruck to say more.

    love you

  7. What a beautiful, beautiful tribute to a stunning person. That you had a personal relationship with him makes it that much more powerful, and what you said about your "other life" was particularly resonant for me. I am sorry for your loss -- it seems a real tragedy that such a vital person is gone too soon.

  8. Ms. Moon, we have lost him, but he left many beautiful images and a family that will be his legacy. it is a rich one.

    susan t, you said it right. he lived wondrously. thank you.

    Debra W, sometimes tragedies of the sort you describe can focus us powerfully on what matters. My husband and I both experienced losses the year before we married, and it left us feeling that we should seize every moment and hold it dear. Bless.

    Claire, thank you for being here. that is a gift.

    Marylinn, you are right, everything, no matter how far off it suddenly seems, is part of me now. it's just that i had never had that feeling before. everything that happened in my life seemed as if it was right there, like it happened yesterday, and now, suddenly, not.

    deb, your being here is all. thank you, dear friend.

    Elizabeth, i have the feeling that we are in a similar place right now, that even though the particulars of our experiences are different, there is an internal shifting going on that is somewhat the same. I am so glad to know you.

  9. A wonderful tribute to a talented man. Peace to his family.

  10. I can only echo what's being said, I love reading this tribute, you wrote it beautifully and I'm sorry for the loss of this man and I'm intrigued as well by this glimpse into your past.

    It's also kind of scary how quickly he was taken, his family must be devastated.

  11. Tess, I keep reading tributes to him today, and truly, he was a master artist and storyteller, and deeply human too.

  12. Deidre, i'm still trying to comprehend the speed with which he left, almost as if he was needed elsewhere.

  13. What a beautiful tribute, and such a sad story. Brian's pictures are incredible, and I'm sorry I only became familiar with him after his untimely death. Ten days is not fair. What an honor is must have been to have known and worked with him. Thank you for this lovely tribute, and for posting the stunning photo of Septima Clark.

  14. Mel, he is going to be one that young aspiring photographers will study in perpetuity. like a gordon parks or an ansel adams. i am sure of it.

    handandspirit, glad you came by.

  15. Dear Angella, I'm thinking of you as you try to take all this in. Your beautiful elegy and reading other tributes will help your head understand that he is truly gone and with such speed, as you said, almost as if he were needed elsewhere. But think of the layers and layers of you as a young woman working and learning from him; the story about your hermits. You were so lucky to have worked with such an amazing mad. He will always be with you, with the girl at knife lake and the selves who have come and gone since you and he were in contact. The loss will be a long one. I wish you peace. Love, melissa