The Omaha art community and the Old Market are mourning the loss of one of their originals, fine art photographer Monte Kruse, who died unexpectedly on February 15 at the age of 65.
Kruse was known variously as a bon vivant, raconteur, hard worker, friend, confidante and mentor. Especially among downtown’s late night denizens, he was the tall and magnetic Mayor of the Old Market. It seemed that anyone who ever encountered him came away with at least a good story and at most a great friend.
Kruse earned his weekly paycheck in the hospitality industry, working sometimes unfashionable hours as doorman, bellman and valet. He communed enthusiastically with people of all ages and stripes, and was as generous in sharing his passions as he was with his apartment as much-needed crash-pad. He lived simply but fully, and his personal journals were filled with curiosity, poetry and anticipation of each new day.
While much more may be shared of how Kruse touched many lives including this writer’s, not enough is said of him as photographer. A native of the small farming community of Little Rock, Iowa, Kruse came to Omaha to study at Creighton University, where he took inspiration from the humanist reportage of Fr. Don Doll and began a career as a freelance photojournalist.
Early on, his travels took him from photo-essaying a couple coping with severe physical handicaps in Sheldon, Iowa, to an AIDS hospice in St. Paul to Los Angeles’ skid row; to a kibbutz in Israel, to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When he was recognized for his work on those first two projects, his confidence soared.
Yet these were his salad days, and commercial work and occasional freelance gigs didn’t always keep him from the necessity of couch surfing. In the early 1990s, a studio apartment at the old Bemis building, now a haven for artists, opened up and his friend, the New York/Omaha-based painter Terry Rosenberg, encouraged him to move in.
“He loved being there and having a studio,” Rosenberg remembers. “Being surrounded by artists, his work immediately changed and be became much more interested in fine art, and fine art photography, and creating his own stories.” Over the years, they shared their enthusiasm for art, what they’d seen, what they’d read, and provided sounding boards for what each was creating. “He would come over to my studio and analyzed my paintings, which always turned to comedy. Crazy times.”
Artist Christina Narwicz also remembers fondly the early years at Bemis and Kruse’s avid enthusiasm for a wide array of interests. “He would randomly call me to take a photo or talk about a book or a black-and-white film he had just watched. And we talked about survival as an artist. A man of true humility and grace,” she added, echoing the sentiments of so many who have remembered him in their social media posts.
Kruse soon began an independent portraiture project that encompassed ten years, featuring an impressive litany of great writers, artists, actors, dancers. It was meant to focus on those who had, through their tenacity and dedication, achieved the dream of longevity in the arts, explained Arlene Lorre, his longtime friend and creative collaborator,
The portraits of which he was especially proud included sittings with artists Louise Bourgeois and George Segal, director Sydney Pollock, dancer Gwen Verdon and writers Studs Terkel and Mike Royko. “Monte was capable of gaining great trust with his subjects. It was a delight to see him revel in their talent,” Lorre added.
It is as a photo artist that Kruse is better known in Omaha. He exhibited sporadically over the years, waiting until he was confident in a cohesive body of work. Nonetheless, he was always making images, experimenting in long-form series explorations of a kind of human intimacy, whether within domestic, urban or natural environments, whether explicit or unseen.
In Kruse’s best work, he struck a balance between the staged and the spontaneous, revealing a glimpse of his guerilla-journalistic approach to employing available settings, models and light. “I’m photographing without safety nets,” Kruse told Leo Biga in the Reader in 2010.
In his breakout black-and-white work with nude models, he transformed the genre into a film noir embodying both sensuality and storytelling. His first collection placed figures in casual, but intimate settings, having the air of artfully staged dalliances.
The second, more dramatic series, Earth, matched the sinewy physicality of his models with the intense labors of agrarian life that had grounded his childhood. He wanted to charge his figures with a mix of heroicism and stoicism. Working at night, indoors and in the field, he created a stark, fictionalized diary of the recollected rhythms of a world attached to the land. His longtime collaboration with photographer and master printer Carol McCabe also paid off in these works, which were increasingly large in scale and impact.
Turning to color photography, Kruse began haunting Hummel Park, creating a series of images focused on found moments in nature, where the tracery of people’s activities in its secluded corners was measured by the detritus left behind. This work had a new tone—the presence of the human body and its strong physicality was replaced by a weighty sense of its absence.
To be sure, Kruse was taking advantage of the mythos of his chosen location, as the park’s wild, wooded landscape is also connected to murder and mischief in the public mind’s eye. Nonetheless, Kruse found beauty in the signs of its urban-rural interface and waited patiently for the light to illuminate the compositions he saw in them. His made textural changes with these works as well, printing them on canvas, providing a provocative if not controversial aesthetic shift from traditional photographic processes.
Tom Sitzman, co-owner of the former Connect Gallery where the series debuted in 2015, found the work “deep and thought-provoking,” and reflected on Kruse’s dedication to making the moment and his composition of it meet at just the right time. “Monte was always thinking about light and how it shapes our thinking,” Sitzman said.
Just last year at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, Kruse debuted a new group of photographs in the radically underappreciated exhibition Night Light (except by the Reader’s annual A-list, which cited it among the best of 2020), and was at work on Painterly, a book of their collected images at the time of his death.
Over the course of three years, Kruse had photographed downtown and the Old Market from his bicycle—often in the wee small hours and in the worst weather—capturing an eerie stillness and sublime moments amid after-hours storefronts, street-lit exteriors, fog-enshrouded corners and rain-swept pavement. Again, people were absent, though the places they inhabit were their surrogates. A through-line in all his work, Kruse’s attention to available light—the photographer’s paintbrush—made the magic.
“His show at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery in 2020 was some of the best work I’ve seen by any photographer ever,” said Patrick Drickey, director of Gallery 1516. “I felt compelled to reach out to him to share my marketing skillset to help sell his work, together we created a portfolio of pieces from this show. His enthusiasm to explore new opportunities was refreshing, I was so disappointed to realize he was gone before he was fully appreciated.”
“What will be missed,” Lorre adds, “is Monte’s absolute ability to be present, to listen, to connect and to feel. He liked to dig deep in his understanding of people, the big questions and a nearly holy approach to art. He didn’t shy away from or hide the fact that he was a believer. But his prayer was the art. He prayed with his camera.”
At the time these images were exhibited, they seemed a portent of the pandemic which would quiet our city streets. They are made all the more poignant by Kruse’s passing; the Old Market is that much emptier without him.
A celebration of Kruse’s art and life will be scheduled for later this year. His family has requested that those wishing to make memorials may send them to Kruse, P.O. Box 581, Burlington, Iowa 52601; all memorials will be applied to the preservation and archiving of Kruse’s artwork as well as to the completion of the book that was nearly finished at the time of his death. Please watch the Reader for updated information.