Back in the early 70’s, Brian Lanker would come into the darkroom at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He would look at a print of mine sitting in the developer. Without saying a word, he would go to the enlarger and flip on the light. He would grab the easel and start moving it around and around and around on the print counter studying the full-frame image. Suddenly, he would stop, reset the easel, change the dimensions and move the enlarger up or down as he wanted.
“There,” he would say. Nothing more, and he was gone.
Bristling, I’d go the enlarger and turn on the light. I’d stare at the newly cropped image that took on a completely new life right before my eyes. I’d shake my head in frustration and respect and simply say to myself, “Genius.”
Brian Lanker is a genius. Forget for a moment high IQ, deep thought or enlightened discovery. Let’s focus on creativity. Lanker’s work is hailed for so many reasons, from his Pulitzer Prize to National Photographer of the Year awards. His seminal book I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America is in its 14th printing. If he was not a photographer, Lanker would be a painter or a sculpture, and many would marvel at those works just as they do his photographs.
Writing this brief introduction has taken me so long. It is hard to describe my feelings for Brian Lanker the photographer, the friend and shockingly – the dying man.
Brian Lanker has terminal pancreatic cancer that has spread to his liver. His time here on earth is very short. Please take a moment. Get down on your knees and offer up a prayer for him and for his family. Pray that his remaining time on earth will be as brief and painless as God wills. That is a terrible thing to say, but it is also a fair thing to say and pray.
Our doctor was asked about this heinous cancer after Laura and I heard the news. Tragically, there is no way to really detect this form of cancer until it is too late. The few that fall into the 10% that survive have their cancer detected early out of serendipity. Some other x-ray or procedure reveals the earliest signs of cancer in the pancreas. “If only” so many people touched by this man are thinking right now.
You see, besides his remarkable shooting skills, Lanker remains a genius at getting to know and making people feel comfortable with him. He can express his vision to superstar athletes and the greatest celebrities as wonderfully as he once did to some lucky woman that was going to be the “Cook of the Week” while Lanker worked in Topeka.
Lanker is not a small man, but he carries his weight in a way that really can only be described as “jolly.” He envelopes you with his kindness, his sincerity and his enthusiasm. He is all loose as if his joints really hold nothing together. Lanker gets his hands moving when he speaks. They twist and turn. They dance in a way that is mesmerizing and hypnotic. Those hands have helped convince many people to let down their guard when posing for a Lanker portrait.
Lanker loves telling this story. He and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis could not agree on their ideas for a portrait and neither man wanted to concede. Apparently, Marsalis in his frustration wanted to leave to play basketball. Lanker challenged him to a game of one-on-one on the spot. The winner got to decide which portrait was done. Lanker shot the portrait as he wanted. Marsalis conceded that Lanker really was right after being humbled on the court.
Despite his girth, Lanker is an amazing basketball player and a darn good touch football player. He would organize weekend touch football games on the field at the old Roosevelt Junior High for staff members of the Capital-Journal. He always amazed everyone with his athletic talent hidden under those “jolly” layers as he raced down field to haul in a pass.
After one of those games, as Lanker wiped sweat off of his brow, he threw away more artistic talent than exists in all of my body. Yet, Lanker pushed me to get better and challenged me to grow beyond being just a sports photographer. Without people like Lanker and the Lord’s blessings, I never would have succeeded.
There are many things to be admired about the wonderful group of photographers that worked together during the glory years of the Topeka paper. For me, I admired the fact that Lanker was then and still remains just a kid. That is why we both got along so well. We had fun, got in trouble, learned our lessons and then found some other mischief that got us in trouble all over again. Nothing really has changed for either of us even so many years later.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t disagreed. We both could be immature and petty during our time in Topeka. He surely can remember my faults as I do his, but then he’d show up with an album from some band he knew I loved as a peace offering. We never could stay mad at each other for long.
Too many years had passed between our last contact and the huge reunion Lanker hosted for our former director Rich Clarkson in Eugene this past summer. However, we picked up right where we left off. The event was a success in so many ways for all of the outstanding photographers. It will remain a great tribute to the leadership of Clarkson, but will long be hailed as a celebration of Lanker’s greatness.
Again, please say a prayer and then get up and go find a copy of I Dream A World. Do not do this online. Sit down with the book and linger on each and every image. Look behind each image and think of all that went into making that photograph. Then look beyond each image and ponder what it means for the future of young women of all colors. When you are done, put the book down and reflect on it all. Then you too might understand why Brian Lanker is a genius.
You can read about the reunion planned by Lanker with a little help from some friends at http://20inthecar.com/ Blog entries on the reunion and Lanker are located here and here. Lanker’s web site is located at http://www.brianlanker.com/