Six women photographers and their love of Leelanau


Grace Dickinson, after killing an antelope while hunting in Montana.

Grace Dickinson, after killing an antelope while hunting in Montana.

By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

This is the story of six female photographers who fell in love with the Leelanau Peninsula and found a way to share that love through their photos. In our July 11 issue we profiled Jane Fortune of Leland for her work discovering female artists of the Italian Renaissance, many of whom are described in her book, Invisible Women. Fortune’s work, for which she just received an Emmy, inspired our effort to showcase the work of female photographers on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Photography requires the eye of an artist, the human curiosity and compassion of a journalist, the technical skill of a mechanical engineer, the gift of originality, and the discipline to take the camera everywhere and be absolutely ready when there’s a perfect shot or unusual light. All the photographers showcased here have all of those qualities and, luckiest for us, they are here where we live. Their photographs — their unique perspective, their insight, their love of this place, their genius for this art form — enrich our lives by giving us the opportunity to see and experience the world around us in new ways.

Dickinson's hand-colored rendition of the Steam Missouri, docked in Leland in 1919.

Dickinson’s hand-colored rendition of the Steam Missouri, docked in Leland in 1919.

Grace Dickinson has a photo studio across the road from the place her grandparents first came to on the south shore of Little Glen Lake in the summer of 1912. Her grandparents traveled to the Leelanau Peninsula by steamer, from the Navy Pier in Chicago up Lake Michigan to Glen Haven. In 1942 her parents met and fell in love while her mother was a writer/editor at the Leelanau Enterprise and soon after became year-round residents. Grace’s father, Fred, a broker who worked from home, spent his free time photographing the dunes and the islands. One unusual photo shows a cloud the exact size of one of the Manitou Islands, above the island, a rare phenomenon caused by condensation when the temperature of the island is colder than that of the surrounding waters of Lake Michigan.

From an early age, Grace followed in her father’s footsteps, quite literally, accompanying him and sometimes photographing the same scenes. Grace left her studies at Northwestern Michigan College to go on a year-long sailing adventure in the Bahamas, and followed this with a two-decade-sojourn out in Montana where she married a rancher and finished college. Grace returned to the Leelanau Peninsula in the late 1980s and became a mapmaker for the Leelanau County Planning Commission. She began taking photos of the Leelanau Peninsula and opened her own studio out of which she sold her own and her father’s photos and maps. In the mid-1990s she revived the 1930s art of photographic hand-coloring, laboriously hand-tinting her father’s black and white photos of earlier years, photos which evoke the shadows and starkness of some of the photos of Diane Arbus, but as applied to nature, not people. In the medium of hand-coloring Grace discovered a way to keep her father’s legacy alive and express her own love of Leelanau. Her photo studio is on Glenmere (M-22) west of the bridge over the Glen Lake Narrows.

Schilling's photo of the Platte River emptying into Lake Michigan.

Schilling’s photo of the Platte River emptying into Lake Michigan.

Marty Schilling is from one of the oldest summer families on Big Glen Lake, a place first discovered by her mother’s pioneering Leelanau grandparents who had a homestead in Solon near Cedar Creek. The Solon grandfather, James C. White, went on to work for Eastman Kodak and his daughter, Barbara, married George Schilling, Marty’s father, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. The couple settled in Lafayette, Ind., while continuing to spend summers on the south shore of Big Glen. Marty’s attorney father taught her how to use a camera and she went on to receive a degree in art from Indiana University, apprenticing herself to a photographer in Santa Fe before returning to establish a photo studio in Traverse City. After her daughter, Kate, now 25, was born she returned to Lafayette to be near family and work in Real Estate.

Marty Schilling died of breast cancer in 2011 in Indiana. Her sister, Carolyn Gery, says that Marty had a wonderfully joyful and courageous spirit, “Just 10 days before she died she put on a trench coat, a fedora, high heels and did a song and dance in the kitchen for the amusement of her hospice care-giver.” Marty’s work stands out for the excellent composition and contrast with shots that focus on nature in ways both sensual and stark, showing the influences of photographer Ansel Adams and New Mexico-based visual artist Georgia O’Keefe. The photos of the dunes shown here were published in the Detroit News Sunday Magazine in the 1980s.

