When veteran photographer Donald Lokuta and internationally renowned American painter and sculptor, the late George Segal (1924-2000), got together with their cameras, they trekked around the tri-state region like a couple of kids with new toys. At one point in their friendship, Segal had borrowed Lokuta’s Leica so many times, Lokuta decided to buy him an exact duplicate.
“I gave him a Leica just like mine — an M-6 with a 28 mm lens — and he was stunned,” says Lokuta, speaking from his home in Union. “We were like ‘Frick and Frack’ with the same camera, running around to places like Asbury Park, Keansburg, and many, many times, to New York City. We’d meet there and take a subway, usually downtown, just to prowl around and make photos. He liked the Lower East Side, places like Canal Street, and diners — we liked to go to diners.”
“I once suggested taking photos around Wall Street and he said, ‘Why would I want to go there? There are no photographs there,’” Lokuta adds. “I have photos we took at art openings, but also of George and his wife Helen at home, at birthday parties and whatnot.”
Lokuta also has shots of Segal at work and rest in his studio in South Brunswick, thousands of them, from when he first met the sculptor in 1984 and onward through the next 16 years of their friendship.
Not simply a photographer in the studio, Lokuta worked closely with Segal, helping to cast models and serving as a model himself. He paused often to take photographs of the artist, the works in progress, and the labyrinthine space of the studio — once a chain of chicken coops that had housed thousands of the birds.
In 1991 Lokuta assisted Segal in the creation of the F.D.R. Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Elizabeth native was given the honor of being selected to model for the central bronze figure in Segal’s work titled, “The Depression Breadline,” a piece that is also on view at Grounds For Sculpture — a favorite for viewers to interact with.
All the while, Lokuta had a desire to convey Segal’s essence and heart, not only through his extraordinary works, but also through his personality and sense of play.
A collection of 45 black and white photographs will be on view at the Eisenberg Gallery of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. The first installment of the exhibit, titled “George Segal in Black and White: Photographs by Donald Lokuta,” opens Saturday, February 14, and runs through Saturday, May 16.
The exhibit was organized by students from “Inside the Art Museum: A Curator’s Perspective,” a first-year seminar taught last fall by Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s Andrew W. Mellon liaison for academic programs and curator. The students in the seminar researched the artists, visited the Segal studio, selected photographs, wrote labels and exhibition texts, and planned the installation.
The public is invited to Art After Hours: First Tuesdays on March 3, 5 to 9 p.m., for a curator-led tour of the exhibit, as well as an opportunity to meet Donald Lokuta.
The second installment, which focuses more deeply on Segal in the studio, runs from Saturday, May 23, through Friday, July 31, and is curated by Kate Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Rutgers.
An accompanying book of the same name features an essay by Gustafson, with contributions from Marti Mayo, Zimmerli’s interim director, as well as former director Suzanne Delehanty, now an independent curator and museum advisor. Lokuta also contributed some thought in the book’s afterword.
In addition there is an essay and poem, “Genesis According to George Segal,” by Robert Pinsky, New Jersey native and former poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.
For the first part of the exhibit, students selected photographs that consider images of Segal beyond the walls of his studio, and the exhibition shows the artist with friends, family, and models. Viewers will also see the studio itself as a subject for Lokuta’s lens.
“People often get to see artists posing with their (completed) works, but not so much of them in the studio when the object is being made,” says the 68-year-old Lokuta. “With these photos, I want to show the human side — who George was as a person, and not just in the studio. I want viewers to see the man, to look at his work, and understand who he was. If you understand the person, you can understand the art better.”
Lokuta’s friendship with Segal began when Michael Bergman, one of Lokuta’s former students at Kean University and a gifted photographer in his own right, summoned his courage and cold-called Segal, asking if he could come to his studio and make a portrait of the sculptor.
“Segal asked Michael to pose for a figure in ‘The Holocaust’ (1982), a sculpture that was to be installed in San Francisco,” Lokuta writes in his exhibition notes. “When he was invited back to the studio to see the final sculpture, Michael asked George if he could bring a friend.”
That friend was Lokuta, who was somewhat abashed when he first walked into the space, but soon felt welcomed by the famous sculptor.
“After the tour of the studio, I discovered that Segal was curious about the fact that I taught photography; I learned that Segal had been interested in photography for most of his life,” Lokuta writes. “But it wasn’t until a later visit when he agreed to let me make a portrait of him in the studio, did I begin to discover George’s very serious interest in exploring photography further.”
This commonality of interest sparked the friendship between the sculptor and the photographer, which would result in a blending of creative genres and media, with Segal sharpening his photography skills and Lokuta trying his hand at sculpture.
“The defining moment came while he was working on a sculpture, and without thinking, I blurted out, ‘I think I can do that.’ George said, ‘Really, you think you can do this?’” Lokuta says. “(George) paused for a moment and said, ‘Put that camera down.’ He carefully explained the procedure and we began to work together. We almost finished the sculpture, and my one-hour visit turned out to be over six hours long.”
“While we were working, I found perfect opportunities to make photographs,” he continues. “I would wipe my hands of plaster and pick up my Leica, make a few photographs, and get back to work. Now the photographs felt right. The photographic sessions that followed gradually developed into a more personal photographic project.”
