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Picture Perfect: Interview with David and Helen Kuntz

posted on February 26, 2009 at 2:08 PM


David Kuntz and Helen Kuntz were interviewed August 25, 2008.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Tell me about Ridgeway and Winneshiek County.

Helen Kuntz: Ridgeway was a town that I went to visit my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, but I actually lived in Decorah. Ridgeway was a town where you went up town one day and you could expect to see, the next day, the same man coming up town holding his cigar or a cigarette. And he'd go up the steps and up to the restaurants.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was it like what were people like?

Helen Kuntz: They were friendly, interested in one another.  They weren't people that I thought of as having a lot of money but they were charged. The people that I knew worked hard. And I think that that same thing would hold true I think today. 

I think people would work hard in the little town and like some of the things that were there are no longer there and like the barbershop I don't think is still there but I probably shouldn't make that comment when I'm not sure. 

That was an interesting picture in the barber shop because of my husband's uncle Paul is sitting having a shave. And he had arthritis really bad, which my husband's family had arthritis bad, and so he's sitting there with his knees bent because he couldn't straighten them.

And then if you look at the back of the picture, there's a mirror there. And you can see the reflection of my husband taking the picture in that mirror.  But I think especially because it was my husband's uncle and he's also on the front cover of the book.  So it's somebody else who was important to the family.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How did you Evert meet?

Helen Kuntz: Well that's quite a story because my mother's sister and my dad's brother were brothers and sisters.  Did I get that right?

Helen Kuntz: My, my mother's sister married my dad's brother, and so one time they were going to go up to Northern Minnesota to visit some of the family and they had wondered if that was something that I would be interested in going up there. I didn't know Evert. I'd never met him.

It was going to be my husband, his brother Harold and my Aunt Eda from Ridgeway and her husband had the stock yard and then my cousin Dick who was younger than I was. And he, his parents were active and my uncle was in.

David Kuntz: Do you remember how you met?

Helen Kuntz: Yeah, well we met then because we were asked if anybody would like to go along and they had suggested that I might like to go. And I didn't even know I was going, but I guess it was to meet Evert. And so, that's how we met.

And then we stayed at my aunt's and uncle's in northern Minnesota because it involved both sides of the family. So I think that's how we got so many people involved because both sides of the family were double cousins.

And then we did things when we got there.  They all lived on farms and we'd go out and wash clothes. And we'd go to town and get the mail and do different kinds of things you know and- so it was interesting and I had no idea that Evert would someday be my husband. 

Helen Kuntz: Then we corresponded when he was at the university.  Well he was about ready to graduate, or had he graduated?  He graduated just right around that time.

Helen Kuntz: Did it sound ok what I'm doing so far?

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Well what was Evert like if you were to describe him?

Helen Kuntz: Well when we met he was always very kind and considerate of me. And he would always have a camera with him and he was always interested in different things. And if we were going to go out to eat sometimes we'd go to the Green Parrot in Decorah.  We'd go to a restaurant nearby otherwise maybe we'd buy things and have a picnic outside just have a blanket and have a picnic.

Helen Kuntz: And but he was a very interesting person because he said um well as I mention somewhere along the line that he had no-

Helen Kuntz: Oh he never could understand how anybody could be bored because he thought that there was so much interesting things and he really did have a true interest in things.

Helen Kuntz: And not just for his own benefit but to help somebody else or to, well I think to help somebody else was a big thing and-

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Why do you think his curiosity might be why he liked to take pictures?

Helen Kuntz: Well he could grasp the personality I think of a person.  It amazes me yet today that he could take some of these pictures and you could just see so much of the individual by just looking at it.

I think that's why the pictures were so successful and the book was successful was because of, all of the um things that he could see in a person. 

For example one man rolling his own or somebody else.  The dog eating watermelon.  How many people are going to stop and take a picture of a dog eating watermelon? And a lot of the other pictures that you could kind of see what his intent was when he was taking it.  I felt I could anyway and I thought he did a great job of capturing the well the intent of the picture.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  What was it like for him to suddenly see all these photos from his childhood? How did he react to seeing these pictures after 60 years?

Helen Kuntz: Well, I especially remember he had the computer over here and I had my double sided desk here and he would look at a picture and he'd say, “Helen come and look at this!”

And the one I specifically remember was of Grandma and Grandpa Kuntz in the oat field. And he said, “how many women are going to drive a team of four horses and just get along without any problems?” And he had the thing to whip them if they didn't go but she never had to do it. I think we figured she just talked to them nice and they did what she said.

David Kuntz: Yeah he was very excited to, to see these pictures and remember them like 60 years or so later. And so when he found the box, an old Kodak black and yellow box in the basement with all the negatives in it, and started to look at the images he really was very excited.

