When my friend Tom Arndt was a boy, growing up in south Minneapolis his bible study class visited a photography studio to learn how photographs were made.
“So,” I asked, “that’s how you got hooked on photography?”
“Nah,” he said, “I didn’t get into that until art school.”
The other day I met Arndt at the Matchbox Coffee Shop in Northeast Minneapolis. It’s just around the corner from the Minnesota Center for Photography (MCP) where he volunteers his time to help create opportunities for photographers that are deeper and more continuous than a chance bible school field trip. Now an accomplished artist working on his second book and a show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art he was recruited originally to serve on the board of directors of the not-for-profit MCP. But over the years his mission at MCP has grown to what he described as “teaching, motivating, and asking people for money.”
The center is located in an old residential neighborhood, in Northeast Minneapolis, on a corner with buildings that—in the days before malls, supermarkets and ubiquitous automobiles—might have housed the centers of neighborhood commerce. Today there is the Match Box Coffee Shop, which may have once been the local shoe repair shop. A group of architects, specializing in urban development, occupy the corner building that at one time could have housed a drug store with doctor and dentist offices on the upper floor. The MCP is located in a storefront that most recently was a neighborhood restaurant, but might in earlier years have housed the local grocer.
As Arndt walked me through the center what unfolded was an institute for photography that is accessible and easy to use. Upon entering, beyond a short corridor, current photography exhibits invite patrons into a brightly lit gallery. There are no gates, uniformed ushers or ticket sellers at the door. The exhibits are free, though a donation of three dollars is requested as evidenced by a large plastic container watched over by a smiling intern.
On the opposite wall, in the gallery, I could see a picture of a young woman that looked like an enlargement of a passport photo. I was curious about the rest of the exhibit but as I started toward the galleries Arndt took me by the arm and detoured me though a small bookshop, into a digital photography lab with 12 work stations and a digital color printer. Leaving the digital lab, once again Arndt bypassed the galleries and led me through a fully equipped commercial kitchen, left over from the former restaurant, and into a spacious black and white photography lab and dark room. The labs are available to members for a reasonable rental fee and to students of the many classes the center sponsors in fulfilling a mission that Arndt described it as “a place for young photographers –of all ages- to learn the craft, show their work, and converse with other photographers.”
Finally, Arndt and I stood in the gallery. What earlier looked like a passport photo was the first in a group of self portraits by EJ Major that mirrored the fourteen-year decline of a young woman through a progression of “mug shots.” As I looked over Arndt’s shoulder at the photographs, he described the MCP’s partnership with Free Arts Minnesota, a program dedicated to helping abused and neglected kids and their families express themselves artistically. In the exhibit, the photographer used wigs and make-up to document the real life case of a young woman who tragically deteriorated from drugs, and the hard miles and choices that accompany survival on the streets.
Next, we moved to an exhibit by German photographer Bastienne Schmidt displaying photographs of contemporary life in Germany. Her photographs depict a world in transition from the cold war and a divided nation to a more peaceful, integrated world, with fewer walls and barriers. As I looked at Schmidt’s vision, Arndt told me that since 2006 the MCP has partnered with the McKnight Foundation’s Artist Fellowships Program. McKnight provides a one-year artistic residency at the MCP and a $25,000 grant to the four photographers. MCP provides a venue to the Fellows to exhibit their work, make public presentations about their work and to participate and instruct in MCP’s educational programs.
The MCP is truly The “People’s” Photography Center. It is only appropriate that Arndt, the official photographer of Lake Wobegon, would have a passion for the MCP. (Arndt’s images illustrate the current Lake Wobegon Calendar. He teamed with Garrison Keillor, to document in pictures and words everybody’s favorite Midwestern burg.)
Paul Bauer is a management consultant and freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. He wrote this article as a participant in the citizen journalism workshop offered by EXCO, the Experimental College.