Photographer Fritz Liedtke: An eye for incarnational art

FritzLiedtke-Italy-familyThe following interview with Fritz Liedtke by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 47-49 of the April 16, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.

Viewing the extraordinary fine art photography of Fritz Liedtke opens your eyes to the unique beauty of each person created in God’s image.

“Everybody has a history, everybody has secrets, everybody hurts,” he says. “I give people an opportunity to be honest about their hidden lives and to create beauty from ashes. I consider this to be a natural outworking of the compassion Christ has developed in me. Good art is incarnational, meaning that it puts flesh to the spirit, it makes concrete something that is intangible. What is inside an artist will naturally be expressed in his or her artwork.”

Most photographers would not consider some subjects Fritz chooses: highly freckled people, awkward adolescents, or persons with eating disorders. But his fine art photos of these people showcase his heart for the hurting and his talent for capturing their inner beauty and strength. He calls his limited edition series with freckled subjects Astra Velum.

Liedtke-AstraVelum-Asia“When I look at people with freckles, I think of constellations of stars in the sky,” he says. “So I named the series Astra Velum, which is Latin and means ‘veil of stars.’”

Liedtke balances his fine art photography with a successful commercial photography business that includes more traditional subjects: professionals and models as well as graduates and wedding participants. His interest in photography began as a teen, when he carried a Kodak 110 Instamatic on a US tour with his dad. He has a BFA in photography and has won an increasing number of awards over the last 25 years.

I met Fritz at the 2013 Glen West workshop in Sante Fe, and later communicated with him via email for Christian Renewal.

Christian Renewal: Fritz, 2013 was a big year for you. You were the featured photographer at the Glen West workshop in Sante Fe, and you were chosen as one of nine American photographers to exhibit work at the Lishui International Photography Festival in China. What other significant events in your career occurred during the year?

Fritz Liedtke: Yes, 2013 was a big year for me. My photography was shown in and collected by museums, was in numerous gallery shows, and it took me to China for the Lishui Photo Festival. I had work published in a number of magazines, including a feature in Image. I had the privilege of teaching at The Glen, and was invited to teach in Italy at Incarnate (where I am now for a few months). The International Society of Media Photographers chose me as one of their Best of 2013. My limited edition artist book Astra Velum passed the halfway point of selling out. My book Skeleton in the Closet was also published (available on Amazon). So yes, it was a busy and exciting year.

FritzLiedtke-QuiteNormal-MaudeCR: Incarnate in Italy is a three-month immersion experience for artists from around the world, who pursue their artistic calling in a striking setting (the Italian Alps!) and within a creative community centered on Christ. This year’s dates are from February 11 through May 3 (2014). Can you share a bit more about your teaching stint at Incarnate?

Fritz: This is a truly unique experience for me. We are halfway through the school as I write. It is formatted to be both a time of deep discipleship, and of artistic exploration. Its focus is to help students become deep people—deeply rooted in Christ, practicing spiritual disciplines, listening to God’s voice—and from this deep place to create art. It has been a life-changing experience for my students as well as for me. We live in community for three months, studying and creating. I am so impressed with the folks at OM Arts, with whom I am serving here. They’ve put together an amazing program, and I’m privileged to be part of it. You can read a little more about it here.

CR: You mentioned your books Skeleton in the Closet, which features people who struggle with eating disorders, and Astra Velum, available in hand-printed limited editions of photogravures highlighting freckled people. Your portfolios “Welcome to Wonderland” and “Quite Normal” depict adolescents, often revealing their hidden thoughts. These are unusual subjects most photographers don’t consider. What motivates you to work with these unique subjects?

FritzLiedtke-QuiteNormal-MabelFritz: If you take a look at my personal work overall, you’ll sense my compassion for the displaced, the lonely, the broken among us. Everybody has a history, everybody has secrets, everybody hurts. This is what I end up being drawn to, and is the connection I see in these projects: I give people an opportunity to be honest about their hidden lives and to create beauty from ashes. I consider this to be a natural outworking of the compassion Christ has developed in me. Good art is incarnational, meaning that it puts flesh to the spirit, it makes concrete something that is intangible. What is inside an artist will naturally be expressed in his or her artwork.

