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Always an adventurer

Posted: Tuesday, Jul 31st, 2012

Willard Conrow, often seen walking Highway 101 and picking up litter, served in World War II, has traveled the world, and now has an exhibit of his photographs on display at the Siuslaw Public Library through August. Photo by Larry De Bord

There is wonder in Willard Conrow’s voice when he describes an early morning encounter. It was an attraction that could not be ignored. Who or what interested him so? A leaf.

“I was marveling at its structure, and how the design came together. How beautiful it is. How symmetrical,” he explains. “I still like to look at things. Not just see them, but really, really look.”

At nearly 100 years of age, Conrow’s fascination with nature is as keen as ever. He notes underlying patterns and play of light which for most of us go unnoticed.

“It’s lighting that still intrigues me,” he says after one of his daily strolls, using a walker, that start from his apartment at The Shorewood and follow his whim, often along Highway 101, where he stops to pick up trash thrown from car windows and dropped by pedestrians.

His interest in nature and light drew him to create hundreds of photographic images. His work landed him a teaching position in the mid-1940s at the renowned Fred Archer School of Photography in Los Angeles, where he knew and learned from many high-profile photographers.

Conrow describes much of his body of work as “creative and experimental photography.” Some of his unconventional and abstract images were made directly on photographic paper as a penlight swung from a pendulum, creating concentric curves of light.

“I had my own darkroom,” he says as he peers out the window of his apartment. “It was fun. I miss that.”

“He did pre-Photoshop manipulations. He would often have light patterns imposed upon nudes,” explains fellow photographer and friend Larry DeBord, who organized an August exhibit of Conrow’s photographs in Florence.

DeBord said the show will feature examples of Conrow’s work and snapshots by friends and family that will create a timeline of sorts.

“Many of us are interested in his life,” says DeBord, who has snapped portraits of his friend since the 1970s. “He experienced some amazing things.”

Conrow still extracts from life what he can. He is quick with a wry remark. His friends number many and are of all ages. He contributes to causes such as Habitat for Humanity and donates a photograph for each new home. He still takes photographs, but now with a new-fangled digital camera.

From an early age, Conrow seemed destined for adventure — not necessarily of his own choosing.

He was born on Aug. 30, 1912, in Cranford, N.J., in a house his mother claimed was haunted. He has little memory of his parents together. When he was 6 years old, they divorced.

“It was very bitter,” he recalls.

The two younger children, Conrow and his sister, Amelie, moved with their father to New York City and his two older brothers stayed with his mother.

In New York the family shared an apartment with Conrow’s aunt, grandmother and an uncle. He remembers his Aunt Mabel fondly. Uncle Ted was another matter.

For the complete article see the 08-01-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 08-01-2012 paper.

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