Dr. Paul Burkholder mixes old-school photography techniques with the latest digital technology. Meet this retired Rockford physician whose keen eye for our world in action is reflected in his thought-provoking images.
Then Dr. Paul Burkholder describes the excitement of capturing a great-but-fleeting image, his kind and gentlemanly demeanor becomes animated. His brown eyes widen and his hands reach up to frame the vision in his mind, as he describes something akin to capturing lightning in a bottle.
“You don’t know when it’s coming, or from where, but you recognize it when you see it, and you act within a split second,” he explains. “It’s such a thrill when you know you did it, you got it.”
When he was a kid growing up in Cleveland, Burkholder took pictures with his Brownie Box camera, developed his own film and even constructed a crude contact light box to make prints. It was an interest he shared with his father, a chemist whose own foray into the hobby predated World War I.
But photography was put on hold as Burkholder earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and settled into a 33-year career as an internist, specializing in endocrinology at the former Rockford Clinic. His scant time off was dedicated to wife Carol and their three children, though a camera was never far from reach. Once retired from the practice, his part-time teaching work at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford turned full-time, as he wrote grants to support his research in chronic disease management.
“When I finally retired – the second time – I built a small photography studio in the lower level of our home and caught up on all the technological advances of the craft,” he explains. “A lot had transpired during those years. It was quite a learning curve, but I really enjoy editing photos on my computer.”
Burkholder didn’t simply abandon the techniques he had learned in childhood. In true scientist fashion, he has merged techniques old and new to form hybrids. Sometimes he prints a digital negative image on clear film, exposes traditional photo paper with a contact frame and develops it, the end result a classic silver gelatin print.
“It sounds a little weird, but it allows you to achieve certain things,” he says. Other times he uses an old Hasselblad film camera to capture an image, then scans it into a digital format to edit and print it by computer. “I like to mix things up, depending on the particular image and the effect I’m aiming for.”
But for all of his technical mastery, it’s Burkholder’s sensitive eye and affection for human nature that sets his work apart. Keen observation skills, developed in classic fashion at Johns Hopkins, along with an appreciation for music and art, instilled by his parents, inform his style. Bach and Mozart, various impressionist painters, film noir and life itself – all have shaped him.
Nestled in the corner of his studio, near rows of endocrinology books, is an electronic harpsichord with a transparent surface that he bought in the 1960s, when he couldn’t afford a grand piano to play. “It’s the same exact model the Beatles used in ‘Hey Jude,’” he says.
But perhaps nothing has influenced his sensibilities more than the street photography of Eugene Atget and George Brassaï, who depicted scenes from daily life in 19th century Paris.
“I started out photographing natural things, flowers and so forth, and I still enjoy that,” he says. “But the thrill of street photography got to me – that special, fleeting image that’s here one second and gone the next. You know it when you see it, and you only have a split second to capture it. It’s difficult. But when you get the shot, it makes your heart race – it’s indescribable.”
With Carol, Burkholder prowls cities on their travels, his bag of camera gear rolling along beside him. He watches for those quirky, funky, lovely and startling moments that delight and amuse him.
“You can’t do this kind of photography in your hometown – it’s just too personal,” he says. “And you have to get beyond the embarrassment of taking someone’s picture without their permission.”
It may be a woman’s bright hair dye or shoes that capture his attention, as she pedals her bike down a Paris boulevard. Or a little girl in a high-end California coffee shop, dressed in jaunty layers of clashing colors, her red curls backlit by a counter display. Or the sullen, compelling face of a Frenchman at an outdoor café, Marlboro in one hand, the other hand cupping a cell phone to his ear. Or the back of a curvy blonde who window shops a Vienna bakery at dusk, the soft interior lamps illuminating her through the glass.
In one print, a couple in Florence, Italy, emerges from leaning over the Arno River wall after viewing the Ponte Vecchio bridge, their expressions revealing tension. Closer to home, at Horse Days at the Boone County Fairgrounds, one cowboy looks at another, a lassoed calf between them, the rope taut in the cowboy’s grip. A Baltimore woman is immersed in her work at an art fair, her tattooed body an extension of all the art surrounding her.
Burkholder also enjoys photographing interesting buildings or sculptures, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, with its random, burnished titanium panels, or Chicago’s mind-boggling mirror sculpture, The Bean, at Millennium Park. “I look at that photo and I still don’t quite understand where we were standing in relation to it,” he says.
Others may look past an object, but Burkholder sees it fully, even finds humor in it – like the quirky chrome mannequin sporting a bright purple bikini on a street in Aix-en-Provence, France. He can’t quite make up his mind which treatment of that photo is more compelling – the black and white long view that makes the shiny chrome pop, or the tightly cropped, full-color rendition. Each captivates, but it’s hard to explain why.
The Burkholders spend a lot of time laughing together, as evidenced by the Swiss cheese Swatch Watch on Paul’s wrist, a gift from Carol. “My ancestry is Swiss,” he explains. And that humor bubbles just below the surface of his work.
One example is a candid photo of two suave art dealers at a German art show deep in discussion at a table. Behind them stretches a long canvas that includes a depiction of a painting by Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky.
“It’s a picture within a picture within a picture,” he chuckles. “And those dealers are just so artsy, with their chic clothes and scarves.”
In another photo, the feet of fashionable women standing in a group are photographed, along with the feet of a little girl who joins them in their stylish pose. He titles the photo “Me, too.”
Only after developing a photo of two women walking toward him in Florence, did he notice that they shared an iPod, cords snaking up to an ear of each, the Italian flag waving between their heads in the background. “They make me laugh,” he says.
Not content merely to photograph, edit and print an image, Burkholder also mats and frames his own prints, relying heavily on Carol’s artistic eye. His work hangs both in residences and businesses. And while he generally doesn’t sell at art fairs – “It’s arduous and I’m getting too old for that” – he does participate in installed art shows, particularly ArtScene, and special events.
“Marketing and self-promotion were completely foreign to me, something I’ve had to learn by trial and error,” he says. “But I find it enjoyable.” Some of his work is reproduced on note cards sold at shops locally and across the nation. He published a portion of his collection in a volume called Seeing It In Black and White, available at the Rockford Art Museum gift shop. Burkholder chose for its cover a startling image of a mannequin head on display in the window of a Parisian optical shop, a streetscape eerily reflected in its large eyeglasses.
“It’s disturbing, isn’t it?” he says. “I like that.”
The Burkholders most often explore the U.S. regions inhabited by their children and four grandchildren, as well as cities in Europe. They especially enjoy the museums, concert halls “and rollicking British theatre” of London, always on the prowl for an image that quickens the blood.
“Each piece represents a fleeting moment that will never come again,” he says. “We’re a good team, Carol and I. And when that image that spoke to us speaks to someone else – someone who wants to make it a part of his own life, to put it in his own home – well that’s a thrill, too.”
View more of Burkholder’s work at http://pkburkholderimages.photoshelter.com.