It called back you know to him all these old memories and old times and he would call us in to look at this picture, look at that picture. And so it was just really kind of emotional, I think, for him to see those pictures from so many years before.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Why do you think they're so important? What do you think it is about them?

Helen Kuntz: Well it recalled days past for them and things that they remember.  And like even for the grandchildren the discussion about grandma and grandpa and all of that was real important to us.

David Kuntz: I've shown the pictures to people and had them tell me stories about the pictures, even though they've never seen the pictures before. But relating incidents in their lives and their childhood that they were reminded of by, by looking at the pictures. 

So they're a little different because they bring up these memories for many people of a certain time, of a certain lifestyle, a certain period that, that’s just very nostalgic for a lot of people.

Helen Kuntz: Yeah, a lot of different memories.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  What were times like then?  1939-41-

Helen Kuntz: Well, for example, with cameras, my family didn't have camera like Evert's family did. And they took advantage of having the camera and getting the pictures and trying to recall times that were really special.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  I think that the pictures really pictures capture so many different themes of life.  Church, social gatherings, family, youth, school- do you think we've changed a lot from that time?

Helen Kuntz: We've changed and yet we haven't.  We still come in 2006 and hold up the book and show some pictures and talk about things that bring back some of the same memories that we had when - well for example - when I was growing up. And then when David was growing up.

David Kuntz: Things are a lot more hectic today.  Things are a lot busier.  Not as much time to spend on the front porch after church on Sunday as there used to be.  Even, even when I was a kid and going to see my grandparents, there was still quite a bit of that flavor around. But that's you know - it seems to have slowly have faded away.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  What was his family like?  Lots of images were of his family.

Helen Kuntz: They were a very close-knit family.  On Sunday afternoon and evening they would get together and Evert's mother would play the piano. She played the piano for church too and they would sing probably two three hours. And it ended up they had at least one quartet that kept on singing and they sang even for Grandma's birthday.

Helen Kuntz: They sang for her what birthday party would that have been for her?

David Kuntz: When she turned 90 they sang for her birthday.

Helen Kuntz: When she turned 90 and three of the people that were in that quartet were still living and they were there and they sang together.  Which if I could capture that, even put that into that book, it would be something.

That would be special, because the families were close and they were Christian family. And they tried to be helpful to one another. And sometimes there would be a problem that somebody didn't have enough money because they had health problems, but the aunts and uncles would jump right in and contribute fuel for the furnace or vegetables or something you know. 

Don't you think that was something that was really true? And Grandma, we have to picture dinner at Grandma's. And that's the way it looked. And she made a big dinner every Sunday and that was important. I think especially to our children and a niece that lived on the farm. They were right in Ridgeway. But we would get together and have our dinner together and get through with the meal and clean up the dishes.

And then, often times, if we'd get together at Grandma's she would have a pitcher of lemonade and orange juice that we would have. And as a treat with, what do I want to say, as a treat with a cookie she'd made.

Helen Kuntz: Because she would usually make something for the afternoon that she could serve for us, and she always was a wonderful cook and would pan fry chicken. And oh, it was just excellent, you know. 

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: A strength to her I notice and her really captured the essence of Mom and Dad and the grandpa.  What do you think the pictures bringing him full circle back to his youth meant to him?

David Kuntz: Well, I think he relived some of these old times with his parents back on the farms, his youth, times at school, times around the town. And he was just thinking back over all these wonderful memories from being a kid and when they got together. It was, a really a family event.

Helen Kuntz: It really was.

David Kuntz: Sunday afternoon - it was, it was a big deal.  I mean it was the Sabbath day and it was, nobody was working and everybody was there.

And it's not something you would miss and you'd be a little dressed up and you'd come to Grandma's and you'd have a great dinner. She'd make a fantastic dinner and then people would eat for a couple hours and sit around after dinner.

Helen Kuntz: She'd always have the mashed potatoes in the bowl the same and she'd slice her homemade bread the same and have the bowl of peas and then she had these sherbet glasses and she'd make her own sherbet. And so there were a lot of things that as children bring back a lot of memories.

And Evert just had one brother and he lived further away from us than Grandma did and we didn't, we saw them, but we didn't get to see them that much because it meant going down to the farm. But my mom was in a nursing home. So consequently we'd try to incorporate the two different kinds of things so we could visit and-

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  David you were a different generation than people you see in photos. What do the photos tell you of the time?  How do they speak to you?

