‘I was 10 years old when my parents gave me a Brownie Hawkeye camera,” says Carl Geisler, the 74-year-old photographer and president of the Princeton Photography Club (PPC), about his early start in Brooklyn.
Geisler is meeting to talk about his art and the current PPC exhibition “15 Shades of Grey,” on view at the Lakeside Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton through November 10.
“My parents,” he continues, “had a friend, who was a good photographer and who began to mentor me. At age 13 my cousins, who had been in the Nazi death camps, came to my bar mitzvah and gave me a Rolleifle (a high-end German camera), so I really started taking pictures. One of my neighbors had a darkroom so he taught me how to do the darkroom. So I set up my own darkroom in my basement. Right next to our fish tank and next to the oil burner.”
Geisler was 16 when he entered the Kodak National High School Photo Contest. He won second prize the first year, third the next, and honorable mentions after that.
Now probably smitten with the art form, he had hoped to study it when he attended Bard College but found art courses, “which I was absolutely terrible at,” he says.
Then, as with many, a pursuit of art was replaced by a pursuit of livelihood. After Bard, he attended Brooklyn Law School but then switched to Long Island University, where he received a master’s degree in education. That was followed by another switch to his family’s business, Morse Metal Products Company Inc. in Hoboken. “We manufactured industrial handling equipment. We made hand trucks, platform trucks, table trucks, chair trucks, all sorts of industrial stuff,” says Geisler.
He eventually bought the company from his father, for $1, and ran it until it was sold in 2004.
And photography? It returned in 2002 when Sheila, his second wife, gave him a Canon digital camera, scanner, printer, and copy of Photoshop 7 for his 60th birthday.
“I had no clue. I wasn’t computer literate. I took a picture, we took the card out of the camera and put it into the card reader, and the picture disappeared. I looked at my wife and said this is not a good beginning.”
But in retrospect, it was. At Sheila’s insistence, Geisler joined PPC and was soon more than attending, eventually becoming the club’s president in 2007 when the club began a relationship with the D&R Land Trust in Princeton, where it holds its regular meetings.
In addition to the club’s relationships with other nonprofit organizations in the area, including the Historical Society of Princeton, Princeton Battlefield Society, and Grounds For Sculpture, PPC also provides curatorial management for the Lakefront Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton as well as the Millstone River Gallery at Merwick Care & Rehabilitation Center in Plainsboro.
Geisler, who also became an active member of Gallery 14 in 2007, says his love of photography is connected to a love of movement — and cars. As an amateur race car driver he enjoyed photographing the vehicles. “I had been a car nut since I was a kid. I remember one day about 1949 or 1950, a fellow across the street came back from the war with a British MG. It was green with tan interior and 19-inch wire wheels, and I fell in love.”
He spent several years photographing cars at the Somerville Car Show on Friday nights. “I wasn’t interested in taking pictures of cars per se, but the parts of cars and what the cars represented.” Several car photos are in the exhibition.
His love of bike riding also provided an outlet for his photography. Again in Somerville, photographing the bike race, he would ride in the pace car. His knowledge of the roads that the riders would ride proved to be invaluable as a photographer. “But I photographed almost anything that interested me. Not only did I work in black and white, I also did my own color processing.”
Since he had been shooting with the film version for many years, mastering Photoshop and the digital darkroom took some time. Then, he says, during a wedding in Brooklyn he took both his film camera and digital camera. “After shooting six or seven rolls of film I said, ‘Let me try the digital.’ Bing! Never went back.”
Geisler says his shift to digital has influenced his approach, especially with action photography. “For example,” he says, “at a typical bike race like the Somerville Bike Race or the Rocky Hill Road Race, I can shoot 4,000 pictures. It’s a whole different experience than what film allowed me, both better and worse. You took so many, but now you’ve got to work on them and figure which are the best ones.”
But one of his major influences is Sheila, with whom he shares a family of four children from previous marriages and seven grandchildren. “Throughout our relationship (24 years) Sheila has always encouraged me to pursue my photographic interests. When I had my first exhibition at Gallery 14, Sheila laid it out, at home, all the photographs that were to be shown, in a pattern that resembled the walls of Gallery 14. The layout flowed better than the one I had envisioned. From then on our agreement has been that I create the images, modify them, print them, and give them to Sheila for matting and framing (which she had learned in the interim) and exhibition layout.
“Sheila is by far my toughest critic,” he adds. “When I think I had a really good image that I had worked on for several days or longer, Sheila will look over my shoulder and comment, finding flaws that I had not seen. Then it was back to Photoshop, sometimes having to return to the raw image and starting anew. This could be very frustrating but also enlightening.”
For the current show at the Lakefront Gallery, “15 Shades of Grey,” Geisler and PPC are the presenters of a black and white silver gelatin photographs from artists from the Fleisher Art Memorial School in Philadelphia and Philadelphia photographer John Singletary’s large pigment print series “Synthesis.”
Coming up is “The First Bid Art Auction,” PPC’s exhibition of artwork to be sold directly off the walls to benefit the hospital and support other community nonprofits, November 11 to December 2, opening Thursday, November 17, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
After that is “Disappearing Art: The Printed Photograph,” PPC’s exhibition of abstract landscape, portraits, and other subjects digitally manipulated and painted, December 3 through January 12, Opening December 15, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
And finally “A Grounds For Sculpture History: The Land in Pictures and Words,” a photographic and archival evocation of the sculpture garden’s transformation from New Jersey State Fairgrounds to arts destination, January 14 through April 6, opening Thursday, January 19, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Lakefront Gallery, RWJ University Hospital, 1 Hamilton Health Place, Hamilton, 732-422-3676 or www.princetonphotoclub.org/LakefrontGallery.html.