Throughout the history of art there have been artists who have struggled with chronic illness or addiction. From the Greeks to Van Gogh to Modigliani in more recent times, illness has played a part in the growth and stimulation of artists.
Erik M. Lauritzen was one of those courageous artists. A photographer, Erik suffered from polycystic kidney disease his entire life. Erik was born in Illinois in 1953, but later moved to California with his family when his father took a position of Professor of Art at California State University, Northridge in 1960. Both of his parents, Martha and Fred, were gradu- ates of Cranbook Academy of Art in Michigan. They recognized Erik’s artistic and musical talents early on, encouraging him in the arts. He graduated from San Francisco Art Institute with a B.F.A. in 1977, and from California State University, Northridge, with an M.F.A. in 1980. He became an accomplished artist who exhibited his work consistently from the mid- 1970’s in galleries throughout California and Nevada and in cities across the continent. Most of his work is now archived at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but his photographs are also in well-known collections throughout the United States, including the Kresge Art Museum in Lansing, Michigan, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Johnson Museum in Ithaca, New York.
Erik held a position as Professor of Art at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, where he was an excellent teacher. Students loved him for his acute criticism. He could dissect an image and explain in minute detail both its merits and flaws. Erik’s career as a photographer and teacher was cut short in 2007 when he died at the age of 54. He had lived 50 years longer than the doctors had predicted. Despite his debilitating disease, he managed to maintain a very high standard of teaching and a consistent drive for photographic excellence. He was a functioning artist who created numerous portfolios and thousands of images.
The one thing that stands out most in Erik’s many bodies of work is his choice of subject matter. He focused on the types of common subjects that most photographers find ordinary or uninteresting, for example gravel pits and construction sites. Marianne Murray drew the analogy between Erik’s work and “visual deserts” in the exhibition catalog for his Under Construction series that was presented at the Nevada Museum of Art in 1993. “To Lauritzen, the desert represents a place that is vast, open, seemingly empty, seemingly without a great deal of life. Yet, on close, intimate examination, one discovers that this is a place where there is a greater diversity of life than anywhere else in this world. These empty walls and planes become the deserts that he offers to us. As we quietly observe their implacable empty surfaces, we begin to encounter a shift in our awareness, a fine- tuning. Details start to rise and fall. Colors, forms, tricks of plane and perspective, all gently show themselves in his subtle theater. Like the delicate, dancing webs of rebar, the curious marks of colored paint and chalk, the translucent veils of protective plastic which emerge in Lauritzen’s images, so ideas and insights begin to form, delicately against the planes of our calmed mind.”
Erik had studied the works of the painters Rothko and Kandinsky. He had talked about the influence that their work had on his photography, and it is ex- pressed well in Marianne Murray’s writing. “The vibrancy of Rothko’s large color field canvasses is powerfully transmuted in Lauritzen’s intense—somehow atmospheric—vision of the grey cement surfaces of the construction sites. This macro-view would seem to be at odds with the playful details of Kandinsky’s work, but overlay these two views: the huge cement planes; the vibrant energy of the visual details such as ladders, rebar, arrows, fragments of color and texture and the result is a compelling dimensional interplay.” The openness of the underpasses in Portfolio One, the close ups of scratched metal in Making Light of It, the blank walls of alleys in L.A., or close ups of rusty train cars at the train yard in Portola, CA, are all examples of Erik’s way of seeing. He paired masterful photographic technique with banal subject matter to create a type of visual contradiction.
One of Erik’s signature pieces is a photograph of the Gem theater in Pioche, NV titled The Gem, 1989, that shows the depth of Erik’s photographic expertise. This unique photograph combines four sequential exposures of both natural and artificial light on the same sheet of film. This image has been exhibited nationally and was published in Exploring Color Photography by Robert Hirsch (1989-2006) with a detailed description of how it was made. The scenic landscape, Cathedral Gorge (Lincoln, Co. NV), 1986 also has been exhibited nationally and published in several books and periodicals, however, one of his most beautiful yet little known landscape series is his gelatin-silver prints in the Lake Lahontan Reservoir Series, 1996 which focuses on the Nevada desert. Although, Lake Lahontan Reservoir might appear desolate and commonplace to many photographers, once again Erik’s interpretation transcended the ordinary.
Erik spent most of his life building a fairly impressive oeuvre, and he understood the importance of preserving his work in some type of museum permanent collection or archive. Rita Bottoms, then the Head of Special Collections, University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz, recognized the value of the work and she and Erik began talking about the possibility of an archive. Because Erik had served as an assistant to many of the “masters” of photography such as Ansel Adams, Pirkle Jones and Morley Baer, there was a direct connection to work already housed at UC Santa Cruz. Currently, most of Erik’s work resides in the archives at UC Santa Cruz.
Erik’s life and his photographs are exemplary of what can be accomplished by someone with a debilitating disease. One of his last portfolios featured his routine encounter with dialysis, and portrayed his disfigured body with huge stitches and swollen stomach shortly before his third kidney transplant. His struggle to create and then preserve his work within the confines of his illness may be one of Erik’s greatest legacies to photography. Erik once said: “A successful photograph raises questions of who we are, where did we come from, and why are we here pointing a box at what we see in front of us, therefore separating ourselves from the very reality that we choose to record. Making a photograph does so without resort to the vocabulary of the literary language, returning us back to the source and the impulse to communicate about all life. A camera is a means of communication but only when operated by someone who knows how to communicate without one to begin with. It is stronger than words at times and weaker than language when it tries too hard to make a statement.”
Many photographers have the same concerns about preserving their work. As individuals age or become ill, there is a concern that the value of the work will not be recognized and that it may be discarded after their death. Recently, organizations have been formed for the purpose of acquiring and preserving work. The Foundation for Photographic Preservation in Carmel, CA is one such organization. Their goal is to “preserve the significant work of career photographers; identify suitable archives for bodies of photographic work; and to assist photographers, their families and their estates in preparing collections for placement.”
A special thanks to Christine Bunting, Head of Special Collections, University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz for her assistance and permission to publish this article.
Resources: foundationforphotographicpreservation.org; eriklauritzen.com