David Kuntz: Well for me there are lot of good memories because these pictures were taken before I was born. But yet a lot of the same images of the same people doing the same things were around for years after that. And so, for example, the picture of Grandma's Sunday dinner is a picture that I saw you know in person many times. It just instilled in us a, you know as a family as sense of unity, a sense of loyalty, a sense of belonging.

And you see the strength in the pictures of my grandparents and great-great grandparents. And they just were very strong people.  You know strong willed people and people that counted on each other because in, in that time your family and your, your faith was kind of what you had to, to go on.

David Kuntz: And it's a little different today we, we try to, I try in my family to keep some of these things alive and instill some of these thing, concepts you know with my kids but it's, it's different.  It's definitely not the same as, as it was.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Do you remember Helen when the community nicknamed Evert Goop? Is that correct?  Were they happy to let him take your picture?  What do you think it was about Evert that made people comfortable with him and he could take pictures like this?

David Kuntz: Well I think part of it is that he did not line people up to take pictures of them like  most of us do. Instead, he just very patiently waited and participated in the activities and then shot a picture when he saw a good picture.

And so for the most part people did not you know realize even that he was taking these pictures and he took pictures generally that were flattering of people. That showed them, you know, in a nice concept or in nice setting. And pictures that, that they could be proud of and, and you know that we could be proud of later. Very comfortable person to be around.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Do you remember people saying things when he would take pictures?  Or people react?

Helen Kuntz: Well I think I came into the picture past the teasing stage.  I think that they spoke highly of him with the pictures.  When I came on the scene and then when we, I don't know if I should say it that way but when we got married. We were talking about it last night how the pictures that were taken were really interesting and even now bring back memories for, for our kids.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  David, I was curious of the type of camera- can you describe?

David Kuntz: Well it was an we called it an Argus. And it was a quite a primitive camera by today's standard certainly. He bought it at the drugstore for I believe it was $12.50, and he invented little things to make his pictures better. 

He put together a shutter release with an old cable.  He built a little tri-pod with some little pieces of pipe. He build a real nice case for the camera using his Uncle Elmer's boot and the clasp from his mother's purse. The folks that know about his particular camera, for example this Argus collectors club - and they're very interested in the photos and in the book. 

You know they've told me that these pictures not only are great pictures, but that they're very surprised at the quality of the pictures given the primitive nature of the camera. We still have the camera somewhere around here.

Helen Kuntz: Oh yes, we've got all the equipment that goes with it.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  I'd be curious to know what are your favorite photos and why?

Helen Kuntz: Well it's hard to really say what is a favorite but I, I like the Sunday dinner one because it, when you look at it you think back to bringing family together which was important. And if we had that Sunday dinner it meant that we drove a few miles to Grandma's house and to my mother's house who was, she was in an apartment until she went into a nursing home. But it got, got us together and we'd always drive home and talk about what a nice time we had, at Grandma’s.

David Kuntz: There's a lot of favorites in the collection and I like the one of my great-grandfather that's behind me here and you know if you look at the picture you see a worn out shirt and a worn out collar and pretty worn out looking face and ah his eyes are worn out and you can see the cataracts in his eyes and it's just a guy who spent his whole life working so hard. 

The picture of the policeman with the little girl in Iowa City outside the store is, is a lot of fun. 

I really like the one with called Oats Harvest where my grandmother is, is driving the horses as mom talked about earlier. And my grandfather has got the you know the oats in bundles in each arm and there's just the two of them are out there in the field working together. And you know you think about something like that happening today in the middle of the field out in the country and a husband and wife just working real hard like that it's a, it's a great shot.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  For 1939-41 which is what the book covers- Time when preparing for World War II and time of unrest for the country- yet when you look at these images you don't see an unhappy face. Why do you think that is? They seem so happy-

David Kuntz: Well these are, my thought on that is, is these are people that are you know they're, they're happy people, they're, they're well feed, they're smiling generally in these pictures. 

A lot of the pictures that we see from the period are a little more depressing but I think these are people that just had a, a faith and a way of living and a way of family that, that just insulated them from some of these outside world. Problems you know some of which hadn't quite hit yet. And, and I'm sure the pictures you know would have been different once World War II actually came about.

David Kuntz: But I think they really were insulated from a lot of these problems from around the world.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  What do you think Helen?

Helen Kuntz: Well I think that's true and yet I think that the problems that were there, they, they kind of addressed them and when somebody would come home from the service when Evert came home on furlough and I didn't know him at that time.  It was a very special time.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  I think maybe what you're getting at- it's kind of a time capsule in a sense where you have these images and so many things change and of course we all age and I'm sure it's like taking a step back in time and rarely are we lucky enough to have images like Evert captured.

Helen Kuntz: That's true.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Describe to me what it feels like to know that you have essentially your past and Everettt captures like this.

