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. I’m like that, an interpreter.”
Munro’s 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, he’ll present the works of others, curating shows of local and national artists.
It’s a move he admits takes him down a road where he has no expertise. But that kind of chance taking isn’t new to him. The spark for the idea came casually, during a conversation with his daughter Lizzie. He’d been using the foyer of his photo business, Cary Portrait Studio, to show his own work, but realized it wasn’t necessary because most of his work comes from referrals and networking.
Pondering the space’s use, Munro said to his daughter, “Wouldn’t 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, he’s trying to bring a bit of that experience to Cary’s 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 didn’t 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 photographer’s 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 Penn’s 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 didn’t 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 it’s still not right if you don’t 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 wouldn’t 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, Munro’s 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 Munro’s 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. I’m 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 Munro’s 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. He’s shot horses and their owners. He’s 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, she’d 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 didn’t 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 Cary’s La Farm Bakery. New York faded into memory.
‘An exciting project’
Munro’s 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.
It’s 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.
“It’s tough,” Bradley says. “The toughest thing is how much it costs to have a space. Most galleries have another commercial venture to subsidize them. It’s hard to sell art here too. There’s not a big tourist market, and this is not a big market for art. It’s an uphill battle.”
What’s 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 he’s 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 can’t show a body of work. Gordon’s not going after every artist, there’s one a month. It’s 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 he’ll seek advice, and perhaps some recommendations of artists, from New York gallery owners he’s known for years. He’s looking forward to diving deeper into the community, meeting with Cary’s visual arts organizations, looking for sculptors and painters and photographers, and connecting with collectors.
It’s not retirement or slowing down. It’s something better – a new direction that veers toward his knack for collaboration.
“It’s an exciting project,” he says. “Let’s see where it leads me.”