'Pot of gold'

A photographer's gift to Grand Valley

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A black and white photo of Bob Dylan sitting at a table in a restaurant
“Bob Dylan, Kettle of Fish, NYC, N.Y.,” by Douglas R. Gilbert, 1964.

Cigarette in hand, a young Bob Dylan reflectively gazes off to the side while sitting at a cafe, his notorious armor down however briefly.

There to catch this moment was Douglas R. Gilbert, a young photographer who had pitched to his editors at Look magazine a story about Dylan, whose music he first heard while visiting New York. The more Gilbert listened to Dylan, the more he was hooked.

Indeed, the rock legend was already starting to enthrall music fans but at the time of this photo, he was still on the precipice of hitting the heights he would reach as one of the most influential artists in modern music.

To get the full picture, he wanted to photograph the private life of Dylan, who, Gilbert said, “had a reputation already for being inaccessible. He was chronically not cooperative.” But Gilbert was able to build a rapport, snapping a large collection of photos that showed unguarded, and therefore rare, glimpses of Dylan.

When Gilbert presented his work to the editors at Look, they decided not to publish. “They said he was too scruffy for a family magazine,” Gilbert said.

But Grand Valley is now in possession of these images and thousands more from Gilbert, who has donated his life’s work as a photographer to the Grand Valley Art Gallery.

“A gift like this for Grand Valley is a way for us to see the complete human story of the artist. It’s not often that institutions have this kind of depth in a collection.”

Nathan Kemler, director of Grand Valley’s Galleries and Collections
Gilbert discusses his images
Douglas R. Gilbert developed an interest in photography while growing up in Holland.

The Douglas R. and Barbara E. Gilbert Collection is the largest, most comprehensive collection of photographic images the university has received, said Nathan Kemler, director of Grand Valley’s Galleries and Collections. The gift includes prints, negatives and slides, all meticulously catalogued by the Gilbert family, starting with Barbara Gilbert’s insistence early that the images be individually labeled. It also includes family photos and personal items such as letters to help fully understand Gilbert and the collection.

Included in all of the negatives is a prized image with special meaning to Grand Valley: a photo of the 1962 groundbreaking for the university, shot by a teenaged Gilbert who heard about the event and drove from Holland to capture it with the fire of a photographer wanting to be where the action is already stoked.

It’s one example of why this collection has such value to the university, Kemler said. Someone viewing the images can see the arc of Gilbert’s life, helping to more fully understand his work.

“A gift like this for Grand Valley is a way for us to see the complete human story of the artist. Having this volume of work helps to tell the nuances of life,” Kemler said. “You get a sense of what this person was after, the shifts and changes in their life, how their interests and understanding changed.

“It’s not often that institutions have this kind of depth in a collection.”

For students, Kemler said the collection offers many avenues to improve their visual literacy. He is also quick to point out that a core value of Grand Valley is to share its art with the greater community, and this is no exception. Community members, with notice, can see the pieces at the Engagement Lab within the newly created Art Storage Facility on Winter Avenue in Grand Rapids.

“This is truly a community collection,” Kemler said.

Bob Dylan standing at a desk
“Untitled,” by Douglas R. Gilbert, 1964.

UNEXPECTED CALL, UNPRECEDENTED OPPORTUNITY

The process of bringing the collection to Grand Valley started with Henry Matthews answering a random phone call in March 2018. Little did he know that the call would lead him to what he called a “pot of gold.”

Matthews is the founding director of Galleries and Collections and is now the distinguished university associate, Galleries and Collections. Through the years he has heard from many people who wanted to share works with the university, often leading to meaningful discoveries.

When Matthews spoke with Gilbert and learned that he had been on staff at Look magazine, he recognized the potential for something special and decided to visit the Gilberts at their Ferrysburg, Michigan, home to see the collection. He described seeing “a few tantalizing samples on the wall, Italy, black and whites.” And the more they talked, the more Matthews realized the volume and magnitude of the collection, including the impressive archival portion.

