Brian Lanker recently tallied his 60th birthday—that landmark age suited to reflecting on the accomplishments of days gone by, alongside visions of what might yet come.
Spend a few minutes with Lanker in his home in Eugene’s south hills, though, and you sense that he is less prone to measuring his accomplishments than he is a man in possession of untold measures of personal vision. Assuredly, that vision is reflected in his eyes: Crystalline blue, mesmerizing, unexpectedly large. The vision is also suggested by his manner of expression: Contemplative, subtly animated, playfully witty. Like light beams penetrating cloudy water, Lanker has an ability to articulate and draw perspective from the myriad matters secreted below life’s rippling surface.
Yet this monstrously talented photographer, photojournalist, and documentary filmmaker seems to be pushing headlong into the future largely unaffected by the usual flap and fuss that surrounds a 60-year landmark event. And his uncertain appreciation for his own legacy is both perplexing and illuminating—much like those nuances of human character that he so adeptly exposes in others via his portrait lens.
Isn’t this the Brian Lanker who embraces his invitation to the much-heralded, every-fifth-year birthday bashes that Oprah throws for her good friend, the poet Maya Angelou? The same Lanker who, with typical unmitigated generosity, recently published a hardcover keepsake photo album for friends that attended Angelou’s 80th birthday party?
And isn’t this the Brian Lanker who proudly embraces his long-standing friendship with Angelou, an emblematic kinship that speaks of her role in modeling a life overflowing with dedication, compassion, and integrity?
Brian Lanker possesses an acute eye and a brave heart. He has discovered women whose images show us the high cost of living and the rich reward of thriving.
— Maya Angelou, from her foreword to the book, I Dream A World, by Brian Lanker
Truth told, Brian Lanker is nothing less than a big, bold, beret-wearing, gray-bearded poster child for living our complex lives with unbridled enthusiasm—which is certainly reflected in his celebrated photo imagery. It reverberates in the laughter inspired by his good-natured, prankish sense of humor. It shines through his relentless work and travel schedule. It underpins the sharp-edged perfection he invests in the pursuit of journalistic ideals. And it overlays the generosity and extreme loyalty, Lanker says he bestows on his friends, “to a fault.”
So you’d expect Lanker to grant himself a fair amount of pause for contemplating his personal legacy at the passing of his 60th year.
He hasn’t. And yet, Lanker’s understated attention to his legacy is entirely consistent, reflecting his unimposing ego and many passionate interests that simply trump his need to measure his stature in the universe.
“We can kind of put our finger on maybe what we would like our legacy to be,” admits Lanker, “but it’s kind of nebulous, ethereal. It’s almost for others to say. Because I’m so caught up in living the moment, putting my pants on one leg at a time, I don’t take time to reflect on that.”
Brian’s a national treasure, but you’d get no idea of his prominence by being in a group gathering with him. There’s just none of that demand for attention that you see in so many other folks who have far less accomplishment to stand on.
— Peter DeFazio, United States Congressman
So what might others recommend for inclusion in the Lanker legacy?
He has won numerous international awards for his photography, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1973—at age 25—awarded while working in Kansas at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Lanker garnered the award for his photo essay on Lamaze natural childbirth, for an article titled “The Moment of Life.”
His riveting photos of Lynda Coburn in the process of giving birth now hang on permanent display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Oddly enough, the original Pulitzer-winning story has since been eclipsed by postscripts detailing an enduring love—followed by marriage—that eventually blossomed between Lanker and that same Lynda Coburn. Other postscripts honor Lanker’s role as a loving father to Coburn’s daughters, Julie and Jacki (the “Pulitzer baby”), and Lynda and Brian’s son, Dustin.
“I suppose,” confesses Lanker, “my favorite assignment will end up being the Pulitzer—only because it brought some incredibly special people into my life that have . . . changed my life forever. You can’t understate that!”
What first attracted me to Brian? It was his idealism and
— Lynda Lanker, artist and wife of Brian Lanker
One other photographic endeavor that Lanker admits to holding in high regard—at least in terms of historical significance—is the book and museum exhibition of portraits that he is perhaps best known for: I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. The original exhibition debuted (and set attendance records) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1989. Touring exhibitions and more attendance records followed as the portraits crisscrossed the country for six years. The book has gone through 17 printings, sold half a million copies, and been termed the most successful photo publication of its kind, ever.
Brian has taught me a lot about photography over the past 20 years: Technique, business savvy, problem solving, creativity, artistry. His success has motivated me to explore new ways of visualizing!
— Brian Jim, professional photographer and assistant to Brian Lanker
Lanker often speaks of the reverence for photojournalism he absorbed early on, and how he first found attraction to the magic of photography when he stumbled into high school photography classes. “It was unknown and mysterious,” he recalls now. “Little boxes produced these images. Things happened in a dark room. It was instant love!” And indeed, Lanker was driven to excel, accumulate awards, and set himself apart with, as he puts it, “passion that manifests as total involvement.”
After high school, Lanker says he started realizing he had been blessed with a few natural talents, “but the truth is—boy, it was also hard work!” While studying photography under the tutelage of Allen Dutton at Phoenix College—and with inside help from Lanker’s father, who worked as a reporter for The Phoenix Gazette—freelance photo opportunities began to open up for the hard-working kid with the camera.
Lanker credits Dutton with teaching him sensitivity and encouraging him to look at things in different and deeper ways. “Allen Dutton turned on the light,” says Lanker. “It was a wonderful awakening for somebody who was just scrambling around with a camera, not knowing what to do with it.”
