Face time — Photographer Don Busath’s 60 years behind the lens showcased in new exhibit

Published: Monday, Jan. 17 2011 5:49 p.m. MST

As Don Busath likes to say, he didn't choose photography — photography chose him.

Busath was a young boy when it first reached out to pull him in. He saw a portrait of his grandfather who had died before Busath was born. "That instilled in me the idea that portraiture was an important thing," he says. "Without anyone ever having to mention him, I knew he must have been loved and respected by the family. In a family where frugality was a necessity, that lovely, large framed print on the wall represented a significant investment. I knew more about him because of it."

Busath also had an uncle who worked at the Deseret News and had created a darkroom in his basement coal bin. "I remember the first time I saw the image coming up on a print. It was magic."

That uncle sold Busath his first camera, a folding Kodak. "I would get that in my hand, and I knew I could respond visually to the stories and images I saw. I knew that was where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I knew I had found a way to have a voice that didn't involve speaking."

The eloquent way Busath spoke with his camera over the past 60 years or so is currently highlighted in an exhibit at the Springville Museum of Art.

"It really shows the full plate for the first time," says Busath, who had a hard time deciding which images to include in the show but is very pleased with how it turned out.

Although he is largely known for his portraiture, including the "Honors in the Arts" series that is seen by anyone who attends an event at Abravanel Hall, Busath has also had a long-time interest in landscape, particularly the rural and agricultural scenes of his native Utah. He's also been captivated by birds in flight, architecture, the changing Salt Lake cityscape and stars. "Really, any visual phenomenon," he says. "The exhibit shows the whole breadth, including some experimental things I probably never should have tried." The exhibit runs through Jan. 30.

Although Busath developed an early interest in photography, it took a while before it actually became a profession.

"I was a terrible student," he says of his years at East High. "The most successful thing I did was meet a fellow orchestra student, who later became my wife, Donna."

His photography skills were largely self-taught but good enough to land him a job in the stereotype department of the Deseret News. But when the News and the Tribune formed Newspaper Agency Corp. to take over much of the mechanical work, "it meant I would have to work nights, so I got at job at Kennecott instead." He also played with a variety of dance bands around the valley.

In the meantime, he kept studying every "photography book, every photographer I could find." In 1958, when Kennecott went on strike, Busath decided the time had come to move on. "I was ready to take my collection of images to Salt Lake's premier commercial photographer and ask for a job. I was in luck because Hal Rumel had just lost his assistant and had a need."

Rumel liked what he saw but wouldn't commit to Busath until he completed an assignment the next day, one involving a Deardorf view camera and six 8x10 sheets of film. The next day, "the film was developed while I waited with pounding heart!" That began a 15-year association with the Rumel studio.

Rumel didn't particularly like to photograph people, so Busath got many of those assignments, but he also did a lot of aerial photography, public relations and business photography. "I learned I had to carry three changes of clothes with me, so I could be ready for anything."

In 1973, Busath decided the time was right to establish his own studio. "Our five children were sufficiently raised so that Donna could come work with me. She handled the business end, was the person people met as they came in. She remembered all the names and faces. She is the reason we were a success."

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