Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 22, 2013

TC photographer sticks to traditional

BY NATHAN PAYNE npayne@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY Greg Seman is a purist.

Seman, an accomplished art photographer, often can be spotted on cold winter mornings taking photos along Grand Traverse Bay by observant commuters as they rush past.

While passersby fiddle with the latest entertainment systems in their vehicles and poke at their smartphones, Seman is outside preserving a dying craft.

You won't see the 54-year-old CPA-by-day, photographer-by-night wandering along the water's edge with the latest digital camera, snapping images haphazardly. No, he prefers the old way of making photos the way the greats like Ansel Adams captured still-life images.

He often stands along the shoreline near his large-format camera while it sits on a large tripod exposing notebook-paper sized sheets of film for as long as 30 minutes.

"It's been an exercise in persistence as much as anything," he said. "I do it really more for myself than anything."

Seman sticks to a method that takes time and care. It's a technique that is marked by intense labor and sometimes imperfect outcomes. And persistence has helped him build a body of work that's made its way into collections across the country and into a permanent collection owned by the Dennos Museum.

"There's only one other photographer I can think of in Michigan that's doing that," said Tom Halsted, a gallery owner and dealer in fine art photography. For decades, Halsted has represented some of the greatest names in art photography. And now he represents Seman.

The film-based art is full of variables that can effect the outcome of an exposure, Seman said. Temperature changes and slight movements during a 30-minute exposure can ruin an image. But Seman wouldn't know the outcome of his work until hours or days later when he sees the image develop in his darkroom.

It's hard to believe there was a time when Seman wrote off photography as something he could only pursue as a hobby.

Seman remembers teaching himself to expose film in an early Kodak camera near his childhood home in Flint. He would commandeer a bathroom in his family's house to develop his film in a rudimentary darkroom.

Eventually Seman would attend a college photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. But he soon moved back to Michigan to attend Western Michigan University to get a business administration degree.

"I just really realized I wasn't really cut out to be a professional photographer," Seman said.

So he set aside his artistic work, earned a living as an accountant and reverted back to his other passion, fishing.

"I did shoot, but not a great deal," he said. "I probably reverted back to being a trout bum."

Then, sometime in the mid 1990s, something happened.

While fishing along one of his favorite stretches of the Rapid River, Seman saw something that catapulted him back into photography. For some time he had considered taking on a photo project to document some of his favorite spots, but hadn't made the leap to do it.

"All of a sudden, I went out to my favorite spot and saw a big, green propane tank," he said. "I thought, 'boy, if I want to photograph this, I'd better get at it.'"

Seman began making images with about $900 worth of gear and signed up for a photography class at Northwestern Michigan College simply to gain access to darkroom space.

Along the way, he continued to show images to Halsted who he had met years earlier in Kalamazoo.

"I showed my stuff to Halsted," he said. "He said, 'It's OK, but keep at it.' He was always great at pushing me."

Slowly, Seman built a body of work that inspired Halsted to start representing him professionally. By 2001, museums and collectors were buying his prints.

During an expansion of his home, Seman built a darkroom where he now works for hours on end perfecting each edition of his prints. Each silver-gelatin print offers depth and detail that can't be reproduced by modern digital printers.

"I think he likes that traditional thing," Halsted said. "He is such a great print maker."

Then, this year, after 16 years of building a portfolio of images, Seman published his first book, "Shine On: Photographs of the Northwestern Michigan Region."

Seman sat in his office along the western edge of Grand Traverse Bay recently and glanced outside.

"So often I'm sitting in here and the light is doing great things," he said.

A box of film under a nearby desk tempting Seman to head outside. The hoard of supplies is the result of a long decline of film production during the past two decades.

It's a bitter twist of fate that could someday hinder the work of an artist who just now has begun to hit his stride.

If you'd like a copy of Seman's book, it's available at the Dennos Museum, Cog's Creek Gallery or at Horizon Books.

His photos will be on display at the Dennos Museum through January 5.