“As our relationship evolved, I began to assist in casting models and finishing the final sculptures,” Lokuta explains. “We worked on one piece after another and talked about art — his art and philosophy, about what was on view in museums and galleries, and about the art world. We searched for materials for the sculpture, went to exhibitions and openings, and sat talking in the studio with classical music playing softly in the background. My camera was always close by.”
Lokuta’s career as a photographer, painter, teacher, and historian spans more than 40 years. He has authored and co-authored several books and has written many articles about photography. His own artwork is published widely and has been included in more than 300 exhibitions.
Growing up in various towns in northern New Jersey, Lokuta was the son of an industrial machinist father, and his mother was a regional manager for the White Castle Corporation. Lokuta (pronounced luh-KOO-tuh) says his family lived modestly but happily, and his mother was always giving him blank sheets of paper, pencils, pens, paintbrushes, and crayons and encouraging him to draw and paint.
His interest in photography probably came from his father, who was the quintessential taker of vacation photos and slides, which he would happily show to visitors.
“You know the old joke about people showing their vacation slides and the company is falling asleep (from boredom) — that’s what my father would do: he’d put up the screen and get out the projector,” Lokuta says. “On vacations he’d sometimes pass the camera off to me. Finally in college (at Newark State — now Kean University) I bought a camera and took a photography class — but that was it, I was hooked. I found photography as an art form, but it was not my major.”
“It’s the medium that really grabs me because it’s such a democratic medium — everybody participates, for example, we all have camera phones,” he adds.
In 1968 Lokuta earned a bachelor of arts in education at Newark State, then a master of arts, also in education, in 1971, at Montclair University. In 1975 he earned his Ph.D. in education, with a heavy emphasis on the history of photography, at Ohio State University. He returned to New Jersey to take a teaching position at Kean University in Union and has been there ever since. Lokuta currently teaches photography in the department of fine arts. In addition Lokuta guest lectures extensively; his interest in historical photography is extensive and he has curated many exhibitions.
“At first, I did (art) photography when I could, but on the side of what I did for a living,” Lokuta says. “I started my own commercial photography business where I shot catalogs, ads, and whatnot. I then pretty much learned photography by myself, from going to seminars, etc. It’s been a bumpy road.”
“I always liked the photographers who experimented — for example, Brassai was experimenting, and Man Ray was all over the place,” Lokuta says, adding Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Paul Strand, and Robert Frank as just a few of his influences. “I also like to experiment and do different things. As technology changes, we have different ways of expressing ourselves.”
Lokuta’s works are in numerous permanent collections, including the Princeton University Art Museum, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Museum of the City of New York, Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, New York Historical Society, and the Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of American History) in Washington, D.C.
Among his many portfolios and projects is an extensive series of photos showing the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center under construction. No wonder the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City has Lokuta’s works in its permanent collection.
He has had solo exhibitions at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, Newark Museum, as well as the Dabac Gallery in Zagreb, Croatia, Srecna Gallery in Belgrade, and San Antonio (Texas) Museum of Art.
He is also the recipient of 10 grants for his photography, including the prestigious New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship Award.
Lokuta is married to Melissa Tomich, who also works at Kean University as assistant to the dean in the College of Education. Tomich is also an artist, and currently has a one-person exhibition of her photographs at HPGRP Gallery in New York City.
For the most of the Segal photographs, he used his favorite Leica, but for some of the other images, Lokuta used a Hasselblad, going back and forth between an 80mm and 50mm lens. He still enjoys shooting film and still has a home darkroom, where he prints his own work.
“I have a wonderful darkroom, although I don’t use it as much as I should,” Lokuta says. “Printing black and white photos in the darkroom is very relaxing and meditative, and I still enjoy the process. I could have made all of the photographs of George Segal in color, but I believe that black and white photographs make a very emotional statement. I wanted the photographs to reinforce how I felt. Color sometimes gets in the way.”
When asked to choose a favorite image or two from the Segal project, Lokuta hesitates, noting that there are many favorites and so very many stories behind the images.
“I do particularly like ‘Helen and George, 1990,’ and ‘Completing “Depression Bread Line,” 1991,’” he says. “This was not like a magazine assignment where you shoot for an hour and then you’re done. This group of photos is just like making photos of my friend, but he happens to be a very, very interesting friend.”
“George was really, really compassionate, really sharing and caring,” Lokuta adds. “He identified with the average person, more so than the people who purchased his works — that’s why he liked diners and little cafes. I miss him very much, and I wish the rest of the world was more like him.”
George Segal in Black and White: Photographs by Donald Lokuta, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 18 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick; first installment runs from Saturday, February 14, through Saturday, May 16; second installment runs from Saturday, May 23, through Friday, July 31.
The public is invited to Art After Hours: First Tuesdays on March 3 for a curator-led tour of “George Segal in Black and White: Photographs by Donald Lokuta,” as well as an opportunity to meet Donald Lokuta. Art After Hours takes place 5 to 9 p.m., with free admission and complimentary refreshments. For information go to www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu or call 848-932-7327. For more information on Donald Lokuta visit www.donaldlokuta.com