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Photographer Francis Ford's Operatic Turn

Aug. 24, 2011
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Francis Ford is one of Milwaukee's most recognized photographers—"the city's house photographer," someone called him as his career of snapping the movers and builders got under way. Lately, Ford has devoted much of his time to imparting his knowledge and skill to photography students at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). This fall, he will also begin teaching a MIAD course on opera.

Why opera?

[Classical station] WFMR had a "name that tune" contest and my mom always won. Within a few months there was a Mrs. Ford rule because she won all the time. Maria Callas was her favorite singer. And even though I listened more to Chuck Berry and Little Richard as a kid, I started going to opera. [Director] Baz Luhrmann once said that you really need to decode opera. You can't get it unless you do some research—three hours of music in performance is a tremendous amount to wrap your mind around. And I love the whole suspension of disbelief and feeling of being in love that comes with it. With opera, you can be in love all the time. It's "Big Emotion" ramped up a thousand times. It's more euphoric than anything I know.

How are you going to teach the class?

I could teach photography in a lead vault beneath the ocean, but opera? First of all I'm doing a hell of a lot of research to get prepared. Four hundred years of history is so much! It won't be a three-hour lecture. I'll lecture for half an hour and play a lot of music. I want to bring in guests from the Florentine Opera. And I'm going to try like hell to get a field trip to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

And you're still teaching photography?

Yes, the kids at MIAD are divine. And I'm teaching photography to kids at a language immersion school on 24th and Wisconsin. I tell them: "Go out and photograph the world."

Do you have a particular style or approach as a photographer?

If I'm doing an editorial shoot for a magazine, I'll read the article, find the background. It could take hours setting up the lighting. But a lot of times it'll be spur of the moment—you have to be ready to figure it out and to fall on your face if it doesn't work out. Writing an artist's statement has always been a mental block for me. I like to be comfortable with the people I do portraits of. For portraits, if it takes more than two minutes, it's taking too long. It should be fun and fast.

The Portrait Society (207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 526) will host an exhibition of Ford's photographs Sept. 16-Nov. 6, featuring photo shoots involving friend and collaborator Jack Eigel.


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