CR: Sometimes the expression of what’s inside an artist will be obvious and sometimes it’s more subtle. It seems to me that photography may be a more subtle medium in general than, say, painting or writing (although both of those can be extremely subtle). It would appear more difficult to be overtly incarnational in photography, although I believe any viewer of your fine art work feels—at the least—a connection to the human spirit. A Christian would—I believe—recognize this as a sense of the divine image. What pieces or portfolios do you view as most incarnational? Or which would you say is your best art?

Fritz: I’m not sure I’d say photography is more subtle than painting or writing, but that it has its own set of challenges. While I can’t create something out of nothing like a painter or writer can (because I have to photograph things that exist in the real world), I still choose what to fill the frame with. This refers back to my answer above: my compassion, for instance, is ‘incarnated’ in my photography.

Liedtke-AstraVelum-EllaCR: What has been your favorite project and why?

Fritz: Honestly, I think the most fun work I get to do is with adolescent kids. They’re surprisingly creative and imaginative and sensitive. I feel like they are an overlooked gem in the world, and it’s fun for me to create art with them. Last year I created a new set of images for the Quite Normal series, where I photograph the kids, and then let them write about their lives based on my portrait. Then they write a phrase or two directly on the photograph. I really enjoy watching them open up when they see that I’m actually interested in listening to their stories. Amazing things happen.

CR: What’s the basic philosophy behind your photography?

Fritz: Hmm, if I have one, it would incorporate these elements: Photograph things I care about, try to make the most beautiful images possible, surprise the viewer, surprise myself.

CR: I’m intrigued by the balance you maintain between commercial and fine art work. How do the two create conflict or complement each other?

DierdreFritz: I used to think that if I photographed commercially, it would hinder my personal work. I was afraid that my personal work would start to look like the images I was paid to create. Or that I would use up my creative energy making money, and burn out as an artist. While I certainly have to maintain a careful balance between the two in order to avoid burnout, I find that the commercial work has actually enhanced my personal work. Because I’m photographing regularly, my technical and aesthetic skills are strong and fluid. This means I can approach a personal project with these skills, and not have to start from scratch. I can make stronger personal images because I’m in the habit of making strong images all the time.

NoemiCR: How does your Christian faith inform your work, your family, and the balance you seek between those two elements of your life?

Fritz: Since high school, when I first had a glimpse of what good art is, and that I could actually be an artist, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility. Not a burden, but a responsibility to be the best artist I could be. I saw so few examples of Christian artists, that I wanted to be one of the few who actually was faithful to this gift God had given me. But I’m also responsible to be faithful in other areas of my life, including participating in my church community and caring for my family. So I’m careful to balance these things. I don’t want to be one of the artist-stereotypes that throws out everything healthy and good in life in order to pursue his gift. That’s folly. My relationship with the Lord is at the heart of who I am, and infuses everything I do.

To peruse Fritz Liedtke’s extraordinary fine art photograph, visit this website. To view his commercial work, see this site.


The End is near


During a workshop at Glen West, when someone asked Larry Woiwode how he begins a novel. He said, “Most often lately, I tend to see the ending, so I find the beginning and get to the end from there.”

I sighed. I’d never had that experience. In fact, most of the time I come up with a first line and work from there. Once I saw a scene, so I wrote it and figured out where it belonged in the story. But I’d never begun at the end.

This week, however, I came close. I’ve been struggling with a beginning to a novel and was thinking and praying about it, when the end suddenly came to me. I have only a few chapters written in the work in progress, and I’m not even sure of the beginning, but I’ve already typed “The End.”

I have no idea if it will stay the way it is, but I have a feeling it will.

