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Interview with the Artist: Randal Stegmeyer

Randy Stegmeyer in his photo studio.

This year, University of Michigan Library photographer Randal Stegmeyer will be retiring after three decades behind the camera. Randy has been a friend to the Kelsey for a number years and is responsible for many of the iconic photographs that you see in our promotional and marketing materials as well as our scholarly publications.

In this interview, Randy discusses the path that brought him to a career in photography, what he plans to do in retirement, and the photographers who inspire him.

What have been your favorite photography projects?

What really excites me about what I do is being able to handle and explore in great detail the amazing objects in the U-M collections. The handwritten letter by Galileo, a 3,000-year-old scroll of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Civil War diary of a Michigan soldier, the Djehutymose coffin — these all take my breath away. To be granted access to these rarities and be entrusted to create an accurate visual description of each has been the great honor and privilege of my career.

Civil War diary of William Harrison Marshall, a soldier of the 18th Michigan Infantry Regiment (Bentley Historical Library)
Samurai armor and helmet with Paulownia crests (UMMA)

How did you discover your passion for photography and how did it develop? How did you originally connect with the Kelsey Museum?

I think I’m hardwired to be a visual artist. When I was 13 years old, my dad gave me my first camera, his old Argus C3, and something just clicked. From that moment, I’ve made photographs as a way to explore the world. Later in life, when I found myself in a dead-end job and needing to choose a different direction, I happened upon a newspaper article about the profession of medical photographer. Having a keen interest in photography and being a science nerd as well, this led me to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where I earned a BFA in applied photography with a major in the medical track. I worked in the medical field for a few years, but then that door closed as another one opened, and I found myself working at the Detroit Institute of Arts, learning the ins and outs of cultural heritage photography. After leaving the DIA, I started my own business, Spectrum Imaging. I did a lot of work for UMMA, who then referred the Kelsey to me when they were casting about for a new photographer for their collection. Soon after gaining the Kelsey as a client, a new position in the University Library was created and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wellness Bus, West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, 1988

What is one project you would love to do?

The Library has an extensive collection of Artist Books, a fascinating collection of books as objets d’art. I started to document them last fall, but the librarian in charge of the project left for another position, and the work is now on hold. I doubt I will have the opportunity to complete it.

What are your plans for your upcoming "retirement”?

Well, I have a bucket list (everybody should have a bucket list) that is mostly places I would like to see. Going someplace I’ve never been before and exploring it through my lenses is one of my all-time favorite things to do. So, travel, for sure.The only downside to my career is that it has been very isolating. I have spent many years working alone in a windowless room. I am very much looking forward to spending a lot more time out of doors and finding new ways to connect with people.

Coffin of Djehutymose, exterior of lid (KM 1989.3.1)

What photographers and artists inspire you? What aspects of their work have you incorporated into your approaches to photography?

I think that documentary photographers and photojournalists are the cream of the crop within the photographic profession. Historically, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) photographers of the Great Depression, Garry Winogrand, Gordon Parks, and Elliot Erwitt have all inspired me and provided a visual foundation that has informed my work throughout my career.  I currently use Instagram to bring new and inspiring images to my eyes. I follow Peter and David Turnley, Matt Black, Byron Denton, and a few others. This type of photography has the power to change the world, to bend the course of history, and on many occasions it has. What I like most about working in this style is that here, photography is an active and participatory event. Unlike studio work, which could be viewed as an “objective” pursuit, capturing moments as I move through life with my camera is a wholly subjective experience. The camera’s ability to take a slice out of life fascinates me. In my personal work, I strive for a “decisive image”  that “… stops movement but also preserves thought” (Matt Black). 

Randal Stegmeyer: Exposing the Past opens online on May 1, 2020. We look forward to welcoming you to visit the exhibition in person when it is possible to reopen our galleries to the public.