Growing up along Lake Erie in the tiny town of Conneaut, Ohio, USASAC employee Richard Bumgardner never imagined what life had in store for him in Northern Alabama.
Neither did he imagine that his favorite pastime would take him all over the globe and lead to a spotlight in the Huntsville Museum of Art.
A collection of iconic photographs by Bumgardner are currently on display at the 75,000 square foot museum, which houses 14 galleries over 20,000 square feet. The photographs were taken in Havana during a visit to Cuba in 2016, just as relations between the United States and the former Communist nation began to thaw, and trade and travel restrictions eased.
“I was pretty fortunate to get into the country at all,” said Bumgardner, a USASAC public affairs specialist and award-winning photographer. “But my heart was set on capturing raw images of the people of Cuba before it was open to the rest of the world.”
Bumgardner was granted entry into Cuba on a Cultural and Education exemption. He and a fellow artist taught fashion photography classes at a Havana Photographic Society and donated photography equipment to their school.
During his off hours he mingled with the locals, taking bold, raw images of the Cuban people.
“They were so open and welcoming, willing for me to capture their character, flaws and personalities,” he said. “I think these are some of my finest portraits, just of random people I met on the streets.
“I had no intent and no idea that these images would end up in a museum,” said Bumgardner. “I was just doing what I love – capturing life on film.”
Bumgardner said his younger self could have never imagined that his boyish hobby would garner him such recognition. But then again, there were few things he could have predicted.
Growing up in small-town America, he said his childhood memories revolve around slow pitch softball, roller skating rinks, root beer floats and his grandfather serving as the strict, but well respected, local minister.
He said it was tough living up to such high standards both at church and at home, and it wasn’t long before Midwestern boredom and a mischievous nature got the best of him. Bumgardner said he began pushing the limits, pulling pranks and getting into trouble.
And then he fell in love with photography.
Bumgardner took art class in high school and began experimenting with a Kodak 110 Instamatic camera his parents had given him. Nearby Lake Erie was an ideal location to experiment with landscape photography.
“In the long winters I would walk down to the lake and capture the reflections on the ice and the shadows created by the snow and ice formations,” he said.
To make his photographs more interesting, he taped microscope slides with Vaseline on his camera lens, or he would paint the glass lens black then scratch off starburst shapes to create special effects. His creativity paid off. His vignette sunset was selected as the cover of his high school senior yearbook in 1978.
After graduating high school, Bumgardner was eager to bid farewell to tiny Conneaut and explore the world. “I wanted to travel, especially to Germany, where my mother was from,” said Bumgardner.
He joined the Air Force, working the flight lines as an aircraft mechanic—a toolbox in one hand and a camera in the other. His first assignment was Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany.
Fast forward 12 years—working outdoors in inclement weather, amid deafening noise, chemicals and heavy aircraft parts—and he was ready for a change. In 1992, facing a mandatory cross-training deadline for mechanics, he applied for and was accepted as the only cross-trainee into Air Force Television Production and Documentation.
Fast forward another decade and Bumgardner had joined the 1361st Audiovisual Squadron in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, working in U.S. Air Force television production and as a combat cameraman. There he shot and edited video and had the occasional opportunity to shoot still photography using, as he described, “…this huge $20,000 digital camera that shot 1MB resolution photos, but we could immediately see our photos. How cool.”
His time as a combat cameraman reignited his photo passion, and it was during a deployment to Bosnia in 1998 that he turned to documentary photography.
When he retired from the military in 2001, he moved with his wife and daughter to Georgia, where he attended Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). With the support of family and friends, Bumgardner graduated from SCAD with a BFA in Photography in 2004.
“Many factors influence me and compel me to take photos,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the technical difficulty of capturing a scene, sometimes it is the beauty in a scene, or the interplay between light and shadows or colors, and sometimes it is seeing something so unique that I have to capture it.”
Photography also allows Bumgardner to travel back in time. “I like capturing moments in time and freezing them…the memories of an event with all the sights and sounds come back to me.”
“It still amazes me how he manages to merge his technical skills with his love of travel and other cultures,” said Kim Capehart, director of USASAC’s Public Affairs Office. “I’ve known for years how talented he is and how fortunate the command is to have him on the team, but it’s awe-inspiring to see the images he captured of the Cuban people hanging in a museum.”
Although he considers himself a generalist, he does enjoy photographing faces and considers himself heavily influenced by photography masters like Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Lauren Greenfield and National Geographic.
As he looks at his photos hanging in the Huntsville Museum of Art, he reflected, “I took up photography at 15 primarily to keep from getting into trouble. Who could have ever thought that one day my images would be in a museum gallery for the world to see? Not bad for a small-town boy from Ohio.”
View Bumgardner’s images at the Huntsville Museum of Art Guild Gallery through Aug. 8. He will also have an image displayed at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center in Decatur, Alabama, Aug. 10 – Sept. 18.