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Published September 18 2010

Scheel's view: Tough guy’s photos reveal a softer side

Fred B. Scheel was tough.

He was physically fit and “tough mentally,” says Mark Strand, a friend of Scheel and the chairman of mass communication at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

To wit, Scheel flew a fighter plane for the United States Marine Corps in World War II.

“He always wore that Marine ring,” Strand says of the symbol of earned manliness.

Yet the photographs the area businessman took and that are now on display at the Plains Art Museum move past Scheel’s tough reputation to reveal an eye sensitive to form, light and composition and a mind appreciative of the tender beauty of a sunflower or a young child.

“The Frederick B. Scheel Photography Collection: A New Gift to the Plains” runs through Aug. 12, 2011, at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. It features a selection from the 266 photos given to the Plains by Fred Scheel and his family. Many of those images were made by Scheel, an accomplished photographer in his own right.

Others were taken by some of the great names in the world of 20th-century photography: Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Brett Weston, Ruth Bernhard, André Kertész and Mary Ellen Mark.

“Oh, it’s such a great resource for us,” Museum Director Colleen Sheehy says.

Despite suffering a stroke in 2003 and fighting the effects of Alzheimer’s disease that have taken their toll on Fred Scheel’s health, Sheehy says the

89-year-old was involved in the decision to make the gift to the Plains.

The Scheel family is best known in the region for the chain of retail stores that bears its name. Fred B. Scheel went into the family business in 1946, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

But while he stepped into the family business, photography was a passion for Fred Scheel, says his son, Steve D. Scheel, who is also part of the company.

Earlier in his life, Fred Scheel traveled to study with Ansel Adams and later taught with Adams, who is considered the modern master of landscape photography. Scheel also worked with Brett Weston, a photography great known for his use of abstract imagery.

“Brett and Ed Weston, his dad, are probably two of the best black-and-white photographers that came out of the U.S.,” says Steve D. Scheel. “And Dad actually would travel with Brett, and they would take photographs in the morning, and they’d go back to the darkroom and develop them.”

Believe it or not, Scheel’s work in retail and his passion for photography didn’t consume all his time or energy. He also owned and flew his own aerobatic airplane, a Pit Special, and published a book of poetry along with books of photography.

He also chaired fundraising drives, including the one that built Askanase Hall at North Dakota State University. And Scheel served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and the United Way.

“He was very regimented, very scheduled,” says his son. “He worked in the darkroom every night. … He never watched TV. He didn’t read novels. … He spent 50, 60 hours a week at the business, and I’m sure he spent 30, 40 hours a week in his darkroom and traveling taking pictures.”

And striking black-and-white prints like those on display at the museum are the fruit of his labor.

One of Scheel’s photos in the exhibit focuses on the image of a cottage in front of a lake, which is figured in stark black and punctuated by the lighter shades in the water foliage and the reflection of structure.

Another uses grays and hard black to render the rugged image of a wharf hand in Maine.

“You can see the effort” he put into his work, says Fargo photographer John Borge. And you can see what Borge calls the “working of the craft” until the results were as they should be.

“The prints of Fred’s are always so … right,” he says. “They’re just – they’re right.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734