If you know photographer Lee Nye for just one thing, it’s probably for the portraits hanging in Charlie B’s. That collection, which went up in 1965 when the bar was still called Eddie’s Club and Nye was the head bartender, has been hanging through 40 years and three changes of ownership.
Most of the time, anyway. Nye’s widow, Jean Belangie-Nye, also remembers how the collection came down in the early ’70s. When Nye found himself at loggerheads with the bar’s new ownership, he announced his resignation by pulling down his 65 or so framed photographs of regular patrons. It must have been either fall of ’73 or spring of ’74, she says, because the weather was nice enough for bar patrons to mount an al fresco boycott protesting the departure of Nye and his pictures.
“People actually went on strike,” she whoops. “They marched over and got black magic markers at the office supply store, came back and drew big frames on the wall and drew in their favorite characters. Everyone was going next door to Worden’s, which was on the corner where the pawnshop is now, and buying beer and sitting out on the street.”
Having one’s portrait taken for the Eddie’s Club series was a token of no small esteem, says Belangie-Nye—an assertion lent considerable weight by the fact that the photos continue to figure prominently in the local obituary notices of their subjects four decades later.
“There were two criteria to be in on those,” she says. “One, you had to be a real regular at Eddie’s, and two, you had to be really a good face—a Montana face. Lee’s take on it was basically that they were the blue-collar workers who built the state: railroaders, lumber jacks, gandy-dancers and cooks.”
And the photographs, she maintains, tend to show the subjects at their best; most of them were taken, two “faces” to a 12-exposure roll of film, between 10 a.m. and noon. The worst, says Belangie-Nye, was never far away. Peer beyond the leathery, careworn faces and the story gets a little sadder.
“It’s a story of alcoholism. Everybody was a drunk. Or if they weren’t drunks, they were just really lonely people.”
A new exhibit of Lee Nye’s work opening this week at UM, however, tells a different story. Nye, says his widow, always insisted that all photographers should do weddings, portraits, nudes and landscapes for the experience. He always hated weddings himself, insists Belangie-Nye (“He didn’t like all the crap and all the ceremony that went with them. And his own attitude toward marriage was…well, he had three wives!”), but he loved doing portraits. He never did people “green,” right off the street; he always took the time to get to know them first.
As for nudes and landscapes, Nye often combined the two. During the last decade of his career, the photographer turned his attention to “transpositionals”—multiple printings involving up to seven negatives—in which the nude figures are sometimes hard to discern because they’ve been blended right into the landscape, often with horses over them. Or seagulls, and never mind that the birds were actually shot in Maine and California.
“The ubiquitous seagulls,” sighs Belangie-Nye. “Once you start looking at his pictures and counting all the seagulls…they just keep showing up in all these western landscapes.”
The nudes, by contrast, are there if you look for them, but sometimes you have to look pretty hard; in some cases, nary a nipple betrays the human identity of a foothill or gentle slope. “Men see the landscapes,” says Belangie-Nye. “Women see the nudes.”
Many of the pieces selected for the exhibit were works in progress at the time of Nye’s death in 1999. Some are unnamed, many unsigned, and perhaps half belong to periods in his career preceding the transpositionals, among them the “Talking Nuns” series, the Black series (so named for the dark backgrounds he used), the Bath series, and the Stone Nudes, several of which are among the 65 or so pieces in the show.
The Bath series was undertaken in the ’60s, when Nye was still afflicted by what Belangie-Nye calls the “rock-water-nude syndrome.” Belangie-Nye remembers the water being very cold, the models probably suffering for it. But then Nye always paid his models exceptionally well, she says: $20 per hour, hardly chump change for the time.
The Stone Nudes, as the name suggests, have a mineral—one might even say sedimentary—texture to them. Nye achieved the grainy effect of certain prints by sprinkling his negatives with fine graphite shavings. Other prints are marvelous specimens of reticulation, a chemical process in which the emulsion layer of film develops spotty distortions after being moved between baths with dramatically different temperatures. It’s a difficult process to control, says Belangie-Nye; she could never get a straight answer out of her late husband whether he intended the effect or not.
The pieces in the UM exhibit were selected from the roughly 1,800 prints in Nye’s estate, which further includes about 8,000 negatives. Belangie-Nye suspects he threw away nearly three times that many when he closed his Higgins Avenue studio, including negatives of pictures taken during labor unrest in Butte in 1948, when he was the only photographer in the city permitted to take photos. “He was still kicking himself about that right up until the time he died,” she says. “He always said he was his own worst enemy.”
One print in the exhibit is striking for its matte, carefully cut to match Nye’s crude oval cropping job. Belangie-Nye thinks that Nye was thinking about mounting this particular nude on the dashboard of his ’55 Chevy. The car was one of his great passions, she recalls, along with golf, spaghetti sauce and, of course, photography.
“He loved to drive that car,” she says wistfully, “and every cop in the country loved to stop him. The speedometer was broken, but once they clocked him at 140 in the Bitterroot.”
It was another consuming passion, though—golf—that tipped others off to Nye’s declining health in 1999. His family had a history of depression and ischemic strokes, says Belangie-Nye, and his ailing game was one of the things that made friends and family members suspect that he’d had a microstroke over the summer before depression set in that fall.
“Boy, was he pissed,” she remembers. “He couldn’t even get the ball down the fairway.”
Nye suffered a larger stroke in September. In retrospect, Belangie-Nye thinks the malaise and renewed depression that gripped him after his release from the hospital in late October was a “feeling of unwellness” that augured worse to come. A week and a half after his first release, he was admitted to the Providence Center and suffered a last, fatal stroke the next day, Nov. 11.
Beyond his work, Nye is remembered as the bartender who shaped Eddie’s Club in the late ’60s, catalyzing a nascent bohemian scene at a time when university arts and writing classes were starting to be held in the bar, and when a post-reading whistle-wetter with Nye slinging the suds was practically mandatory for visiting writers from Allen Ginsberg to Edward Abbey. Nye’s name, says his widow, was currency traded by hitchhikers; he and Eddie’s Club were written up in Glamour magazine and also appear, names intact, in the early novels of many local authors, including Jim Crumley and James Lee Burke. “He was a running leitmotif,” says Belangie-Nye.
As a photographer, she remembers her late husband as a man who kept his darkroom spotless, who could be unforgiving of sloppy work by others, and who once jumped down her throat for submitting, as a student, a beautiful print sullied by a cat hair stuck to the negative.
“Boy, all he did was concentrate on the cat hair. It wasn’t until someone else said, ‘Hey, this is a really nice shot’ that he said, ‘Yeah, it is, but this damned cat hair takes away everything.’
“He was a perfectionist about his art, and it really made him angry that others didn’t care as much about their own work. He was absolutely passionate about photography—that incredible passion that comes with genius. If you have that great passion, you expect others to have it. And most of us don’t.”
Lee Nye’s UM Paxson and Meloy Galleries in the PAR/TV Building Nov. 9.