Dodge Buhler's photograph of the sky over Leelanau.

Dodge Buhler’s photograph of the sky over Leelanau.

Kathleen (Dodge) Buhler had an early grandmother who came by steamer to Frankfort and then by horse and buggy to the west shore of Big Glen Lake in the early 1900s. Kathleen, a 1975 graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in anthropology, freelanced for downstate newspapers and magazines, became an account executive for Traverse Magazine and eventually established her own business with accounts with the Kellogg Foundation, Munson Hospital and Interlochen Center for the Arts. Kathleen’s photos have the ability to evoke emotion in the manner of photographer Alfred Steiglitz or the painter Andrew Wyeth. The photos here were taken for a piece on the Leelanau Peninsula which appeared in the Detroit Free Press in the 1980s. Kathleen married Claude Buhler, a Swiss journalist, and the couple consider Leelanau County their permanent home but also spend several months a year in Florida and make frequent visits to Switzerland. Kathleen is working on photo essays of Switzerland, Florida and the Leelanau Peninsula.

An example of Nowinski's impressionistic, soft work.

An example of Nowinski’s impressionistic, soft work.

Barbara Nowinski spent summers on Lake Leelanau as a child and became a permanent resident of Leland in the late 1970s after several years in Kansas City where she worked as a designer for Hallmark Cards. Her photos have a misty, impressionistic quality that remind one of the photos of Cartier-Bresson or the artwork of Matisse. Following her return to Leelanau County, Barbara freelanced for Hallmark until the Leland Township Library was built on the river in 1976 and she became its first librarian. In the 1980s she earned a Master’s from the University of Michigan’s School of Library Science, joined the Traverse Area District Library as assistant director, and became head of special programs before retiring in 2009. She now spends summers in Leland and winters in northern California. In both places she is a birder and volunteers as a docent at the Point Lobos Natural Reserve and is on the board of the Charter Bird Sanctuary on Putnam Road in Leelanau County. She still keeps her hand in, “making art,” she says, and recently was one of the artists in the Leland Cultural Center’s Plein Aire event. The photos here were first published in the 1980s in the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine.

WomensPhotographers-NorthMich37Meggen Watt Petersen can’t remember a summer when she hasn’t returned to her family’s home on north Lake Leelanau. Even when she was based in Washington, D.C., travelling the world working for the State Department’s anti-nuclear proliferation division, she managed to return to Leelanau County. She grew up in California and started working at the Center for Nonproliferation while still in graduate school at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She was a fellow to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna where she worked in the office of Mohamed El Baradei (who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize). In Washington she was an executive officer of the U.S. delegation for plutonium disposition negotiations and also worked to prevent nuclear terrorism. It was while she was travelling that she began to take pictures to share with and connect to friends and family and tell the story of where she was. She loved her work and found it exciting but yearned for the pace of Leelanau, and in 2010 took a sabbatical to her cottage on Good Harbor. It was during that sabbatical year, while taking pictures of Fishtown, that Meggen met and fell in love again with the beautiful peninsula of her childhood and, coincidentally, fell in love with commercial fisherman, Joel Peterson, and made the decision to turn a sabbatical into a new life.

Her photos are journalistic, contain a narrative arc, and tell a story in the way of those that Walker Evans took for Life Magazine during the Great Depression or those Margaret Bourke-White took during the Second World War. Her love of American traditions such as Fourth of July fireworks, sailing and bonfires give her work a patriotic Normal Rockwell quality. Meggen has an online studio and also gives talks to civic and school groups on the rewards and challenges of careers in international studies.

WomenPhotographers-SAM_0711Ashmir McCarthy first picked up a camera three years ago, a cheap digital, and the photos she took had everyone saying, “I could never do that.” Her family bought her a real camera and her work got even better. The composition and contrast, the feeling, remind one of the photos of Dorothea Lange or the artwork of post-impressionist Henri Rousseau. Ashmir is the kind of kid who walks to her high school, three miles each way, so that she can have “time to think.” She’s the 17-year-old great-granddaughter of Glen Arbor lumberman and naturalist Pierce Stocking and visits the Leelanau Peninsula every summer with her family.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990). She is currently working on her next book, The Long Arc of the Universe, which you can support via a Kickstarter campaign until August 21.