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Looking through Mike Lien's lens: Exhibit examines work of late photographer

Cal Olson remembers what people said when he hired Mike Lien as a photographer at The Forum in 1965. "People would say, 'You hired a friend.' " The former chief photographer recalls. "Like hell I did. I hired a good photographer." Forty years lat...

Cal Olson remembers what people said when he hired Mike Lien as a photographer at The Forum in 1965.

"People would say, 'You hired a friend.' " The former chief photographer recalls. "Like hell I did. I hired a good photographer."

Forty years later the proof is on the walls of the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead. The show, simply called "Mike Lien: Photographer," is a collection of the shooter's best work. Lien died in February 1977, at age 40, after a car accident left him in a coma for 21/2 months.

Olson, who spends his retirement in Sioux City, Iowa, wrote an essay for the published catalog on the Lien exhibit, and served as the main historian for a man that left little more than images. The day of the show's preview, April 8, Olson, Mark Strand, a professor of mass communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead and consultant on the show and catalog, and former Forum photographer Colburn Hvidston III talked about Lien's legacy.

Olson remembers Lien in high school following older photographers, picking their brains and learning by watching.


"He had an insatiable appetite to know a little bit about everything," Olson says.

Later the young shutterbug would take pictures of high school athletes and sell the vanity shots to the jocks. Eventually, he would find a better market peddling photos to The Forum.

Once Lien made the jump from Moorhead's weekly publication, The Red River Scene, to The Forum, he rose quickly, establishing himself as a photographer on the rise. Within his first two years he was named National Press Photographer Association's Regional Photographer of the Year for an eight-state area.

"He kept running all the time. He had this need to keep pushing at it, to find the next thing," Olson says.

At the time, Hvidston was a photographer at the Grand Forks Herald. He knew Lien and his work, and viewed him as a rival.

"He hit the button at the right time," says Hvidston, who retired in 2004.

In 1968, Lien left the paper for The New York Times.

The Forum's loss was the nation's gain, as Lien quickly rose through the ranks again and found himself in the paper's Washington bureau, eventually becoming a member of the White House News Photographers Association.


Most of the images in the show are from Lien's tenure in Washington, D.C. He composed shots of President Richard Nixon's cabinet, captured a candid image of the president heading into a voting booth next to his daughter and wife and Vice President Gerald Ford laughing with baseball great Ted Williams and Rep. John McCormack, before the Massachusetts Democrat threw out the first pitch at a Washington Senators game.

He also captured iconic images, like Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) outside a New Hampshire newspaper office after the paper criticized the presidential hopeful's wife. With snow falling and Muskie's voice emotional, many believed he was crying, costing him support.

"That quarter century was a high water mark for photo journalism," Olson says.

A two-time president of the National Press Photographers Association, Olson can't say exactly what makes a good photojournalist, only that Lien had those qualities.

"It's an instant sense. You have to have a certain amount of brashness, sensitivity and awareness of the news," he says. "You have to be able to come back with something. He'd always come back with more than you'd sent him out for."

Strand says Lien had the instincts and a natural sense of composition.

Strand and Rourke Director James O'Rourke put together the exhibit after Fargo businessman, photographer and collector Fred Scheel donated two boxes of Lien's negatives and prints to the museum.

"He was a shooter," Strand says. "You watch it and you either get it or you blow it."


After eight years in Washington, Lien had run his course with the Times and for the most part exhausted his career in photojournalism.

"In 1976, Mike quit the Times, or the Times quit him. I don't know which," Olson says. "He never told you more than you needed to know about him."

In his essay, "The Runner," Olson says Lien was the child of unmarried parents and was raised by a foster couple.

Lien returned to Fargo that Thanksgiving and visited with Olson, even buying a camera from his old boss, though the younger photographer was working at a marina in Maryland. Days after returning from Fargo, Lien's car crashed into another. He was the only one injured and never regained consciousness.

Looking at the framed photos on the museum wall, Olson says photojournalism should be viewed differently than fine art.

"Everything is photo journalism," he says. "Everything else is serendipitous, it's all a bonus and Mike had a lot of bonuses."

"It's a natural thing to happen," Hvidston adds. "All art is a commentary on life and definitely photojournalism is a commentary."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533


If you go

What: "Mike Lien: Photographer"

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Friday through Wednesday, through Sept. 18

Where: Rourke Art Museum, Moorhead

Info: There is a $3 admission for non-members, $2 for students. (218) 236-8861

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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