This profile piece was written by Leo Biga, a well known Omaha writer. It was first printed about the time my latest book was released. I wish I had a good cat photo to go with this, but I did include some images from my 1992 book Just Another War.
In his 26 years as a Contact Press Images photojournalist, award-winning Kenneth Jarecke has documented the world. Assignments for leading magazines and newspapers have taken him to upwards of 80 countries, some of them repeatedly.
His resulting images of iconic events have graced the pages of TIME, LIFE, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and hundreds of other publications. His work has been reproduced in dozens of books.
He has captured the spectrum of life through coverage of multiple wars, Olympic Games and presidential campaigns. He has documented the ruling class and the poorest of the poor. He has photographed the grandest public spectacles and the most intimate, private human moments.
Wherever the assignment takes him, whatever the subject matter he shoots, Jarecke brings his keen sensitivity to bear.
"I know how to capture the human condition," he said.
His well-attenuated intuition and highly trained eye followed the University of Nebraska football team on its last go-round through the Big 12 during the 2010 season. The result is a new coffee-table book, Farewell Big 12, that reproduces 300 Jarecke photographs, in both black and white and color, made over the course of 10 games.
He is planning a companion book, Welcome to the Big 10, that will document the Huskers throughout their inaugural 2011 season in the fabled Big 10 conference.
The projects represent his first solo books since 1992, when he published a collector's volume of his searing Persian Gulf War I photos entitled, Just Another War.
His work has shown at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, at Nomad Lounge in Omaha, at the Houston Fine Arts Museum and at other galleries around the nation.
Coming Full Circle
The Husker photo books have special meaning for Jarecke, a native Nebraskan and one-time college football nose guard, who wanted to give Husker fans and photo aficionados alike a never-before-seen glimpse inside the game.
"It's something I always wanted to do. I wanted to do an in-depth season in my own style, capturing the kind of images I like to see and make. I don't cover football or sports as a news event, I cover it as an experience.
"I don't care about the winning touchdown, I don't care about really anything except what I can capture that's interesting. So, it might be a touchdown or it might be a fumble or it might be concentrating on something completely different (away from the action).
"You don't really see those type of pictures too much."
His instinct for what is arresting and indelible guides him.
"It could be the light was right in this area. It could be something I see on somebody's helmet or hand. It could be something I've seen somebody do two or three times and I follow this guy around to see if that happens again. My goal is to not record the game as it happens, my goal is to try to give an idea of what it's like inside that thing."
As a University of Nebraska at Omaha nose guard, he lived in the trenches of football's tangled bodies, where violent collisions, head slaps, eye gouges and other brutal measures test courage. As a world-class photographer with an appreciation for both the nuanced gestures and the blunt force trauma of athletics, he sees what others don't.
"I understand the game of college football from an inside perspective and I know how to shoot sports."
"He's a person who has this gift of seeing. He's a 360-degree seer," said noted photography editor and media consultant and former TIME magazine director of photography MaryAnne Golon. "What you're going to get is Ken's take, and Ken's take is always interesting. Plus, he has a very strong journalistic instinct, and not every photographer has that."
He is well versed in the hold the Huskers exert on fans. Indeed, his first national assignment, for Sports Illustrated, was a Husker football shoot.
"I'm basically circling back with this project," he said. "In a lot of ways this Husker book is a dream project. As a native, I understand what this program means to the people of the state. and I wanted to capture it. That's basically the bottom line."
What appears on the surface to simply be a football photo book hones in on behavior - subtle or overt, gentle or harsh - as the mis en scene for his considered gaze.
"That's the same approach I take to anything," he said.
"Ken possesses an uncanny artistic exuberance and a deliberateness that belie his quiet personality," said Jeffrey D. Smith, Jarecke's Contact agent.
"Like a hunter methodically stalking his prey, Ken quickly and silently sizes up his surrounds, and determines position, shying away from the obvious. He assesses the light, watching how it changes, then he waits. He waits till the moment's right, till the crowds thin, till the explosion of action provides an awkward off-moment or someone pauses to catch their breath, and then BAM, Ken catches the subject floating and off-guard."
