Donated equipment gives students a shot at something new

Zach IIer, a photography minor, uses the Omega 5500 Dichroic Enlarger donated by alumnus Nels Johnson

Zach IIer, a photography minor, uses the Omega 5500 Dichroic Enlarger donated by alumnus Nels Johnson

Student photography projects are coming into clearer focus thanks to a gracious alum

By the time Nels Johnson graduated in spring 2010, the art major’s interest had transformed to metal sculpture. He didn’t want his photography equipment to go unused so he donated it to the university’s Department of Art.

Among the equipment: various formats of cameras and lenses; tripods; flash units; film and print development supplies; print washer; darkroom trays; beakers; timers; an Omega enlarger; a UV Exposure Unit; various alternative process tools; photography books; and camera bags.

“There is a much greater need for equipment in the photography department than what my gift would ever begin to fulfill,” admits Johnson.

But, he knew his equipment would replace worn pieces and add to the department’s inventory. And he hoped it would allow students to explore additional forms of photography equipment while creating their artwork.

That’s what has happened. Art Photography Professor Linda Levinson says some of the medium format cameras were new to the students. And, the UV light box provided students with equipment they would not have experienced had it not been for Johnson’s donation.

“The UV Exposure Unit has been an invaluable tool in teaching “Experimental Photography” this fall,” notes Levinson. “Students used it to make Cyanotype prints, Van Dyke Brown prints and even Chlorophyll prints that are developed under UV light.”

Alumnus Nels Johnson

Alumnus Nels Johnson

Levinson says the generous donation hasn’t gone unnoticed by the students.

“They were so impressed with the donated UV Exposure Unit and the alternative process tools that they want to rename what is currently the Special Projects Room to the Nels Johnson Special Projects Room.”

Levinson says students will submit their work with prints created by some of the donated equipment for their minor. “Ultimately, this experience may contribute to their viability in the photographic profession,” she notes.

Essentially, all the photography courses utilize the equipment Johnson donated – just as he had hoped.

During his classes, Johnson met many other students who were just as excited and devoted to their learning of the world of art as he was. “Their passion and courage in exploring themselves and expressing what they found in their art was often an inspiration to me, and helped me in turn explore myself,” he says. “Great art is after all, in my view, an expression of the self.”

With that excitement, Johnson also saw the impact of a shrinking university budget from the state. That’s why he donated his photography equipment and encourages others to think about how they could help too.

“There is without a doubt a great need for resources the university is unable to provide,” he explains. “Any help would be greatly appreciated and is needed by the students and instructors.”

Johnson commends Art faculty for providing students a quality experience to help them discover themselves and their talents. “The faculty and staff in the Department of Art are a very dedicated bunch,” he notes.

Who is Nels Johnson?

When Nels Johnson began attending UW-L it was only to take a few photography classes. He developed an interest in photography while stationed in Japan as a U.S. Navy enlistee. He had planned to attend photography classes after being discharged, but a waiting job with the CB&Q Railroad took him down that track.

As Johnson’s career with the railroad began to end and retirement approached, he decided it was time to rekindle his interest in photography. He began taking photo classes at UW-L and quickly rediscovered his enjoyment with photography. He realized photography could be an art form rather than just capturing scenes.

His love in photography is with film. But, digital photography was becoming popular. “I could see that film photography was soon to be relegated to the archives containing the previous types of photography some of which film replaced,” Johnson says.

Upset that film, his love, was being replaced, he began exploring other art mediums to fulfill his art degree requirements.

“Photography is part of the two-dimensional forms of art,” he notes. “I stayed in the 2-D world for awhile through the medium of printmaking which quickly became my next love.”
Talking with other students, he discovered the world of 3-D art. “But that was unfamiliar and I labeled it ‘the dark side,’” he explains.

That was until he took a foundations course in 3-D. “Wow, what an epiphany,” he recalls. “There was a whole new dimension that could be explored and played with.”
He plunged into ceramics, metalsmithing, and sculpture and found a new medium to love.

That’s what led him to generously donate his photography equipment following graduation in 2010 and eventual move to 3-D.