CARY - As a photographer, Gordon Munro considers himself more of a collaborator than an innovator. Like a conductor, he says. Zubin Mehta interprets music, and the orchestra plays it. Im like that, an interpreter.
Munros knack for collaboration has inspired decades of memorable and lauded pictures. There have been celebrity portraits, fashion images for the pages of Vogue magazine, ads for Vidal Sassoon, and more recently arresting food images for the La Farm Bakery cookbook.
And, in a way, that approach has also led him to his latest creation, Gordon Munro Fine Art Gallery, which opened Friday. Like a maestro, hell present the works of others, curating shows of local and national artists.
Its a move he admits takes him down a road where he has no expertise. But that kind of chance taking isnt new to him. The spark for the idea came casually, during a conversation with his daughter Lizzie. Hed been using the foyer of his photo business, Cary Portrait Studio, to show his own work, but realized it wasnt necessary because most of his work comes from referrals and networking.
Pondering the spaces use, Munro said to his daughter, Wouldnt it be fun to show other talented artists here? The thought brought him back to his years living and working in New York City.
I always loved galleries. I would live in them. I would walk up and down Madison Avenue and just go from gallery to gallery all day, he says.
Now, hes trying to bring a bit of that experience to Carys Preston Corners mall.
Give it the best you can
Born near London, Munro, 75, came to photography through a back door. In high school, he wanted to be a chemistry teacher. To garner enthusiasm for the science from others, he got the idea to mix chemicals and show their magic by making photographic prints. He adopted a camera his father owned but never used. Soon, he became the official photographer at school.
Yet while he was fascinated by photography, he didnt think of it as a profession. Instead, he apprenticed to be a civil engineer like his father. I hated it, he says. He quit to apprentice with photographers instead. When he saw a fashion magazine and the beautiful images within it, he realized some people made a living at what he loved. Maybe he could too.
At a coffee shop across from the offices of British Vogue, he met a photographer he admired. The man gave him a list of photographers to meet, leading to a job as a photographers assistant. He worked for a year with the photographer in London, until he told him to go to America. It was 1964. Munro headed to New York.
There, on the first day, he grabbed a phone book and looked up the number for his idol: legendary photographer Irving Penn, known for his Vogue images, still lifes and portraits. I still remember the address, 80 West 40th Street, Munro says. It was like looking up God.
He went to Penns studio and was told to return the next day. When he came back, he talked to a man for a half hour before he realized it was Penn. Penn asked him if he thought he could handle being the new studio manager. Munro didnt think he could. He took the job anyway and stayed four years.
Penn, he says, taught him about impeccable lighting. My role was to set up the lights, to know enough about what he wanted so that he could just come in and shoot. Munro was already a bit of a perfectionist; Penn taught him to be even more of one.
You can do so much with retouching and color correction, but its still not right if you dont give it the best you can, Munro says. Penn also taught him about art and history, how photographers replaced painters as recorders of modern times. He was the nicest, sweetest man I ever met, Munro says.
Munro eventually left because Penn wouldnt let him shoot his own photographs. Penn needed an assistant, and Munro had learned too much to stay in that role. After their amicable split, Munros relationship with Vogue, gained through his assistant work with Penn, helped him get steady work, and fashion portraiture became his specialty.
It was a little bit of a burden, being thought of as a Penn wannabe, Munro says of those days. But eventually he made his own mark.
He was pretty well-known and respected, says Jack Deutsch, who was Munros assistant for about two years in the late 70s. Other photographers had more flair Gordon, he was more about high quality and precision, getting the well-executed image. Im not as good as he was in many ways, not as precise, but when I opened my own studio I would often think back to how Gordon would have done something. He was a model for behavior.
The work in Munros portfolio is varied. He shot singer Grace Jones with $3 million worth of Harry Winston diamonds for the cover of Interview magazine. He shot Magic Johnson and a slew of celebrities to help Elizabeth Taylor raise money for AIDS research. He shot singer Alicia Keys when she first arrived on the scene and an album cover for Chaka Khan. He shot a young, nude Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hes shot horses and their owners. Hes shot models in makeup, bridal gowns, furs and bright bangles.
His wife of 30 years, Aileen, brought Munro to North Carolina; trained as a nurse, shed taken a leave to come here to pursue her passion for horses and dressage. They met when Munro was visiting; they fell for the area and moved here in 2002. The advent of digital equipment meant he didnt have to be in New York, except to take the pictures. He cut back on work, only taking on special clients.
But then the itch returned.
He opened his studio in Cary, focusing on corporate portraiture, starting with the doctors at the practice where his wife works. He also took pictures for A Passion for Bread, the book by Lionel Vatinet of Carys La Farm Bakery. New York faded into memory.
An exciting project
Munros vision for his gallery is both simple and grand.
I want it to be like those I know in New York, where each exhibition is a bit of a surprise, he says.
Its not an easy business, says Gary Bradley, who has owned the Waverly Artists Group Studio and Gallery in southeast Cary (about 6 miles from Preston Corners) for three years.
Its tough, Bradley says. The toughest thing is how much it costs to have a space. Most galleries have another commercial venture to subsidize them. Its hard to sell art here too. Theres not a big tourist market, and this is not a big market for art. Its an uphill battle.
Whats not difficult is finding artists; Bradley says artists are lining up to be in galleries. His space, for instance, features 19 artists who each get 7 feet of wall space.
Munro is taking a different approach by focusing on one artist. The exhibit hanging this month features Dan Campbell, a local painter Munro met through a friend of a friend.
Campbell, an abstract artist who works in acrylics, says hes excited about the opportunity to show some 20 pieces of his work.
Most Cary galleries have multiple artists, he says. You get to show one or two pieces; you cant show a body of work. Gordons not going after every artist, theres one a month. Its a fantastic opportunity for exposure, like an accelerated effort for an artist.
Learning the ins and outs of the gallery business is part of the thrill for Munro. He says hell seek advice, and perhaps some recommendations of artists, from New York gallery owners hes known for years. Hes looking forward to diving deeper into the community, meeting with Carys visual arts organizations, looking for sculptors and painters and photographers, and connecting with collectors.
Its not retirement or slowing down. Its something better a new direction that veers toward his knack for collaboration.
Its an exciting project, he says. Lets see where it leads me.
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