Chuck Henningsen: 'I'm not done just yet'

The artist doesn’t seem to mind saying that financial problems are haunting him at the moment ...

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“Sometimes I wonder if I should pack it all in, that I’ve run my course and its over. I’m just not ready to do that yet.”

Chuck Henningsen sat back comfortably on his couch with a glass of ice water on the table directly in front of him. He was older. His left hand shook. His gray hair was wiry. Henningsen looks at you like he might growl.

Then, he smiles. There was a glint in his eye that says that while he might be packing things up, he is not packing it in.

The Henningsen house is one of the more unique in all of northern New Mexico. It is a massive modernistic building designed by Henningsen and Santa Fe architect Jeff Hamar. It serves as both home and 6,000 square foot gallery space of floating platforms and suspended walkways that spreads from the marble floors to the soaring arched ceiling covering three levels. The skylights and picture windows are gigantic. The space is bathed in a warming light flooding every corner. In the basement is Henningsen’s 2,500 square foot high tech dark room where until recently he had been developing his oversized photographic art work.

Henningsen hasn’t stopped creating, mind you. He laid his latest work on the table. It was a small, colorful abstract image on a black canvas created in Photoshop from a mixture of photographic images. Full of reds, blues, purples and pinks there was something candy cane-like about it — candy cane, but with a ghostly image drawing you inside. It looked nothing at all like a photograph but rather a finally crafted painting etched with immutable skill.

“But, it is clearly not a painting,” he said. “You cannot achieve those fine forms and those clear lines with anything but a photograph. I’m not so sure about it though.”

“I like the Photoshop (computer program),” he continued. “But I’ve barely scratched the surface of that program so I create these things but ... I don’t understand how I did it. I can’t remember the steps so I can’t replicate it. Each of these is truly one-of-a-kind. Because I don’t know how I did it!” He laughed out loud and smiled.

“Why don’t you keep using the techniques you developed?” he is asked.

“I can’t get the material anymore!” he replies. “Not only does my older work never sell but I simply can’t do them anymore! They don’t make the material. So that is done.”

It stuns many of us younger photographers to know that Henningsen got his start in photography with Ansel Adams. No kidding.

“I met Ansel at his gallery in Yosemite. I had a friend I used to backpack with almost every weekend. Hell, we didn’t know anything about backpacking, we just liked to head into the mountains. So, we ended up at Yosemite and I went into this gallery and bought a print. I didn’t know anything about photography. I didn’t have much interest. I just knew that I liked this particular print by some guy named Adams.”

The gallery manager introduced Henningsen to the photographer and they had drinks.

“He invited me to come to one of his workshops. I said, why not?”

Henningsen got himself a Hasselblad, a medium-format camera made popular in the years after World War II for their incredible tough construction and reliability. These were the cameras used, in modified form, for the Apollo missions. Twelve Hasselblads remain on the lunar surface. They probably still work.

“So, there I was with my Hasselblad and no portfolio. All I had was some technical knowledge and some desire to learn. That’s all Ansel wanted in a student.

Later, Henningsen took the famous picture of Adams standing on Olmsted Point overlooking Yosemite Valley. The artist was wearing a flannel with suspenders, oversized, unlaced books and a beard that scattered around the smile that encompassed his whole face. There is something clownish about the great photographer captured in the image. “Ansel had a twinkle in his eye. He was child-like,” Henningsen said. “He was always ready to help and to teach. He seemed like he was always ready to play, to enjoy life.”

The photograph captured just that, a wonderful man in love with life and the world. It is a perfect shot.

Before that meeting and workshop that changed his life, Henningsen was an engineer.

“I went to work for (Hewlett Packard) right out of college. Those were the times when there was money flowing everywhere. You could get anything you want. All kinds of foolishness. Those were the times when people invested in people. When companies would pay smart people to create.”

After just four years with HP, however, Henningsen didn’t feel challenged anymore. “I needed even more room to create, I guess.”

He started his own California-based electronics distribution company. “And I made money hand over fist.” But his artwork nagged him. By the early 1980s, Henningsen’s art was rapidly becoming more important than his business. His marriage was also on the rocks and he took a trip to Taos to “get away from it all.” It was on one of these visits to Taos that he met R.C. Gorman.

“He was a wild man,” Henningsen said of the painter. “He enjoyed his parties. It was more than I could handle a lot of the times.” Regardless, a friendship developed.

“R.C. was up and coming and I took my camera out there and asked him if I could document his process. One day turned into a month and a month turned into a year. I followed R.C. around took pictures of whatever he was doing at the time.”

The result was “R.C. Gorman, A Portrait” published in 1983 by the New York Graphic Society. Steve Parks, who passed away recently, wrote the text. Gorman was already a rising star in the art world and Henningsen was sure he had showed up at the right time. “Ha! We did these joint shows. His paintings and my photographs of him. R.C. would sell a ton of work and I’d sell nothing.”

Henningsen doesn’t seem to mind saying that financial problems are haunting him at the moment. His house has been on the market for two years with no offers. So, he is selling off a large chunk of his photography collection.

Our discussion was often pleasantly interrupted as art expert Jennifer Lynch passed through the airy space with another print. Most striking were the large originals of 1980s NASA shots from the Space Shuttle program. One of them was the famous picture of Capt. Bruce McCandless floating above our blue orb on the first un-tethered space walk in February 1984.

It’s one of those pictures that makes you gasp just a bit.

Also going from the Henningsen collection are a number of Yousef Karsh incredible portraits. Karsh was a master of studio light and portraiture. His most famous image is the one of a near growling Winston Churchill taken in Ottawa in 1941. Lynch brought out Karsh’s whimsical portrait of Robert Frost, the poet disheveled, spilling from an oversized chair, pointing, talking and petting his dog all at once.

“What else is back there?” he is asked.

“I don’t even know all that I have,” he said. “That’s why we are going through it all, making a list, checking prices and making calls. A few sales might keep me going another year.”

What comes next for Henningsen? He isn’t sure. “I haven’t made up my mind yet. We just have to see what happens in the next few months. When it comes clear, I’ll know. But I’m not done just yet.

Henningsen likes to talk about the curious, excited child-like nature of Ansel Adams but really, he is probably talking about himself.

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