Saving Image and the world

Bell towerImage Journal advertises the Glen Workshop as a week that can change a life, and if you’ve been reading recent entries you know how emphatically my extraordinary week at Glen West affected my life and my writing.

That life-altering experience was possible for me despite Image‘s near-death experience, which Gregory Wolfe writes about here. Stuart Scadron-Wattles explains more about how an unscrupulous online company failed to honor its agreement and withheld $65,000 of Image‘s money. Money it needs to pay costs associated with the workshops. Bills are piling up.

The good news is that individuals in the Image community are donating at a record rate to help Image meet its obligations and remain afloat. If I had an extra $10k lying around, I’d send a check today. But I don’t. So I’ll do what I can to spread the word. Image needs your help. If you care about beauty and excellence in the arts, you should care about Image.

Donate here or here.

Checks made out to Image can be sent to:
3307 Third Avenue West
Seattle, WA 98119

Thanks for whatever you can do to help reclaim artistic beauty and excellence.

Creator, creation, and creativity

CIMG4024Glen West 2013 perfectly blended creativity and community with work and worship. The tag line for Image Journal proclaims: Art, Faith, Mystery. At Glen West, those theoretical concepts became experiential realities.

The high desert plateau setting of Santa Fe was new to me and played a crucial role in the entire experience. If I were talking about a novel, I’d say that setting became a character in the narrative.

Nature was the subject of Larry Woiwode’s remarks one morning when he opened the fiction workshop by reading from Psalm 19. Here are the first four verses of this Psalm from the English Standard Version:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In related remarks, Woiwode said, “Words are coming from the Word who created the world, and we can pick them up if we listen.”

He added, “Nature itself communicates the hidden attributes of God.” He encouraged us to observe nature by looking and listening.

“Pay attention in that careful way to nature,” he urged. “Nature will speak to you.”

Receptive observation helps us write true descriptions that convey the Creator.

“In descriptions done with fidelity,” he said, “the reader should sense the supernatural.”

Surrounded by layered blue mountains and green-dotted brown hills, surveying majestic clouds in clear sky, and breathing Santa Fe’s rare air, I sensed the supernatural. Never before have I felt so intensely and consistently in the presence of God. I rested and gloried in the Creator, his creation, and his great gift of creativity.

And, after a years-long involuntary hiatus from writing poetry, that week I wrote this poem:

At 7000 feet

I walk slowly
drink frequently
and breath deeply

I am far from home
and at rest in it

My love is distant
but Love fills my heart

I balance
on the precipice
of paradox

In the city of holy faith
modern adobe
and sun-warmed sage
I glory in creative energy

And in the presence
of I AM,
I fades

© 2013 Glenda Faye Mathes

Pragmatism, inspiration, and redemption

The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe
The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

During the fiction workshop at Glen West, the first and most frequent question instructor Larry Woiwode asked was: “Does it work?”

That’s the primary consideration. Either a piece of writing works or it doesn’t. This may seem a rather pragmatic view, but it’s crucial to establish a work’s viability before going on to other important questions, like: “Can you trust this person to tell you the truth?”

Being able to trust the author is a key component of what makes a piece work. Those were questions asked about every submission we discussed.

During our discussions, we talked about some elements that apply specifically to Christians who write (note I didn’t say “Christian writers” or “writers of Christian fiction,” which should be explored in another blog post). Two elements Woiwode stressed that relate to believing authors were inspiration and redemption.

Each workshop began with Woiwode reading a Scripture text or spiritual writing excerpt. His comments brought each reading alive for the believing writer’s life.

One morning, he read from Psalm 51, noting especially verse 6 (text below from the ESV):

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

He spoke about wisdom in the secret heart as coming only from God, who delights in truth in the inward being. He said, “This is the closest thing we can get to inspiration.”

Another time Woiwode read from Psalm 37, including verse 3 (here in the ESV):

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

“How do you ‘befriend faithfulness?'” he asked. Pointing out that Christ himself is faithfulness, he said, “You need to be immersed in the Word to become closer to Jesus.”