“It was very clear to me in a nanosecond this needed to come to Grand Valley,” Matthews said. “This was a remarkable find and a remarkable opportunity.”

It turns out Gilbert had been searching for a while for the right permanent home for his collection.

“I had been looking around for a place to take my work because I could no longer see it,” he said.

Gilbert has gradually lost his vision due to glaucoma, a complication of Type I diabetes. The vision loss started around 1999. He said he took his last photograph in 2011 or 2012. He classifies his vision loss now at 90 percent.

That a person whose living so depended on using his eyes would have his visual arts career end this way is a poignant twist of fate, but Gilbert doesn’t dwell on it.

“Now, having made this move to the university, it has been really satisfying,” he said. “I really felt like I was at the end of something, anyway.”

Two black and white photos of children at a playground in a city
(Left) “Untitled,” by Douglas R. Gilbert, n.d. (Right) “Untitled,” by Douglas R. Gilbert, n.d.
Two black and white photos from Italy
(Left) “Warrior, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome,” by Douglas R. Gilbert, 1999. (Right) “Monastery Cloister near Todi, Umbria,” By Douglas R. Gilbert, 1999.

A LIFE CAPTURED THROUGH A LENS

Gilbert grew up in Holland and developed an early interest in photography. He started shooting as a teen and made a contact at that young age that paved the way for an internship and eventually a job in New York as a photographer for Look magazine, a publication known for acclaimed photography. He joined the magazine, which closed in 1972, after graduating in 1964 from Michigan State University. 

His work in New York included groundbreaking photography at a school that would go on to become the Association for Metro Area Autistic Children. He also photographed celebrities including Peter Sellers, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and Simon and Garfunkel, just when their smash “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was hitting the charts.

But it was his work photographing the enigmatic Dylan in 1964 that was a defining moment in his photography career and produced some of his richest stories.

Gilbert said he captured photos that no one else could because he was able to get close enough to Dylan. The portrait of Dylan with cigarette in hand in the cafe is one of Gilbert’s favorites from the vast collection.

“There’s so much feeling in it,” Gilbert said. “His professional image was more or less left at the door.”

Gilbert said he stayed as close to Dylan as he would allow, though Dylan suggested a couple of times that Gilbert had taken enough photos. In true photographer fashion, Gilbert noted during the interview with a smile, “There’s always one more photo.”

And in a story that could make music fans swoon, Gilbert recalled giving a ride to Dylan and the musician John Sebastian. Sebastian, seated in the back with a guitar, started strumming and quietly singing words to a song. Dylan, seated in front, grinned. It turned out to be “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is on the album “Bringing It All Back Home,” released less than a year later in 1965.

But the decision by the editors not to publish the Dylan story led to a period of Gilbert becoming disillusioned with his time at Look. He left the publication in late 1966.

His work after included a stint as an assistant professor of art at Wheaton College. His photography has been showcased in dozens of exhibitions, several books and select magazines, including a photo of a young Mitt Romney and his mother, Lenore, on the cover of Time in 2012. His work has also been displayed in numerous public and private collections.

As for his own private collection, the photos displayed prominently in his home are those he shot in Italy over several trips from 1999-2010. Artists wanted to paint there for a reason, he said. The moist air from the Mediterranean Sea lends a special quality to the color and even the shadows.

“It was the light, always the light, in Italy,” he enthused. In fact, he made that light his subject.

That approach to embracing the experience and striving to capture it is what Gilbert hopes people will get from studying his collection. He hopes when people look at his photographs they relate to something beyond what they see on the surface. And most of all, he hopes it opens their minds to the possibilities in photography.

“I had students come through classes who had hardly any experience with art and in a short time produced amazing photographs,” Gilbert said. “They didn’t know how they did it. So just do it.”

Gilbert in a room full of art, with boxes of his images in front of him
An illustration of a flat file with a drawer open.
Selections from the GVSU print and drawing cabinet
Selections from GVSU's print and drawing cabinet

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