MOORHEAD — In 1951, when he was 12 years old, Colburn Hvidston III’s dad bought him a camera. From that moment on, the young shutterbug always had a camera within arm’s reach.
He would go on to take memorable shots for the Grand Forks Herald from 1961 until ’68 when he switched to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, where he retired in 2004.
A new exhibit at the Hjemkomst Center, “Truth in Focus: A Retrospective from Colburn Hvidston III,” shows work from his 68 years behind the camera. From snaps of his St. Michael’s classmates in 1950s Grand Forks to a shot of a Moorhead turkey earlier this year, Hvidston photographed life and sometimes death in the Red River Valley.
“I think it’s cool because most people have to wait until after their funeral for a show like this,” the 80-year-old says with a laugh as he looks around the show.
The idea for the exhibit came from Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County Programming Director Markus Krueger, who asked Hvidston if he’d be interested in a retrospective.
The photographer agreed, but later felt he may have bitten off more than he could chew as he tried to select works, organize them and write information about each shot.
“This was a real job for me,” Hvidston says.
With more than 40 of the images previously published in this newspaper, his time at The Forum represents more than half of the show.
“I loved the work. I loved The Forum,” he says.
Last year, Forum photo chief Michael Vosburg curated an exhibit at Minnesota State University Moorhead of works by former Forum photographers Hvidston, Dave Wallis and Bruce Crummy. The 12 shots of Hvidston’s in that show are also in the new one at the Hjemkomst.
Hvidston documented visiting dignitaries ranging from campaigning politicians like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to celebrities like Zsa Zsa Gabor, accompanying her then-boyfriend, construction magnate Hal Hayes, to a building site at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1958.
Other assignments were more somber, like the remains of a fire in Hatton, N.D., that killed four children, or the scene of snow-covered cars on Fargo's 19th Avenue North near Hector International Airport following a 1984 blizzard. What Hvidston didn’t know at the time was that there were four people dead in that scene.
Then there’s the photo of an unconscious 11-year-old Alvaro Garza being pulled from the Red River in December 1987 after 20 minutes in the icy water. Hvidston pushed hard for using the shot, but since the prognosis wasn’t good for Garza, The Forum editors opted to run a more sensitive shot of the scene.
Hvidston likes to tell how at the time The Forum's policy was that photographers retained rights to shots that weren’t printed, so when the paper wouldn't run Hvidston's preferred shot, he sent it to the USA Today, which ran it the next day. When he got into work that day, he was called into the editors’ office. He didn’t get chewed out, but was told the policy was changing so The Forum retained all photos.
While there were long days and nights at work and assignments could be grim, he never let the stress of the job get to him.
“Here’s the deal: I’m a weird personality,” he says. “I thrived on pressure. Ask my wife and she’ll tell you, ‘He’d have a good time sticking his finger in a meat grinder.’ It was a game meeting the deadline and I loved it.”
Still, there was one assignment that still haunts him. He and former Forum lifestyle editor Syb Gullickson went to Valley City, N.D., to get an “American Gothic”-like portrait of a farm couple. When he got back and developed the roll, he saw that the film had not been exposed.
“I told Syb, ‘Don’t you tell a soul.’ I went back out and retook the shot. That was the only time in my recollection that I haven’t got the shot,” he says.
Like any good photographer, his camera was always within reach, so when he was driving in 1971 and his son Mike yelled from the back seat, “Hey dad, the wheel of the car behind us just fell off,” Hvidston grabbed his gear, pulled over and got the shot of the disabled cab. He credits former copy editor Doug Tweed for coming up with the caption head, “Wheel Make it Lady.”
While he loved the job, he knows the long hours kept him away from home. He remembers hosting his parents for dinner when he got a call saying the body of a man was found in two bags in the Red River. He apologized, saying he didn’t know if it was foul play, and his father replied that if it wasn’t, it would be a hell of a story.
Hvidston says he really liked fashion shoots. A display in the show has the page design for a dress he not only shot, but sewed when no one else could. He liked sewing so much he started making outfits for his wife, including a suit in the display case.
“What really is cool is that Jackie is proud of this show,” Hvidston says. “She’s been so supportive. She’s a real photographer’s wife.”
If you go
What: “Truth in Focus: A Retrospective from Colburn Hvidston III”
When: On display through Nov. 17
Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead
Info: Admission ranges from $8 to $10; https://www.hcscconline.org/