ArtWeekend

A Photographer of Forgotten Men

Lee Nye’s subjects were the predominantly blue-collar patrons of Eddie’s Club, where he worked as a bartender between the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Lee Nye, “Jack Mote” (n.d.), photograph (© Nye Imagery, Ltd, all images courtesy Nye Imagery, Ltd, unless otherwise noted)

In January 1971, ARTnews published eight artists’ replies to Linda Nochlin’s essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” One of the responses was a dialogue between Elaine de Kooning and Rosalind Drexler. During their conversation, de Kooning talks about artists who don’t live in New York and aren’t, as she put it, “clamoring for representation at the Whitney.” She goes on to talk about meeting artists in Missoula, Montana, where she had recently gone. One artist was “Len Nye, who works as a bartender to support himself and his fantastic photography — close-up portraits of ranchers and winter landscapes that look like Japanese watercolors.”

De Kooning either misremembered Nye’s given name (Lee) or there was a typo in the transcription that was never caught. Whatever the case, the magazine’s fact checkers never bothered to find out if she got the name right. It is also curious that her characterization of Nye’s work seems tailored to the magazine’s readers, most of whom had never been to Missoula, which is situated in a valley, surrounded by steep hills. Nye’s subjects weren’t ranchers, but the predominantly blue-collar, white male patrons of Eddie’s Club, where he worked as a bartender between the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Lee Nye (1926–1999), who was born in Hysham, Montana, had a deep sympathy for his subjects, perhaps because he knew that he could have just as easily been sitting on the other side of the bar. Nye, whose father worked on the railroad, had a hardscrabble life. After dropping out of high school at 17, he briefly worked as a cowboy before joining the navy. For 15 years, starting in 1950, he led a peripatetic life while gaining a reputation in the commercial photography world: he studied photography in Santa Barbara, California, worked as bartender in New Orleans, Louisiana, and published his photograph of the ballet choreographer William Christiansen in Dance magazine and of the literary critic Leslie Fiedler in Playboy.

In 1965, Nye ended up in Missoula, working as a bartender at Eddie’s Club, while studying English and art at the University of Montana, where Fielder had been teaching until he took a job at the University of Buffalo in 1965, and where the poet Richard Hugo was on the faculty. Missoula’s largest employers are the University of Montana and two hospitals. A passenger train has not stopped here in years. An adult fantasy store sits next to the Union Hall on East Main Street. Along with being the meeting place for the local labor unions, Union Hall is home to the Union Hall Ballroom and Union Club Bar and Gill.

Kurt Wilson, “Last Drink at Harold’s Club” (September 2015), color photograph, 16 x 20 inches (from the exhibition Montana Bars at the Missoula Art Museum, courtesy Missoula Art Museum)

I was reminded of Hugo’s poems, which were often about Montana bars, while I was looking at the exhibition, Montana Bars // Lee Nye: Eddie’s Club Adjunct Collection at the Missoula Art Museum (February 12–May 18, 2019). The exhibition pairs two groups of photographs, one of Montana bars taken by various photographers (John Smart, David J. Spear, Kurt Wilson, J. M. Cooper, Jill Brody, Michael Gallacher, Kurt Wilson, and the collaborative team of Geoff Sutton and Monte Dolack) and Nye’s portraits of men whose professions, no longer considered essential to America’s progress or well-being, were becoming obsolete.

During the time that Nye worked as a bartender at Eddie’s Club, he used a 2 1/4-inch Rolleiflex to photograph the regulars — including Hugo — in a narrow alley just behind the bar. The more than 300 photographs were divided in two sets, one consisting of 73 black-and-white photographs that measured 16 by 20 inches, while the other set of around 225 measured 8 by 10 inches. Both sets can be still seen on the walls of Charlie B’s, which is the name the bar was given when it changed hands.

According to Brandon Reintjes, Senior curator, and Laura Millin, Executive Director, of the Missoula Art Museum, the photographs at Charlie B’s are the only complete sets that Nye developed. Needless to say, the conditions are not ideal, even though smoking is now banned. The “Eddie’s Club Adjunct Collection” consists of a little more than 30 outtakes and alternatives that Nye developed himself. It was a gift to the museum from Tracy Blakeslee, who bought them from Nye. The artist’s widow, Jean Belangie-Nye, donated two additional photographs.

