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Wright Studies
PHOTOGRAPHIC CHRONOLOGY OF FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT PORTRAITS
 

(Note, due to the fact that the internet is constantly changing, and items that
are posted change, text has copied, but all credits given.)

 

World-class Photos Of World-class People
On The Trail Of Ed Obma

Wisconsin State Journal: LOCAL/WISCONSIN: D1
Sunday, April 4, 2004
By Susan Lampert Smith
http://www.madison.com/archives/read.php?ref=/wsj/2004/04/04/0404030309.php

 

I've been chasing Ed Obma for years.

OK, it's weird, I know, because he's been dead for a quarter century. But I had all these questions: What was John F. Kennedy doing in Dodgeville? And what about the pope? And, most important, who has the negatives?

I guess I fell in love with Obma's photos.

I think the first one I saw was a portrait of world-class pianist Gunnar Johansen. It showed Johansen at the keyboard at his home high atop the highest Blue Mound. It reminded me of the stories I had heard about neighboring farmers who would be out plowing on a nice spring day, and hear lines of Liszt floating out over the fields.

I admired other black-and-white photos, too, and Johansen's widow, Lorraine, told me that Ed Obma took them all. She was surprised that I didn't know him, and told me he had photographed all the important people in Wisconsin back in the 1950s and 1960s: Frank Lloyd Wright, Kennedy on the campaign trail, governors and artists.

I often wondered, Lorraine Johansen told me, what happened to the negatives.

And then I wondered, too.

I bugged people in Dodgeville, and they told me where the studio was, but not much else. I came across other Obma photos, too, especially the black and whites at both Thym's restaurant in Dodgeville, and the Post House, in Spring Green, that showed Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin during its heyday.

Especially poignant is Obma's portrait of Wright and his grandson, Brandoch Peters, taken when the boy, who had lost his mother and brother in a car accident, was about 8. I was recently back to look at the photos again when I did a story about Brandoch Peters just before Christmas.

I had pretty much given up on tracking down Obma's story when I got an e-mail a few weeks ago on another topic from someone named Obma. It turned out to be Ed Obma's youngest son, Pat, who owns Great River Plastics in Lancaster.

And so that's how I ended up at the plastics factory last week with Pat and his brother, Bob, a retired cardiologist who practiced in La Crosse and Fond du Lac, looking through pictures and listening to stories.

Ed Obma had a photo studio on in downtown Dodgeville from 1941 until his death in 1976. And while his bread and butter was the same as every small town photographer --graduation and wedding photos -- he had the talent and ambition to do much more.

Older son, Bob Obma, got to tag along on interesting photo assignments. His job was to haul the giant Speed Graphic camera.

"If there was something fun to do, he'd invent a job for me," Bob Obma recalled, which is how he got lowered into the bottom of a zinc mine, and how he got to meet Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright first met Obma when he needed some passport photos shot quickly. They became friendly, and Obma eventually took photos of Wright, his family, and cultural evenings at Taliesin, when apprentices such as Herb Fritz would play the cello and other instruments.

Bob Obma thinks that Wright liked how Obma made him look.

"Mr. Wright was not a large person," Bob Obma said. "But Mr. Wright did not want to look like a small person, so Dad shot him from a little below, looking up."

Obma also did portraits of other Wisconsin names, including Sauk City writer August Derleth, and Alex Jordan, the founder of House on the Rock.

He was involved in politics, and said his memories of the Depression were the reason he was a lifelong Democrat in heavily Republican Iowa County.

"Dad said the Iowa County Democrats used to meet in a phone booth to make the meetings look more crowded," Pat Obma said.

But being Iowa County Democratic Chairman came in handy when John F. Kennedy was campaigning in the spring primary in 1960. Obma knew he'd have just a few minutes, so he had a television cameraman pose to get the lighting and focus right, then sat Kennedy down for a picture.

Obma said he had 25 to 35 newsmen, including a photographer from Life magazine, watching as he photographed Kennedy.

"I suggested a `Democratic Victory Smile' to him, and he responded well," Obma told the Wisconsin Academy Review, which wrote about Obma's Kennedy encounter in 1963. All three exposures turned out well, and after the president's assassination, Obma sent an oil-paint enhanced version of the portrait to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who hung it in her home.

Obma involved himself in a political controversy when Gaylord Nelson left Wisconsin to become a U.S. senator in Washington. An oil painting of the former governor that the state had commissioned for the Capitol cost $2,500, a princely sum in 1963. But critics and Nelson himself didn't like it.

"He thought it made him look like the crops had failed," Pat Obma said of the official portrait, which showed Nelson in front of a moody sky and fields. Obma magnanimously offered his own portrait of Nelson to the state for just $900.

That was vintage Ed Obma, a believer in the Biblical saying, "Hide not your light under a basket."

While Obma did take several official portraits of Madison's first bishop, William P. O'Connell, he never actually photographed Pope Paul VI. The reason the pope's face gazed out on Dodgeville's Iowa Street all those years was because he enlarged a photo of the pope, then had it enhanced with oil paints, for the Dominican sisters at Sinsinawa.

The Obma brothers say their mother, Betty, gave the negatives Obma shot of Wright and his apprentices to the Taliesin Fellowship, which has preserved them. The others were lost when the studio was sold. They said I'm far from their father's only admirer. He won many awards during his lifetime and, at least as important, the admiration of other artists of his generation, including the painter Aaron Bohrod and the master architect himself.

When Wright published his autobiography, he sent a copy to Obma, with the inscription, "To Obma, an artist."

"Dad liked that," said Bob Obma, "A lot." 

 

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