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Picture Perfect: Interview with Nancy Hildreth & Carol Swenson

posted on February 26, 2009 at 2:16 PM


Nancy Kuntz Hildreth and Carol Kuntz Swenson were interviewed on August 25, 2008.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Tell me a little bit about your dad. 

Carol Kuntz Swenson: You know he was interested in everything.  We'd be camping and there'd be a spider or something and you know he was, he was interested in it and I noticed with our kids whatever they thought was cool, he thought was cool.  You know I mean he, he was that kind of person.  He was kind of quiet in certain ways.  He could talk about, just about any subject.  He was very, very smart and I don't know he just a love of the outdoors and a love of people you know. 

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How do you best describe him?

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: Well my dad was just an awesome person all the way around.  He was a great role model for us kids.  Other family members have mentioned his level of patience which I think was really one of his strengths and as Carol said kind of a quieter person but when he did speak it was always something very significant so people really paid attention.  He wasn't one just to yak yak yak and when he like I say when he did share something it was always something with really good humor or something witty or something that um really catch people's attention.

He was just extremely I would say detail oriented person that I think that was partly why he was so interested in so many different things and mom had made the comment about him wondering how others could ever get bored because he just had a tendency to even things that might be insignificant to other people he would find interest in other just look at it from a different angle and I think he brought that definitely in his, in his photography

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What did you think when your dad remembered these photographs and when you and the rest of the family started looking through them.  What were some of your first feelings?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Gosh at first I was kind of surprised just looking at them.  It was like whoa these are really, really nice and I remember one picture I think it was his mom milking the cow came up on the screen because he was doing the scanning and he just sat there for probably 20 minutes just looking at it you know and I think um, you know it for me I remember playing on that farm and you know riding sleds down the driveway hill you know and things like that and you know it was just really neat just to see those pictures because I think a lot of our relatives and stuff that have pictures from past times it's like a portrait or something where they went to a studio.  There weren't that many just candid shots going on at that time you know.  So it's kind of nice just to see pictures like that.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What do you remember when he started bringing them all out and getting them printed?

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: I remember being very excited and actually really kind of shocked when he said he had these negatives and we're looking at each other well what negatives, what are you are talking about and he brought these negatives out and each one you now carefully stored and secured and when we'd come over and he'd share another print with us.  For me it was a really positive focus even though dad was dying.  He was an engineer and his engineering background I think allowed him to kind of look at and prioritize things knowing that he had limited time yet to live that, that brought back _____ that was something that he probably always didn't _____ at sometime do but it was on the back burner for all those years and he hadn't really shared it with us.  So when we learned about it, it was really exciting and it was just such positive focus even though dad was dying that it just, it was awesome.  So every time we'd come over to see a new photograph I think for me the coolest thing was seeing photographs of his mother and father and my uncle and pictures of himself that he had no idea existed and it was just incredible.  The composition of the pictures I think is just fascinating and I guess one of the other things that really struck me as we saw more and more of the images is the variety.

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: That's what I couldn't get over.  It wasn't that he just took outdoor scenes or portraits of people but he had such a wide variety even with the animals and things like that.  So I just, still to this day, I mean I just feel good inside when I look at the photos and when I think about it.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: And I remember he was doing really pretty poorly but they had a little display at the, oh it was a little cafe coffee shop and I came up from Phoenix for it and everything and he had trouble you know I mean he said I don't know if I'm going to make it for the day you know and then he kind of rallied for the event and I remember him saying to me well what do you think Carol I guess the pictures are kind of a hit.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: He was sort of surprised you know like ok now there, you know there ah at this, this little coffee shop and you know they came over and did the little newspaper thing and he was kind of surprised that other people where interested.  So it was nice.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What do you think your father's photographs symbolize?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: I think it symbolizes a um just a simpler time.  You know I mean and just like the you know the wheel barrel race or you know they're at the picnic and they're um they're sitting around with some blankets and the river, no other toys, no other anything and they're all having a good time you know to where you know it seems like now a days um I know kids are so used to being constantly entertain you know that it seems like in all the pictures they were just coming up with stuff to do.  They were having fun and there wasn't, I don't know it just, like I say a simpler time I guess.