The closer we become to Christ, the more we find ourselves delighting in him: He noted verse 4:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4, ESV).

Woiwode warned writers, “The secret area of your heart will come out.” But when we delight in the Lord, the desires of our heart change. They become less self-centered and more Christ-centered.

He also read verse 23:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
    when he delights in his way (ESV).

He pointed out how the psalmist’s “steps are established when he delights in the Lord” and encouraged us to walk in his way.

That idea of established steps ties in with what he read in verses 30-31:

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
    and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
    his steps do not slip (ESV).

“The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,” he reiterated. “The more you receive him, the closer you move to his righteousness, the better you can speak justice.”

Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe
Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Woiwode later expanded on this concept: “As a person thinks, so that person is. The more Christ is in you, the more you’ll be disabled from doing anything but the truth.” He added, “Shine the light on evil. What is of the truth is built on rock.”

In an earlier class, Woiwode had spoken of “shining the light on evil” as “writing redemptively.”

In my mind, you can’t picture redemption unless you first depict the necessity for it. Writing “safe” fiction that avoids any distressing subject isn’t realistic. Evil exists. It should be shown and named for what it is. I’m not advocating graphic or nauseating descriptions. But I do believe evil cannot be ignored. Only when evil is exposed can writers express the power of Christ’s redemption.

Our writing then becomes realistic as well as redemptive. Our inspiration will come from Christ and will reflect his redemption. Fiction will stand on truth. The writing will work.

Telling the story eclipses intention and audience


Compressing everything I learned during my intensive Glen West workshop into brief blog posts seems impossible. But I can give you a taste through small samples.

Last Friday, I focused on the first day and wrote about beginning to write by writing. Two of the many literary terms we discussed on subsequent workshop days were intention and audience.

Our workshop leader Larry Woiwode didn’t seem particularly keen on the concept of authorial intention. “The critic never knows the writer’s intention,” he said. “The only person who can know your intention is God. Saying you know the intention of the author is promoting yourself.” He added, “Write to tell a story, not to convey intention.”

He wasn’t a big fan of writing for a particular audience either. “Don’t worry about who you’re writing for,” he said. “Do the best you can and it will find the audience.”

Do you see a pattern? Woiwode stressed expending your best effort in telling your story. “Tell the story properly,” he urged. “Do the best you can.” He described a well-written story as one that “has dimension under it,” saying, “We feel underneath it the thought that conceived it, compressed it.” He spoke of “the story beyond the story,” which “you want the reader to think about for the next week.”

I believe it’s accurate to say that, for Woiwode, story-telling trumps intention and audience.

Begin to write by writing

The post-it note centered above my computer monitor daily reminds me, “Begin to write by writing.” It’s a phrase that struck me during a writing course years ago. Anyone can think about writing, but you have to put your fingers on the keyboard and actually write if you want to be a writer.

Glenda Mathes and Larry Woiwode in the fiction classroom at Glen West
Glenda Mathes and Larry Woiwode in the fiction classroom at Glen West

Readers of my previous post know that I recently returned from Glen West, where I participated in a fiction workshop led by Larry Woiwode. One of the first things he said in the first class was, “If you want to be a published author, you have to write every day.”

He talked about how beginning authors often think they can’t write an entire novel, so they decide to start with something easier, like a short story. But Woiwode told us the short story is the most difficult to write. He spoke about the “Aha!” moment at the end, when “you bump your head on the first sentence.” He said, “The first sentence develops an incline and the story goes down it.” And, “A lifeline runs from the opening sentence to the last sentence.”

Woiwode recommended drafting a story in one sitting so that it’s “trapped in time and space.” He even said about writing a novel, “You must draft it straight through.” He added, “There’s great integrity in a first draft” because “no one else has entered it.” He suggested getting the first draft down without showing it to anyone else. Once you’ve let other people read and comment on it, you’ve allowed their influence to invade the narrative. “Get it down once,” he said. “You have the rest of your life to get back to it.”