Lee Nye, “Martin Wilkerson” (n.d.), photograph (© Nye Imagery, Ltd)

All the images are headshots, with the subject’s face nearly filling the frame, often against a black background, which Nye set up by attaching a black cloth to the brick wall in the alley behind the bar. He always used natural light.

Almost none of the men are looking directly at the camera. The views are close-up and it is obvious that Nye’s subjects trusted him — he was their bartender, after all, the person who listened to them, even when they hit bottom. None of them look defiant.

Done a decade before Richard Avedon was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to embark on what became In the American West, a series of 125 large, dramatic portraits of men and women posed against a white backdrop, many in their work clothes (coal miners with dirty faces, waitresses in uniforms, and butchers with bloody aprons), Nye’s photographs are intimate studies of proud, down-on-their-luck men, rather than haute couture portraits of unfashionable people.  To my mind, Nye’s 300 portraits are a far more solid achievement than Avedon’s but in a narrower vein. Avedon’s photographs focus on what his subjects are wearing and how they want to present themselves to the world. He objectifies them, which Nye never does. Nye’s photographs are about who the men are and how much can be glimpsed in the gaze of his camera. And yet, until this exhibition, the only known repository of Nye’s project was Charlie B’s.

Lee Nye, “Bob” (n.d.), photograph (© Nye Imagery, Ltd)

Many of Nye’s subjects were members of the Greatest Generation who went off to fight in World War II and came back to a different world, changed by what they experienced. In the portraits at the museum, all are men and all but one are white. The exception is the Native American Joe Malitare, who is the only person shown lighting up a cigarette. In the bar, I saw one African American and a few women. I think that demographic is also part of the subject.

In an article, “Lives and Shadows: The Eddie’s Club Collection,” by Bill Dolson, a local writer who had studied with Fiedler, (Montana Magazine, March/April 1997), Malitare is quoted:

I came into town, because I was too old and too crippled up to work anymore, and I didn’t have relatives to take me in. There isn’t much of anything to do but sit around bars and drink a little. After I sat around awhile that photographer noticed me and wanted to take my picture. When you’re just another dried out old hide and nothing much to look at, that’s when folks seem to notice you. I let him go ahead. The guy was real happy with the picture. It’s hanging on the wall here.

Elsewhere in the article, Malitare told Dolson that he thought of his photograph as “a sort of copy, a shadow,” [but not] “like a mirror.”

These scruffy-faced men have a lost look in their eyes. They seem to be gazing inward — even as they look away from the camera. Unemployed, they spent much of the day at the bar. Whoever they once were, by capitalism’s standards, they are now worthless because they are no longer productive. When you are a non-productive “dried out old hide,” people may notice you, but, for the most part they don’t care who you are or what you did. They don’t want to hear what you have to say because it takes up time, and time is money.

Lee Nye, “Ozzie Vandenberg” (n.d.), photograph (© Nye Imagery, Ltd)

Nye got paid to hear their stories, give them their drinks, and be their confidant, should they wish for that. He gave some of his subjects a jacket to wear when he took their portraits. In one photograph, I noticed his silhouette visible in his subject’s corneas.

Where possible, the museum staff provided a biography of the subject. This is the one for Frank Nurse:

Nurse (June 29, 1917–January 21, 1979) fought in the European theater during World War II. After the war, he worked as a ranch hand and in construction. This portrait was one of the original portraits in Eddie’s Club. One night, Nurse entered the bar half-smashed, and was concerned that people would see his photo and think he was a drunk. He removed the print and took it home. He bought it back a few weeks later and wanted it back on the wall, but Nye refused and moved it to the Adjunct Collection.

Nye’s subjects trusted him. The light in their eyes is about to go out and, as Dolson writes in his article, they know they are about to join the “eternal namelessness.” Nye gave something back to each of them: a name and lasting dignity. He did so by preserving the traces of eloquent inchoate pain written across their deeply creased faces.

Montana Bars // Lee Nye: Eddie’s Club Adjunct Collection continues at the Missoula Art Museum (335 North Pattee, Missoula, Montana) through May 18.

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