Camera as passport
This sense of capturing privileged, revelatory moments is the same Jarecke had when he first discovered photography at age 15 in his hometown of Omaha.
"I realized that with a camera in your hand you basically had an excuse to invite yourself into anybody's life. I figured out real quick it's like a passport."
A camera, when wielded by a professional like himself, breaks down barriers.
"As a photographer you're completely at the mercy of kindness from strangers
wherever you go in the world. Whether you speak the language or not, you're with strangers, and it never ceases to amaze me how kind people are and how open they are. And if not helpful, how they just leave you alone to go about your business, and it's been that way everywhere.
"Yeah, I've had nasty experiences, but even then you see where there's like a silver lining, and somebody helps you out somehow."
He remembers well when photography first overtook him and, with it, the purpose-driven liberation it gave him.
"It was the end of my sophomore year at Omaha Bryan High School when I met a couple guys photographing football-wrestling-track. I was in all that. A guy named Jim Guilizia (whom Jarecke is still friends with today) invited me to see the school darkroom and how it works. And the first time I saw that I was like, ‘I've found something to do with my life.’ It was just that quick, just that easy. It was a done deal. Like magic.
"My dad had a 35 mm camera, so I started messing with that."
Reflecting back, Jarecke said, "I didn't know exactly what a photographer was. I mean, I thought it was this thing where you go and shoot a war and you come back to New York City and do a fashion shoot. I knew that's what I wanted to do." He wanted it so badly he quit football over the objections of his coach, arguing it left no time for photography.
"I felt like I was already missing out on things. I had to get to making pictures."
His actual career has not been so unlike the idyll he imagined it to be, though as an independent contractor it has been a struggle at times. The challenges he may endure are outweighed by the freedom of operating on his own terms.
"I've always been a freelance photographer," he said.
He has worked with every conceivable budget and circumstance - from all expenses paid, full-access, months-long sojourns to zero budget, uncredentialed gambits funded himself. He doesn't let obstacles get in the way of doing his work.
"It seems strange, I know, but I've gone to countries without visas."
His mantra is: "Somehow, I'm going to find a way."
His skills at improvising and making-do in difficult situations and in a highly competitive field have steeled him for the lean times. Like today, when the market for editorial photography has shrunk as print media struggle to survive in the digital age.
"Basically I was forced to keep getting better, keep getting smarter, keep working. I'm a better photographer today then I've ever been," he said. "I've been hungry with this profession for 30 years. That's the difference. If you're making a living with a camera today, you're already in the 96th-97th percentile. How do you get to that 99th percentile?
"The whole struggling thing has made me stronger, has given me an edge. I think it's more of a blessing than a curse."
Magnum photographer Gilles Peress admiringly calls Jarecke "one of the few free men still in existence," adding, "I think he's great."
School of hard knocks
Jarecke broke into the ranks of working photographers with a by-any-means-necessary ethic.
At 18 he got his first picture published - of an escaped Omaha Stockyards bull subdued on a highway. He became a pest to Omaha World-Herald editors, ”borrowing” its darkrooms to process his images. Sometimes he even sold one or two.
He became a stringer for the AP and the UPI.
"I was doing whatever I could do," he said. "I never had a press pass. It was always, Which door can I sneak through? Literally.”
Jarecke often refers to the uneasy balance of chutzpah and humility top photographers possess, qualities he displayed when, still only a teen and with minimal experience, he flew to New York City to be discovered.
Against all odds he talked his way in to see Sports Illustrated editor Barbara Hinkle, who reviewed his meager black and white portfolio and offered advice: Start shooting in color and filling the frame. He heeded her words back home and built up a color portfolio.
His first big break came courtesy SI via an early-1980s Husker football shoot. He itched for more. Local assignments just weren't cutting it for him financially or creatively.