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: I think as I mentioned just the variety of different things that he photographed to me symbolizes just the real world, real world setting and he was able to select things for the photos that again just such a wide variety you didn't exclude things.  There were a lot of things that other people would probably never consider of a photograph that he would figure out how to make it interesting and there was one picture in particular that he titled the thirsty chicken and it just to me is just a riot because it shows the large hub out on the farm filled with water and the little chicken is perched on the edge and taking a drink and I don't know that other folks would really think about taking a photograph like that.  So I think that again they just symbolize real world things.  Things that were pretty basic that maybe others wouldn't think again worthy of a picture that, that he did.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Printing old negatives for him must have been full circle.  What do you think that meant to him?  60 years later-

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Well I think kind of like Nancy said it's um just the, the timing in his life because the fact that he was ill and everything I think it was just a kind of a peaceful thing for him to like see back to his, you know things from his childhood and just bring memories out that um you now gave him something to focus on besides just the fact of being ill and it was just, it was just really neat that I think it's the timing of it when it all kind of came to be you know?

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: I think the fact that he could share it with us and see our response was real big.  Dad wasn't one to show a lot of emotion on the exterior and when he would see our delight in the pictures I think that his emotion would show a little bit more and I think it just really was, really meaningful for him.  Extremely meaning for him to be able to do it.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Do you think he was surprised when he went back to locations and peoples reactions where he thought maybe I would be interested in them or just my family.  Do you think he was surprised by the very broad amount of people looking at them and seeing something?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: You know I don't know if he really even knew that because even by the time of the class reunion when the pictures when down there or the Chatterbox in Ridgeway he had already passed away but and I don’t' know that he really thought it would ever really be-

I think his main focus was he was trying to contact some of the people he knew were still living and send them copies because he thought they might be interested in seeing old pictures of, of their self  you know and I remember he was still living when the, when they did a little, the New Brighton Bulletin had a picture on the, on the merry-go-round was on there and the little girl in the front that was looking out her sister happened to see the, the article um and called up "Oh that's my sister" and wanted to know if there was more pictures and so he, that's the first he knew that really you know more people were looking at them and so forth because it was just a little local newspaper was the only thing he knew about.  I think, I mean he didn't know about any of the other stuff.  So-

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: Yeah I'd agree with Carol.  I mean dad was fairly humble and maybe we're biased but we do think he was pretty brilliant.  But I think he was pretty humble as talented and as skilled as he was um he wasn't one to really flaunt that and it was just not his, not his style.  But I think he'd be just thrilled to have people enjoy these pictures and to actually see the book and I, I believe that he aware of the book.  I like to think that.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Yeah.

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: And so yeah I think the fact that he was able to have the display at the coffee shop at the Brew House um was just really neat that he was able to realize that.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Well yeah and I remember one comment that he made to me at the um cafe there um was that he was happy to see that other people could look at them and come up with their own memories.  You know which was kind of neat.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: How do you think we've changed as a nation since that time?  Since the time of 1939-