Helen Kuntz: Well and it means a lot to, to me and I know to the children that people have taken an interest in the pictures, the way they have and even like as we were talking before.

Helen Kuntz: Just things like that that you, you go someplace and there's something that reflects back to the, the old pictures and the old times you know. 

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: David, were you the main person who kind of helped Evert when he wanted to bring these negatives to life?  What did he say to you?

David Kuntz: Well most of the credit for putting things together really goes to Mom and she's one who you know worked side by side with dad with these pictures to, to bring the pictures to life and he was very excited about the pictures both because he saw the pictures for the first time but also because people were so interested in the pictures. 

And it just kind of caught on and we learned that people all over the place were interested in the pictures and the pictures really just spoke for themselves.  It’s not anything really, certainly not anything that I did more so mom and her efforts.

Helen Kuntz: No you did a lot of thinking.  I said there wouldn't be any book today if it wasn't for David helping and

Because somehow I, I missed out on that at the time I guess or something.

David Kuntz: Well Dad you know he didn't know how far this would go and he did see that there was a lot of interest and then he saw the articles in the newspaper and then he saw some things on television. And you know I just told Dad before he passed away, I just said, “we're, we're going to make a book out of these pictures” and just kind of made him a promise there that I was going to do that.

And so it wasn't very difficult because mostly the University of Iowa and others have done the work on that.  Got that done but he'd be very pleased and proud to know that there was a book and, and now a documentary being produced. It would make him very happy.  We're really proud of the, of the pictures.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:  Something else?

Helen Kuntz: I would just say that the photos and the book and the pictures have all just kind of come alive. And now I just anticipate there'll be more things coming that we don't know are going to happen, because the people seeing some article in a magazine.

What one thing I think I've tried to do, and I think the children have this, too, kind of latch on to anything we could that would promote the book or the pictures or the story. And it's true Evert would be just amazed if he were to be able to be in the middle of it. I always think to myself well you have to know what's going on, but if they could really be a part of it would be really exciting. 

I firmly believe that the lord spoke to Everettt about these pictures back in ‘02 because that's when they opened up. And he started going downhill pretty fast. And we didn't expect he would go so quickly, but I think it was a joy to him. And it was a joy to the rest of us. And I just feel that during this whole process of the pictures and I just pray that they can be a blessing to other people like they have been to us. Because, I think that's what, that's what would please me.

And I appreciate the interest you've shown in the pictures and, and especially your coming up here and coming over here.  That was good.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: David- mentioned something about father was surprised about the quality-

David Kuntz: Well I think he was a little surprised to see you know this collection of prints that was so, so good. Because he took thousands of pictures over his lifetime and a lot of the pictures are great, but a lot of the pictures are you know normal family pictures that maybe aren't all that exciting to other people.

But these pictures really had an excitement an interest that, that's sort of timeless. That's, that's not connected to, to any town or not connected to any family or any person and he realized that. And I think he just was really excited, and surprised a little bit, and you know had a real feeling of pride.

These pictures were things that he worked on right at the very end of his life. And he actually printed the pictures and worked with them right up until the end. And he was able to put together for us a collection that has now become the book.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: David - the grandchildren, your children - how have they reacted to seeing their grandfather's photos?  Have they made comments?

David Kuntz: Well, Maddy and Joe, my daughter and son, had been very interested in the process.  They're, first of all, they're interested because there's a book you know with Grandpa's pictures. And well not everybody has a book out with Grandpa's pictures in them.

We've also got you know newspaper articles, TV, these kinds of things. And so, for the kids it's exciting to see that these pictures actually were special enough to be presented in these different venues. 

When they look at the pictures they see a lot of things that are different but they comment on, on some of the things that are the same or the things that look like fun.  Like my daughter Maddy looks at the picture called Sand and Shoes and she talks about how that looks like fun to leave your shoes up in the sand and go down to the river and, and so forth.  It's been fun to have them involved in the, in the process.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: why do you think he made a good photographer?  What was it about him?

David Kuntz: Well it seemed like he could capture something and make a picture that was just – if somebody else would take it, it just wouldn't be the same. I don't know if I'm saying that exactly right but-

Well, he had a great deal of patience and so he you know he could wait for the right picture.  He took some pictures of lightening on the farm where he actually waited you know for the lightening bolt and took the picture at the right moment. 

So he had a lot of patient and he was able to just blend into the crowd; blend into the people at the church picnic, or at the event. And then just snap these candid pictures because he made people so comfortable to be around.

People were, were themselves.  I think is the best way to say it.  They were themselves when they were around Dad and as a result he was able to get pictures that were real. That's a better way to put it.


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