"I was pretty frustrated. I was already at the point where I could make their pictures, but now I wanted to make my pictures."
It was time to move on, so he headed back to NYC, where he "pieced together a living." "I always had a camera in hock," he said. "I was kind of stumbling along, living out of a suitcase for two or three years. I was broke."
Among the best decisions he made was attending back to back Main Photographic Workshops: one taught by Giles Peress and another by David Burnett and Robert Pledge of newly formed Contact Press Images.
It was not the first time Jarecke studied photography. He counts among his mentors two Omaha-based image-makers with national reputations, Don Doll and Larry Ferguson, who took him under their wing at various points.
During one of his forays at college, editor MaryAnne Golon was judging a photography show in Lincoln, Neb. when she saw the early potential that eventually led him to working for her at TIME and U.S. News.
"I met Ken when he was an emerging photographer and I remember the work standing out then, and he was like 19, so it was interesting to watch the progression of his career," she said. "I think he has a very lyrical eye. He's a classic case of a photographer who comes out with some little magic moment."
Bobbi Baker Burrows, director of photographer at LIFE Magazine Books, has also seen Jarecke grow from a wunderkind to a mature craftsman. "He just never ceased to amaze me in his growth and his artistry and his strong journalistic integrity," she said. "As an adoptive mother to Ken I was so proud to see him blossom into a fine person as well as an extraordinary photographer."
Jarecke said he got noticed as much for his talent as for his attitude. "I was obnoxious, I was arrogant." Chafing at what he considered "too much naval gazing and thinking" by fellow students, he advocated "going with your gut."
"It was very clear right off the bat he was quite a special, unusual character on the one hand and photographer on the other. Quite daring also," said Pledge.
Pledge became a champion. With both Pledge and Burnett in his corner, Jarecke became an early Contact Press Images member. Pledge assigned Jarecke his breakthrough job: getting candid shots of Oliver North at the start of the Iran-Contra affair.
“I actually got his (North) home address through a Sygma photographer. Back then there were a lot of photo agencies. We were all competitors, but we all kind of worked together, too.”
From his car parked along a public street, Jarecke staked out North’s home. “I hung out from sunrise to sunset, waiting for him to mow the lawn or something. I was down to two rolls of film when this LIFE magazine photographer showed up. He had some type of agreement with Ollie that he'd get exclusive pictures. But he wasn't allowed to go into Ollie’s place. It was like a wink and nod deal.
“This photographer had a small window to get his pictures and my being there was screwing up his whole deal.”
Frantic phone calls ensued between the LIFE photographer and his editor and Jarecke’s agent, Robert Pledge. LIFE insisted Pledge get his bulldog to back off, but Jarecke recalls Pledge giving him emphatic orders: Whatever you do, don't leave.
“I explained to Bob I didn't have any film. He said, ‘I don't care, just pretend like you're making pictures.’ It was a bluff with very high stakes.”
Jarecke did make pictures though, “shooting a frame here and a frame there,” shadowing the LIFE photographer.
“I just had to cover everything he covered.”
Jarecke’s persistence paid off. His work effectively spoiled LIFE’s exclusive, forcing the magazine to negotiate with Contact. “LIFE had to buy all my pictures that were similar to the ones in the magazine, basically to embargo them.” Jarecke found eager bidders for his remaining North images in Newsweek and People.
“I went from being broke to making a huge sell over like one week. That allowed me to keep working.”
Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, LIFE hired Jarecke to shoot some stories. Offers from other national mags followed. In 1987-1988 he traveled constantly, covering all manner of news events, including the elections in Haiti, an IRA funeral in Belfast that turned violent and the Seoul Summer Olympics. He was the most published photographer of the ‘88 presidential election campaign. His in-depth coverage of Jesse Jackson earned him his first World Press Photo Award.