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: Well I think, I think just um within society and with the media in general there's just a lot more violence and, and in his photographs you're right there is innocence in those pictures.  And you'd really be hard pressed to go through the photographs and find pictures where people are not smiling.  There's one picture in particular called the cheerful classroom that he  titled it the cheerful classroom and I've actually gone through and tried to look at each individual in that photograph and see if there was one particular person in the photograph that wasn't smiling and they were and I think the other thing is also maybe back in those times with the unity the closeness, sense of community that people had even though there was hardships it wasn't experience in the same was as experience today because the level of support was different um and that's making an assumption on my part on having been from that era but it just means to me with that sense of community people get you know there were, there were definitely hardships.  They didn’t have all the technology that we have today, they don't have all the medical treatments available to them and all the other things that we have just easily accessible and really available to us today but yet they were able to maintain the smile and, and get together and do all those things that we see in the photographs.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: And I remember even as a kid going to Ridgeway I know gosh you know they'd be out on the porch with this platoon you know and things like that.  You'd go downtown and get an ice cream and um I mean everybody was, it just seemed like a calm little town you know compared to like maybe us growing up in the city. I, I don't know if all small towns were that way but you know and ah then I actually went to college in Decorah at Luther and same sort of thing you know everybody would be you know float the Upper Iowa you know things like that.  It just, it's ah just kind of a Midwest way of life so to speak, small town way of life.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Instilled that same love of photography in you and now your daughter.  Tell me a little bit about that.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Oh well I remember when she was going take a photography class at school and he kind of sat down and was telling her you know well you know anything can be a picture he told her.  You know if you look at it from the right perspective you know it can be a picture and then he was telling her too that as you do the dark room work how fun it is to all the sudden see the, it's starting to show up in the developer you know and when I was in college the same thing I took a photography class and I remember one time going around with dad and doing pictures and there was actually a bridge right out there outside of Decorah you know and I was thinking you know I'm just going to take the picture and he was like well what about this angle and he, he you know gave me some pointers that way and it was um like I say now that I see my daughter being interested in photography and thinking about maybe taking some of his enlarger equipment you know I just feel like it's maybe a little legacy of, of part of him you know that, that’s there and when we were kids I mean he would make our, our Christmas cards and I remember down in the basement he would develop the negatives and everything and then he'd print up, he had these pans and he'd print up the, the cards and they'd start showing ____ in the, in the developer you know and then he would string the clothes line and they'd all be hanging up to dry you know? And um so he always was kind of interested in photography and at I think it passed down to us.

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: And I think as kids too having a dad that took so many pictures that um I think it really helped us to be more confident and able with self-esteem, to have a father that's wanting to photograph you and get all the detail and the time that it takes to do that back in those days when we didn't have all the digital photography and all the fancy equipment that there is available today that he took the time to do that I think helped us in other ways beyond just being able to see ourselves in that photograph and I think it helps us actually be more confident.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What do you think some of his personality made him a good photographer especially capturing the images? 

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: Well I think partly his love of nature and yet he was you know he was a mover and shaker kind of person that was wanting to get out and see things his arthritis did limit him more so in the later years and and that um probably limited some of his photography as he grew older but in those days when these photographs were taken he was obviously very mobile and going around throughout the community.  I think his sense of community was part of that.  I definitely think he engineering mind was part of it because he was probably be able to calculate the dimensions and a picture of the different angles in a picture and probably use some mathematics for in the distance or um just taking in account the lighting.  I mean he knew a lot of information about a lot of different things that I think definitely helped him to be a good photographer and as I mention before he was pretty comfortable around him because again it just his manner pretty excepting, not real judgmental of other people, caring individual and, and pretty easy to be around.

Not somebody that was real demanding or insisting that you have to do something in a certain way.  I know when we sit for photographs there's actually one of me where I'm going or my arms are up in the air and well that was our Christmas card that year and I reflect back on it I was just a toddler but my hands were up in the air but that was turned out to be an ok picture but dad knew that it would make an interesting picture.  So I think just his ability to flexible and um I think patience again I know we've said that but I think that's a huge part of it with the photography and the intellect to view things from a different angle and be able to reflect and think about how it might be perceived by other people. He was a photographer.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Do you have favorites or scene and why?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: You know I think my favorite is Umbrella Girls although it's not actually in the book but it’s just like a little show that the kids at the school were probably putting on and it's just like um so cute.  You know then how their little tights are starting to sag and it's really cute and I think as far as the, the ones the two that had the most memory for me is my grandma milking the cow and then my grandpa carrying the milk buckets because I can just see that in my mind as clear as anything you know and just look at the picture it's kind of like, it's just neat.

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: I would have to say the picture of my Grandma Kuntz, his mother. um I think you mentioned about the, the strength that it portrays and she was definitely one of my mentors and I love that picture.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Do you have others?

