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."
Throughout his career, Busath was concerned with both the technical side and the artistry of portraits.
For example, he preferred to use hot incandescent lights, rather than "the blinking of flash. That earned me a national nickname of 'Hot Lights.' " He also studied in New Jersey with Joseph Zeltsman, who taught him about the five classic poses of portraits: front view, 1/3- and 2/3-views and both profiles. "Few people have the ideal look in all five, so you have to find which is the best."
You also want an expression that people want to look at for 40 years, he says, so he tended "to go for a more sedate look rather than a yucky smile."
Busath has taken thousands of wedding and family portraits, as well as those of "the movers and shakers." The "Honors in the Arts" was a "big thing" for him, and one that happened quite serendipitously. He had joined the Chamber of Commerce and was asked to serve on the arts committee. Just before a meeting when they were supposed to come with ideas for projects, Busath had taken a portrait of Mormon Tabernacle Choir conductor and former classmate Jerold Ottley. "I decided to take that to show the committee; and Pat Davis, who was there from the Promised Valley Playhouse, thought we should do a whole series featuring local artists. So that's how that came about."
Over the years, Busath has acquired most of the professional degrees available in photography, including Professional Photographer of America Master of Photography, Photographic Craftsman, Certified Professional, Excellence in Imaging. Some of his prints are also in the permanent collection of the Photographic Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. He is one of six photographers worldwide to have earned the fellowship degrees of both the American Society of Photographers and the British Institute of Photography.
In the early years, he took 12 shots to a roll of film. "But I actually liked having to stop and change film, especially when taking group shots," he says. "They would relax, and I could see their natural body movements and then try to incorporate them into the next shots."
His advice for anyone who is having a portrait shot is, "you do better to turn it over to the artist. You can't see through his lens."
He has learned to use the light and became a precise technician, but he has never sacrificed artistry. As dancer Shirley Ririe told him: "Many of your portraits are of my friends, and I get a tear in my eye when I see them so 'living' and 'working' and 'being' what they truly are. You have greatness in that ability."
Since retiring from the studio, Busath and his wife have served an LDS mission in California. And he is now back to taking pictures just for the fun of it. One project that intrigues him is "the metamorphosis that Salt Lake City is experiencing." In 1990, he did a book called "Salt Lake City in a Different Light." But now, there have been so many changes, "I've started taking some 'progress shots.' I don't know where it will go, but it's neat to see how things are changing."
He has always loved this city, he says. "My great-great-great-grandfather Amasa Lyman stood with Brigham Young when the first corn was planted. Donna's great-great-great-grandfather Willard Richards was also there."
For Busath, too, "this was the right place to be. I've been very blessed." Photography enabled him to "put bread on the table. But I soon learned that if you're in it for the bread, you're in the wrong place."
He's never lost his passion for or his appreciation of the medium. A well-taken photograph can still give him goose bumps. He still loves to look beneath the surface to the heart of the subject. He still believes in the magic, much as he did when he was a young boy gazing on his grandfather's portrait.
If you go ...
What: Don Busath: Sixty Years of Portraiture
Where: Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South, Springville
: through Jan. 30; Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., to 9 p.m. on Wednesday; Sunday, 3-6 p.m.
Info: www.sma.nebo.edu or 801-489-2727
e-mail: [email protected]