Photos by former Cape Girardeau resident on display at Altenburg museum
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct location of the Mississippi River baptism and the size of the photograph page in The Athens Messenger. It includes Steinhoff's stint at the Gastonia Gazette. The date for the electronic component of the exhibit is to be determined.
Former Cape Girardeau resident and newspaper photojournalist Ken Steinhoff presents a glimpse into the past in a new exhibit at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum in Altenburg, Mo. The retrospective, "Ordinary People Doing Ordinary Things," is on display until Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
"I like to photograph people who were unacknowledged by the paper except when they were born, when they got married, when they got a speeding ticket, and when they died. Somebody else could have the celebrity beat," Steinhoff said.
While working in the Cape Girardeau area, Steinhoff developed film for the newspapers he worked for in his basement darkroom. Photos considered newspaper worthy were selected. Discarded film was rolled up, put into old coffee cans and placed into bags which he filed underneath a desk.
After retirement in 2008, Steinhoff came back to Cape Girardeau and rediscovered the old film. As he examined the frames he realized something that eluded him 50 years ago: the ordinary and uninteresting photos were "the most precious."
Hidden in the bags was a treasure trove of images from bygone days. The faces, places and mundane rituals of life that time has forgotten. From a Mississippi River baptism in black and white from New Madrid, Mo., to shots of Wittenburg, Mo., which was virtually wiped out by floods, to farmers standing in their coveralls outside a store talking.
Steinhoff contacted Carla Jordan, the director of the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum of Perry County, and showed her his work.
"It started the conversation about the exhibit," Jordan said. "Ken's expertise in portraiture is amazing. He doesn't like to be called an artist. The exhibit is presented like an art exhibit."
They had more than 400 photos to choose from for the exhibit. They argued. Eventually they had a "picking party" and allowed some of the choices to be made by friends.
"It's such an honor having the Steinhoff exhibit with us," Jordan said. "The work is a powerful juxtaposition. And it was all work that had been discarded."
Steinhoff's family settled in Cape Girardeau, where he attended Trinity Lutheran and Cape Girardeau Central High School.
While in high school he was the chief photographer for The Tiger, the school's newspaper, and Girardot, the yearbook. He was also a reporter and photographer for the Jackson Pioneer, where he learned to set type, write stories and shoot pictures.
In 1965 he was a summer intern at the Southeast Missourian.
As an intern he worked on the copy desk as well as in sports, news and wedding coverage. The experience resulted in the newspaper for Ohio University hiring him in 1967. Within three months he became the photo editor.
Steinhoff was pursuing a bachelor of fine arts, but "I neglected my studies more than a little. It was more fun to actually do than to study."
His work with the school paper caught the attention of the local newspaper, The Athens Messenger. They contacted him to work for them. The paper had a 9-by-17 blank page the photographers had to fill.
In 1969 he did a spot on the owner of The Hilltop Restaurant in Athens, Ohio. She was referred to as Mom Pennell. According to Steinhoff, she would talk about college students that visited her or servicemen she would give money to for bus tickets.
The morning after the story ran, Steinhoff watched customers coming in, each giving Pennell a copy of the article. He said that's when he realized he had the power to elevate ordinary individuals.
"I became hypersensitive to the events that surround you," Steinhoff said. "The ordinary people idea came from that."
After a stint at the Gastonia Gazette in North Carolina, the Palm Beach Post became his home for the next 35 years where he did a variety of jobs. He retired in 2008.
A book on the Smelterville area of Cape Girardeau is in the works for Steinhoff. He is tracking down people in the images he found from 1966 of Smelterville. He has gone to reunions and circulated photos hoping to find connections.
"I interviewed a woman that had a photo of her mother that had been passed around," Steinhoff said. "She said she did not have a picture of her and had almost forgotten her face. She told me she had the photo on the seat of the car next to her and looked at it and had to pull to the side of the road and let the tears fall."
She told him his photograph had captured her soul.
Steinhoff will present an electronic component of his exhibit to a small group at a date to be determined later this month at the Immigrant Conference at the Lutheran Heritage Center. Jordan said that there would also be an 1850s folk art wood carving, from Herb Graupner's collection, of the life of Jesus on display.
The Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum was created to care for the log college seminary. It has expanded to a museum with a gallery and has 4,000 square feet of archives. Families have free access to research genealogy back to Germany.
"People come from all over the county and Germany to do research with us," Jordan said.
The next exhibit will be the eighth annual Luther's Indoor Walk Through the Woods. Forty Christmas trees will be displayed throughout the museum and galleries from Nov. 15 to Jan. 15.
"It's unbelievably gorgeous," Jordan said. "Magical inside the museum."
For more information on the exhibit, call 573-824-6070 or go online at www.altenburgmuseum.org.
More of Steinhoff's images of Cape Girardeau are posted on his blog, www.CapeCentralHigh.com.
75 Church Street Altenburg, MO 63732