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: There, there is one other one there's a fellow that's standing in a suit and he's all decked out and he's got his shades on and he's wearing a real dressy hat and he's wearing a snare drum.  He's standing in a field by himself and just standing in the dirt and I just really am intrigued by that photograph and I want, you know it makes me want to know more and learn more about the setting and what was happening that day that there he was out there all dressed up and I used to play the drums.  So I think that's why that, that particular one really is one of my favorites.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Why do you think people are really looking at these and they seem to resonating with them or what do you think is so special or unique about them?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Well I think you know part of it is the fact that you know my dad he was like 18 when took most of these pictures 18/19.  You know looking at things from a, sort of a youthful perspective when he took the pictures you know and also like I say I don't think there were that many candid shots going on at that time and so that's something that a lot of people you know and it's just day to day life that, that a lot of people from other small towns probably were doing the same sort of things.  You know going on picnics and you know doing stuff around the school and stuff like that, that um that there's something in their background that they can sort of relate to the picture. 

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Do you think that being a young man makes a difference in the kinds of pictures?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Well I think so you know because somebody older probably wouldn't have been maybe around the school as much or with the you know the, the kids are the same kind of you know the school band or the high school graduation, you know the kind of things that, that he took pictures of it might have impacted it.  Plus like say it's kind of looking at whatever's going on there from a youthful eye.  You know when he took the pictures.  SO it probably did.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What about for you what makes people really look at these?

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: Well I find it interesting why different people are interested in the pictures.  Sometimes it catches their eyes because they're black and white photographs and then they begin to look at you know the attire of the dress or the hairstyles and, and I think um just even the closeness of the people as they're standing together.  In this day in age maybe people aren't as touchy/feely as they were back then and just you know throw your arm around your buddy and, and um I think just the warmth that's there in some of the pictures catches people's eye.  Some people have commented to me they want to know if I know who the people are in the pictures and some of them of course I do because they are relatives but many of the people I don't know who they are by name but I still find a lot of interest in the pictures and I know a lot of my friends of my generation just think they're fascinating because it just tells a story of an entirely different era and I think that's one of the reasons that I know folks are interested in them for different reasons.

Some people do want to know is that my uncle so and so or they want to k now the names and find more meaning if they know the names of the people are versus some people that just look at the competition of the picture for just a variety of different reasons.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Well I know in my office down Phoenix down the hallway it's a medical office and the, the picture all decorated the hallway you know.  So somebody they maybe on a walk or something and they're walking down to the far end exam room and they just stop and look at the pictures you know and a lot of times they want to know where they were you know and I said Northeast Iowa you know and surprising how many people relate to farm life and just relate to small town life from that, from those years.  You know and it, like I said I think it brings out their own memories even if it's not people that they know it's like they can picture their farm or you know that kind of thing.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Historical standpoint what do you think these tell us?  or why they are important?

Carol Kuntz Swenson: Well I think the fact that it, its um you know everybody like, like Nancy said everybody in the pictures is happy and stuff and it was just before um you know it was kind of you now the depression was kind of getting a little behind people and the war hadn't just yet started and so it was just a time you know where there weren't a lot of big world stresses you know or at least I would say United States stresses.  You know so it was kind of, of a peaceful time and I think people like to look back at that time, time frame before you know the war started and everything started in an uproar you know.


Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: So just one comment I would make I'm not really sure what percentage of folks you know the average person in the population had cameras back in those days but I think historically that significant and that if I can make the assumption because I'm not exactly sure what percentage people maybe did have cameras or access to cameras but it's my impression that most people would have to go to a studio or there just wasn't the opportunity to take pictures as often or maybe ____ many people had um you know photographs of the everyday life.  So I think it's maybe unique that way and, and maybe not as common to have the types of photos that dad shot.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: Anything else?

Nancy Kuntz Hildreth: Just that I feel very fortunate and really grateful that I had such an awesome dad and I'm glad he took the photos because we're really able to remember him in a real significant way being surrounded by the photographs.  I've got them in my office, I've got them at home, my kids have the photographs in their rooms.  I think my children have also taken an interest in photography because of that and I just think it’s really added a lot to the quality of our life having the dad that we have.

Carol Kuntz Swenson: I am sort of like ditto he was great, he really was.


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