New photo exhibit displays Cornell College alumni through the lens decades later

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Photographer Bob Campagna poses for a portrait with some of his favorite images he’s taken over the years on Sept. 30 at Mount Vernon Creates in Mount Vernon. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Photographer Bob Campagna arranges photos ahead of his photo exhibit, highlighting Cornell College students over the years, on Sept. 30, at Mount Vernon Creates in Mount Vernon. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Photographer Bob Campagna arranges photos ahead of his photo exhibit, highlighting Cornell College students over the years, on Sept. 30, at Mount Vernon Creates in Mount Vernon. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Photographer Bob Campagna poses for a portrait on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Mount Vernon Creates in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Photographer Bob Campagna explains the story behind a portrait of the 1986 Cornell College division three wrestling team at the National Championship at New York City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Mount Vernon Creates in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Mount Vernon Creates gallery director Denise Murphy arranges photos on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Mount Vernon Creates in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

MOUNT VERNON — Through a series of hand-printed photos carefully framed and displayed, a former Cornell College photographer has used old technology to create a science fiction dream: a time travel portal.

As Cornell College celebrates homecoming this month, Bob Campagna’s exhibit — a series of about 140 photos lined along a 70-foot wall — brings to life a glimpse of collegiate spirit over 18 years in the 1980s and 1990s.

The exhibit, printed in Campagna’s darkroom from black and white negatives stored for decades, brings into the light moments curated from a collection of about 200,000 negatives — many being seen by their subjects for the first time. As a staff and contract photographer from 1980 to 1998, Campagna was privy to all the moments of collegiate life.

Thanks to the preservation of 1/60th or 1/250th of a second with each shutter click, those moments are coming full circle again for alumni who have graduated, had successful lives and approach retirement.

“For a brief moment our journeys crossed paths. … It’s a swirl of passages,” said Campagna, 73. “This exhibit brings that swirl back together for that one moment again.”

If you go

What: Faces of Hope: The Women and Men of Cornell, a series of about 140 black and white photographs of students between the 1980s and 1990s by photographer Bob Campagna

Where: Mount Vernon Creates, 121 First St. W., Mount Vernon

When: Exhibit on display until Oct. 30 during gallery hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday

Details: Photographer Bob Campagna will speak on his exhibit twice this month — 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20 and 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22

Of course, there’s the obvious things you’ll see through the viewfinder: the hairstyles, the clothing and signs of the times.

But the real value in looking back starts with the looks each subject wears in times where the passion and free-spirited moments of collegiate life reigned in each young adult’s life.

And though nothing has stayed static from the photos, he brings them out of storage not to haunt the subjects, but to comfort them.

“I hope people feel like the pictures validate them for the person they are and the life that they’ve lived,” the photographer said. “That, to me, is important — to have the validation and to not really be ashamed but to be joyful. To say ‘Yeah, these are crazy pictures, but I did it and I’m proud of it.’ ”

Each non-candid photo, taken with the permission and engagement of each subject, captured what was sometimes months of trust-building.

“I wanted to photograph people who were genuine in the moment,” Campagna said. “Many images in this exhibit are the result of just plain not being in a hurry.”

Who’s in the photos?

Within the collection are people those from Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids may recognize.

Ron Corbett, former mayor of Cedar Rapids and speaker of the Iowa House, had his very first political photos and resume portraits shot by Campagna.

Barry Boyer and his wife, Gilda Vinzulis — one of the defining student couples of Cornell in their time — were two students who had time to talk to Campagna when others were rushed. They can be seen waving goodbye to Cornell on the old railroad bridge in Mount Vernon before they went on to make their mark in Cedar Rapids and later become Cornell College trustees.

Iowa City native Stephanie Novacek gave Campagna practice working with photography models before she went on to be a world class mezzo-soprano for the Houston Grand Opera.

There are the shots that brought Campagna pride, like when Anthony Bryce did free-standing back flips 7 feet off the ground, giving the photographer lying on the football field a shot that looked like Bryce was being kicked through the goal post.

Brandon Burnett let Campagna trace him with flashlights for photos that could only be described as “psychedelic.”

Then there are the ones that stayed with the photographer forever, like the school’s Division 3 wrestling team celebrating in front of the Statue of Liberty after the 1986 National Championship at New York City — a moment that ensured they would all stay in touch for years afterward.

“A common phrase people will tell me is that I don’t take a good picture,” Campagna said.

“You may not, but I do,” he always responds.

Campagna’s preference for avoiding candid photos — not taking “stolen pictures” — was later reinforced by Princess Diana’s death in 1997. He would sometimes take four months to build the trust he felt he needed to shoot portraits respectfully.

In the era of front-facing smartphone cameras, the art captured crisply in black and white has largely been lost, he said.

“There’s a loss in negotiation. People take selfies and they don’t see the elegance — it’s all kind of goofing off,” he said. “These black and white negatives have a skill in taking. This isn’t something done in Photoshop — this truth matters in the picture.”

They’re all photos that, no matter their shutter speed, can’t be done in a hurry.

Why he kept them all these years

A photographer since 1976, Campagna had the foresight to keep the negatives for decades. Before one Cedar Rapids flood, the photos were painstakingly moved out of a basement hours before water would have destroyed them.

His collection of negatives contains roughly 200,000 from his time at Cornell in a broader collection of roughly a million negatives.

Eventually, he plans to donate them to the State Historic Preservation Office, who he has been in conversations with for about 20 years.

With an archival quality that will last about 2,000 years and no archives at Cornell College to hold the photos, Campagna wanted to let the future decide what value the photos had.

But shortly after returning to Iowa from Colorado, where he was part of an artist collective for years, seeing other art made him realize the value of the moments he captured on film with a 35-millimeter camera, medium format Hasselblad and 4-by-5 view camera.

“I hoped it would be a pleasant surprise to people to know that I valued keeping these negatives, that I wasn’t tossing them to the trash heap of history,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8340; [email protected]


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