With that light now illuminating his way, Lanker’s big blue eyes peered out into the future.
Brian is talented in multiples—design, content, storytelling, and the techniques of high level photography. But beyond that, he has that sixth sense of subjects that intrigue, inform, and hit a responsive bullseye with readers.
— Rich Clarkson, photojournalist, editor, and publishing consultant
Lanker often applies the descriptor of storyteller to both his life and his work, asserting that he loves both, and that he seldom draws distinction between the two. He also loves Eugene, and enjoys relating two particular stories concerning his introduction to the city in 1974.
One involves Lanker looking for work at the tail end of five years in a hellishly demanding but ultimately transformative stint as a young staff photographer under the mentorship of legendary photojournalist Rich Clarkson at The Topeka Capital-Journal. It was summer 1974, and Lanker came across a job notice for a director of photography at The Eugene Register-Guard.
According to Lanker, the Register-Guard was considered a “grey paper,” in need of somebody with the talent to engineer a major makeover of the paper’s appearance and editorial approach. Lanker called Register-Guard editor Dave Emery to offer his services.
“Unless you consider yourself one of the best in the country,” cautioned Emery, “there’s no reason for you to apply. We’ve had a lot of people apply. We’ve had a Pulitzer winner apply. We’ve had a National Newspaper Photographer of the Year apply. . . .”
“I was just kind of quiet for a few moments,” recalls Lanker, “then I said, ‘Well . . . I’ve won both those awards.’”
Lanker remembers the phone going silent again for a few moments. Then Emery replied: “What did you say your name was? Can you send me materials? Right away?”
Photography is to Brian as religion is to a priest: it’s inviolate! He holds himself to exceptional work standards, and demands that others respect photography to the ultimate. He’s also one of the most charming individuals you’ll ever meet on this earth.
— Dave Emery, former Eugene Register-Guard editor
The second story concerns Lynda Lanker’s initial reaction to the prospect of moving from Kansas to an unfamiliar city in the Northwest. “Eugene, Oregon? Where’s that?” she asked, after Brian announced his plan to interview for the Register-Guard job.
A few days later, Lynda scouted out the Eugene area while Brian interviewed at the newspaper office. The couple compared notes afterwards.
“I don’t know how the job looks for you,” announced Lynda, “but I sure hope you take it if they offer it. It’s really wonderful here.”
“Well, the good news,” countered Brian, “is that everybody likes everybody . . . and I like it here, too!”
Lanker spent eight years transforming the design of the paper. Today’s Register-Guard still retains many of the contemporary elements that he introduced in his efforts to marry the paper’s visual and editorial content. While at the paper, Lanker was also named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year (1976) for the second time in his career.
He’s a true genius, one of the few I’ve met in life, yet he’s also one of the funniest, funnest, kindest men I’ve ever met.
— Mike Tharp, former Wall Street Journal and New York Times correspondent
Lanker has spent a lot of time working on the road in the two dozen years since leaving the Register-Guard. On relatively rare occasions he has also worked out of his own Sockeye Studios in Eugene. The unusually wide breadth of his portfolio has served to build his reputation as a photographer with very few limitations, and its quality showcases a reluctance to settle for the commonplace.
“I don’t like it when things go according to plan,” Lanker confesses. “That takes the fun out of photography. The fun is the discovery. . . . There’s something out there that’s always lurking, that’s going to break through. That’s the soul of it!”
Lanker’s feature photography and photo essays have graced the pages of National Geographic and Life, among numerous other magazines. His work for Sports Illustrated includes two Annual Swimsuit Editions (Bora Bora and Australia), numerous covers (Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky, Derek Jeter, Mary Decker-Slaney, Dean Smith . . .) and a long list of sports superstars’ portraits (Michael Jordan,
George Foreman, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson . . .).
Brian Lanker’s photographic skills are beyond reach of most other photographers. He has a powerful energy of vision. There’s no assignment he’s going to fail on, be it book, film, or magazine.
— Bob Gilka, legendary Director of Photography, National Geographic
Lanker has also done volumes of commercial photography, contributed to popular books, produced advertising materials for the likes of Nike, American Express, and Coke, and shot portraits for a parade of rock stars, politicians, artists, and other celebrities.
Yet despite the high-profile accomplishments, it’s the pursuit of heartfelt projects of his own design, or projects that inspire a positive spirit and vision, that most excites him.
The photo exhibit and book I Dream A World. The bronze sculpture in downtown Eugene’s Kesey Plaza, a project he spearheaded as a memorial to his close friend Ken Kesey. Images of Man, the audio-visual education program by Scholastic Books that gives recognition to Lanker’s photography in the context of a legendary group of photojournalists. Where Valor Rests, the book tribute to Arlington National Cemetery. They Drew Fire, the PBS documentary Lanker directed commemorating WWII combat artists. Shall We Dance, his most recent book celebrating the myriad forms of dance found across America.
Brian has a heart of gold filled with hurricane force winds. It’s the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met.
— Michael O’Brien, award-winning photographer
and author of The Face of Texas
While the eyes of the world may be looking at Lanker in an attempt to make lasting determinations regarding his legacy, Lanker’s own lucid vision puts such matters into perspective.
“There are all these awards and what-not,” says Lanker, “and it’s what people tend to put their fingers on because they can define that, they can understand that it might be fun to receive that. But that isn’t the true reward. The true reward is the richness of the experiences, and the people that I’ve had the pleasure of being in the presence of.”