ALLENDALE, MI -- A Michigan photographer, who documented the famous and captured the real and raw of reality, has gifted his entire collection to Grand Valley State University.
GVSU is still counting the collection of over 2,000 photos that includes a 1964 collection of Bob Dylan, photos at an autistic school in New York, scenes from New York's Financial District and a selection of photos from Italy. The collection comes from nationally published photographer Douglas R. Gilbert.
The collection is the largest donation the university has received.
"It's a great example of how Douglas, as a photographer, was able to... capture these more intimate moments," said Nathan Kemler, interim director of Galleries and Collections at GVSU. "There's these moments of reflection and pause. It's something that you don't just go and take a photo of, it's something you're waiting for."
Gilbert worked for Look Magazine, starting out as an intern and then moving to New York to be a photographer full time. In 1964, he had spent some time with the up-and-coming musician Bob Dylan and submitted a story to the magazine.
"They looked at them and said, 'Too scruffy for a family magazine,'" Gilbert recalled his editors' responses when he submitted the story idea in a meeting. "I couldn't believe it... That almost caused me to resign right there.
"I said, 'You just don't know what you're doing. You're going to miss something big.'"
Within a year, the magazine published a story on Dylan using photos done in a studio, rather than the more personal, behind-the-scenes photos Gilbert had offered.
Look Magazine was just one stop in Gilbert's six decades of photography work.
Gilbert was born in 1942 in Muskegon and raised in Holland. As an eighth-grader at a rural middle school, Gilbert was introduced to the shadow gram by a friend whose uncle worked for Kodak. Gilbert was instantly hooked and started to get into photography himself. By the following year, he had placed second in a national Kodak photography contest.
Gilbert continued to follow his passion as a freelance photographer, selling his photos of construction projects and community activities to The Grand Rapids Press, Holland Sentinel, and Detroit Free Press.
After studying at Michigan State University, 21-year-old Gilbert moved to New York City to work for Look Magazine and do freelance photography. It was there that he took photos that are now bigger collections on his website, including images of a school for mentally ill children, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Simon and Garfunkel, the NYC Financial District and scenes from Italy.
"It was all new," Gilbert said, reflecting on how he had not seen much of the world before moving to New York City. "I landed in New York and decided to conquer the place."
Not pictured in the galleries are photos Gilbert took of Vietnam War protests in New York and a Klan rally while Gilbert was covering the Civil Rights Movement. At the rally, Gilbert was traveling with Stokely Carmichael, who helped to start the Black Panther Party.
"You don't realize it until later," Gilbert said. "It has the immediate impact, which is enough, but to then have perspective on it from some years away, you wonder how you survived sometimes."
Those photos are now housed in a Smithsonian museum.
To capture the intimate moments he did, Gilbert said he primarily used a 50mm standard lens and 35mm wide angle lens, both which provide a closer view of a subject or scene.
"It moves you into the action," Gilbert said. "Getting in close, those lenses approximate almost your normal eyesight and... you don't see the camera, it's just not there. You're immediately confronted with the content."
At 77 years old and with 95 percent vision loss, Gilbert is no longer taking photos. He said parting with his collection was hard, but important.
"It's like handing your last child out to the world to do what they can to make their way," Gilbert said with a laugh. He had been searching for a few years for an institution to house the collection and was pleased with GVSU's appreciation of not only photography, but art in general.
"I have a lot of feelings about it, so it was sort of a match from the start I guess, and that feels good," Gilbert said. "That makes me feel as if it's found a home."
Losing his sight as a result of glaucoma has proven to be a struggle of its own, having spent his entire career capturing the things he saw.
"I've had to adjust," he said. "And finding other things to do, I guess is what it amounts to."
Gilbert, who was also a professor of art and photography for 10 years at Wheaton College in Illinois, hopes students can form their own meanings out of his art.
"I would hope that it can be described as multilayered, in terms of meaning," Gilbert said. "Looking into the interactions between... the light and the objects within that particular photograph. What is that telling me, this interaction? Why did he do this? I think that's what I'd like it to be. The answers come from that."
For students, Kemler said it is unique to be able to see the entire career's work of an artist.
"They get a complete story of an artist, a complete human story," Kemler said. "It's not often that they have a full and deep spectrum of the life's work."
The full collection, including archives, slides and photos, is being digitized and can be found online at artgallery.gvsu.edu.