In 1989, he became a contract photographer for TIME, whose editors nominated him for the International Center of Photography’s Emerging Photographer Award. Jarecke fulfilled his promise by producing cover stories on New York City, Orlando and America’s emergency medical care crisis. The 1990 “The Rotting of the Big Apple” spread attracted worldwide attention. His nine pages of black and white photographs dramatically illustrated the deterioration of America’s greatest metropolis. The piece’s signature picture, “Two Bathers,” won him another World Press Photo Award.
He didn’t know it then, but these were the halcyon times of modern photojournalism.
“Back then we used to spend a month on a story, not three or four days like we do now.”
it was nothing for a major magazine to send a dozen or more photographers and a handful of editors to a mega event like the Olympics.
When not on assignment, the TIME-LIFE building became something of a tutorial for Jarecke. In his 20s he got to know master photographers Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt and other originators of the still very young profession.
“If you're Yo-Yo Ma today, that’s like hanging out with Mozart,” said Jarecke. “You're standing on the shoulders of these giants that paved the way and you have their careers to build off of.”
Photographing and surviving a war zone
Then came his coverage of Desert Storm and a controversy he didn’t bargain on.
The U.S. military instituted tight control of media access.
“I was a TIME magazine photographer at that point. I didn't want to be in the (U.S.) Department of Defense pool, but I was forced to be in this pool. AP set up all the rules of engagement, down to the type of film you shot.”
Near the conclusion of fighting Jarecke was with a CBS news crew and a writer. Escorting the journalists were an Army public affairs officer and his sergeant. All were geared up with helmets and flak jackets.
It was still early in the day when the group came upon a grotesque frieze frame of the burned out remains of fleeing Iraqi forces attacked by coalition air strikes. Jarecke took pictures, including one of an incinerated Iraqi soldier. Jarecke's images of the carnage offered unvarnished, on-the-ground glimpses at war's brutality. The photos' hard truth stood in stark contrast to the antiseptic view of the war leaders preferred.
At a certain point, Jarecke recalls, “we broke off from our pool” to avoid the Republican Guard. “We had this stupid, stupid plan to drive cross country into Kuwait. We started with two vehicles - a military Bronco and a Range Rover. We headed out across the desert with no compass, no map. We had a general idea of the direction we needed to go, but we immediately got lost.”
At one point Jarecke and Co. ran smack dab into the very forces they tried to avoid, and got shelled for their trouble, but escaped unharmed. Technically there was a cease fire, but in the haze of war not everyone played by the rules.
Skirting the combatants, the journalists and their escorts went off-road, ending up farther afield than before. The journalists waited until twilight to try and circle around the Republican Guard. The normally 45-minute drive was hours in progress with no end in sight.
“We’re seriously lost.”
Unable to make their way back onto the highway, the situation grew ever more precarious.
“The Bronco kept getting flat tires. We finally abandoned it and we all piled into the Range Rover.”
Around midnight, Jarecke’s group found themselves amid a caravan of non-coalition vehicles in the middle of a desert no-man’s land. “We’re playing cat and mouse throughout the night through the minefields, through the burning oil fields, through Iraqi fortified positions. We got our wheels tangled up once in their communication wires.”
Adding to the worries, he said, “we were almost out of fuel.” Nerves were already frayed as he and his fellow reporters had been up five days straight. Relief came when they stumbled upon a fuel truck and a small Desert Rat (British) unit. A new convoy was formed in hopes of regaining the highway. Then an idle American tank came into view.
“At 2 a.m. you don't drive up to a tank and knock on the door,” said Jarecke. “You've got serious concerns with friendly fire and protocol and passwords of the day. It was dicy, but they recognized us.”
It turned out they were atop the highway, only the drifting sand obscured it.
“We’re still like 40 miles outside Kuwait City, but we’re on our way. We've got these Desert Rats behind us and we’re tooling along. At that point we’re kind of relaxed. I drifted off and when I awoke we’re in what looks like a parking lot with all these stopped vehicles. The Desert Rats are gone. We’ve lost them.
“I get out of the car and see a Russian machine gun set up on a truck, the silhouette visible in the light from the distant fires. Then I realize I hear a radio and that some of these vehicles are still running. It’s a mystery. Where are we? How'd we get here?”