The narrative in fiction can be a powerful force for expressing truth and bringing healing.

“Truth-telling best happens in stories,” he said. “Many professions have found that if you can fix someone’s narrative, you can heal them. That’s what we’re doing in storytelling.”

While we worked through previously-submitted manuscripts, Woiwode used subjects in the discussion to launch into related instruction. He spoke about the importance of establishing the person and point of view. “You have to have a person in a particular setting at a specific time. Place the person,” he said. “One way to do that is through a clear point of view at the start.”

When questioned about his class description stressing place (see my “The Place of Place” post), he said that description was meant to be “provocative.” It was.

The above reflects only part of the wisdom gleaned during the workshop’s first day. The challenge now is to implement a viable plan for prioritizing fiction. How do you do it?

The Glen West experience

Sunrise over St. John's College in Santa Fe
Sunrise over St. John’s College in Santa Fe

How would you like to spend several days participating in a productive workshop and living within a creative community? Attend Glen West!

Many years ago, Gideon Strauss and I chatted about Christianity and culture. I was writing a series of articles for Christian Renewal on Christians in the arts, and he’s passionate about promoting art and leadership excellence to influence culture. I lamented my lack of community with other writers who want to produce work of excellent literary quality that would interest mainstream publishers. Gideon said, “Many of my writing friends recommend the Glen.”

In the intervening seven years, I researched the Glen Workshop, subscribed to Image journal, and read each Image/Update email newsletter. Every year I studied the listings of workshops and instructors, longing to attend, but for many different reasons it didn’t work out. Last fall, I saw the instructor for this year’s fiction class at Glen West would be Larry Woiwode.  I was familiar with Woiwode’s work and had interviewed him for my earlier series. I knew it was my time.

cloudsGlen West daily exceeded my expectations. The workshop, worship, community, and setting combined to create a memorable and priceless experience.

Larry Woiwode led the workshop with a laid-back style that complemented his organizational preparation and productive instruction. Our group consisted of 15 unique individuals from widely divergent backgrounds and at differing writing stages, ranging from college to retirement age, but each one was a competent writer who brought insight to the discussion. Meeting the other writers brought greater appreciation for their work, and working together developed a stimulating group dynamic.

Evening worship set an almost sacramental seal to the close of the day as we quietly and reverently focused on the Creator who bestows creativity.

hillsGlen West’s community is incredible. Even longtime attendees are warm and welcoming to newcomers. A sense of underlying creative energy is palpable.

It’s difficult for me to determine how much of this energy comes from workshop, worship, community, or setting. I believe it’s a combination of all the above. Certainly setting plays a significant role.

Santa Fe means “Holy Faith.” Native Americans valued the area as a sacred location, and Spanish missions brought Christianity in the early 1600s. Today hundreds of artists live and work in Santa Fe, whose streets are lined with art galleries. At 7000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe’s rare air is crisp and fragrant with pine, pinion, and sage. Striking clouds tower in the intense sky above green-dotted brown hills and layered blue mountains. At night familiar constellations appear lower and closer.

A star shines as St. John's bell tower is silhouetted at dusk
A star shines as St. John’s bell tower is silhouetted at dusk

The Glen West experience was a series of meaningful events, each of which I’d have liked to take time to process, but came one on top of the other to produce a cumulative emotional impact. Think summer Bible camp on steroids. Image Journal proclaims: Art, Faith, Mystery. At Glen West, those theoretical aspects became experiential realities.

Post-Glen West

Bell towerGlen West is an amazing, exhilarating, creative experience. Monday afternoon I returned home after spending several days as a participant in its fiction workshop under the instruction of Larry Woiwode.

Remember how I recently reflected on the Place of Place?  That post quoted from Woiwode and concluded:

Wouldn’t you love to learn more about place by working with other writers under the direction of Woiwode? I’d like that.

Well, I did.

I’m still processing the extraordinary experience, but I intend to write more about it later.