Leaving the surreal scene, he said, “It was obvious trucks were running and eyeballs were on you. And then at some point we drove out of it and we were back on the highway, and we made it into Kuwait City as the sun was rising.”
(Obviously not from the Gulf. I made this image a few days ago. It might be good, or not. We'll see.)
Controversy, new directions, satisfaction
A couple days later Jarecke said he was trading war stories with a CBS news producer, who commented, “You won’t believe what we just saw - we’re calling it the Highway of Death,’ blah, blah, blah...”’ Looking and sounding eerily familiar to what Jarecke had driven through earlier, he said, “We were there.”
Back home, his incinerated soldier image was the object of a brouhaha. Deeming it too intense, the AP pulled the photo from the U.S. wire. The photo was distributed widely in Europe via Reuters and on a more limited basis in the U.S. through UPI. Jarecke and others were dismayed censorship kept it from most American print media.
“I thought I had done my job. I’d shown what I’d seen, and let the chips fall where they may. I thought being a journalist was supposed to be trying to tell the truth.”
He said so in interviews with BBC, NPR and other major media outlets. Eventually, that picture and others he made of the war were published in America. The iconic photo earned him the Leica Medal of Excellence and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Meanwhile, in the flood of Gulf War books, many utilizing his work, he tried to interest publishers in his own book, Just Another War, picturing the carnage. Admittedly an experiment that juxtaposes his visceral black and white images with art and poetry by Exene Cervenka, publishers declined. He self-published.
Jarecke's imagery from the Gulf, said Contact's Robert Pledge, is "really outstanding and unexpected and very personal. It's some of the best documentation of that war."
In 1996 Jarecke left TIME to be a contract photographer at U.S. News & World Report, where he made his mark in a decade of high-end, globe-trotting work.
"He's the kind of photographer that when you send him out you know you're going to be surprised when he comes back and surprised in a joyful way," said MaryAnne Golon. "I've worked with him off and on for over 20 years and I've never been disappointed in an assignment he's done."
"He's very determined. He really spends the time looking for things to give a shape and a meaning. He's someone who's very thoughtful with his eye. He looks at a situation and tries to dig in deep and look with greater detail," said Pledge. "He's able to seize upon things."
Contact co-founder and photographer David Burnett has worked on assignment with Jarecke at major venues like the Olympics, where he can attest to his colleague's intensity.
"It's quite something to be able to see Ken about the fourth or fifth day at the Olympic Games, when we're just starting to get really into it, really tired, and really frustrated. He's walking down a hallway with this killer look on his face, holding two monopods, one with a 400 and one with a 600. He looks like he's got the thousand yard stare, but he knows exactly where he's going
"And it's a treat to watch, because when he gets wound up like that, the pictures are amazing."
Today, Jarecke, his wife, and the couple’s three daughters and one son live far from the madding crowd on a small spread in Joliet, Montana. His hunger to make pictures still burns.
“Working without a net keeps me going for that next mountain, and the truth is you never reach it.”
Elusive, too, is the perfect picture.
“There’s no such thing, because if it is perfect it’s no good. There has to be something messy around the edges. That’s part of the mystery of creating these pictures. They almost get their power from the imperfections.”
Imperfect or not, his indelible observations endure.
With his iconoclastic take on Husker football, he’s sure he’s published a collection of pictures “no one else is making.” He’s pleased, too, this quintessential Nebraska project is designed by Webster Design and printed by Barnhart Press, two venerable Nebraska companies.
“No small feat,” he said.
With traditional media in flux, Jarecke looks to increasingly bring his work to new audiences via e-readers and tablets. His art prints are in high demand.
Golon said the present downturn is like a Darwinian cleansing where only the strongest survive and that Jarecke "is definitely one of the fittest, and so I'm sure he'll survive" and thrive.
(Hey, after 4000 plus words you didn't think I wouldn't reward you with a cat picture did you?)