Spotlight – Gene Witkowski, photographer

To the moon and back

For many years, Gene Witkowski and his camera have been a fixture at Neglia Ballet. You’ve probably seen his of photographs of ballet students during The Nutcracker and Baba Yaga and at end of the year performances. Four of his beautiful pieces are now adorning our Conservatory waiting area walls. But how did Gene get his start in photography and how did he originally connect with Neglia Ballet?

When Gene was a student at South Park High School he tried to take a picture of the moon through a telescope. The photo was blank. Determined to master photography, Gene joined the Camera Club. After high school, Gene was in the air force for four years. While at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, his job was in the contact print room of a Reconnaissance Lab. In 1966 Gene printed the first picture of Earth from vicinity of the moon from Lunar Orbiter 1. He wouldn’t even realize until decades later that this photograph would become so iconic. (photo courtesy of NASA archives)

His last year in the air force was spent in Thailand. After the air force, Gene worked at Republic Steel in South Buffalo in order to save up enough cash to return to Thailand for six months. Here’s one of many images he made of children playing in a refugee camp.

In the 1980’s Gene was taking pictures of a friend dancing ballet at Mount Saint Joseph’s Academy in Buffalo when he met a student named Heidi Halt. Years later while doing home repair for Suzanne Evans (who later became a Neglia board member and Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker) Gene met Heidi again. They got to chatting about ballet and photography.

Gene has an interest in the history of Lake Erie, Buffalo’s waterfront and shipping industry. Gene has created many maritime photos including pieces in the permanent collection of The Burchfield Penney Art Center. One technique Gene uses is called “Little Planets” where he manipulates a 360-degree panoramic photograph to be displayed as one circular image. Subjects of his Little Planets series range from dancers to ship workers to city skylines.

Gene used to climb the tower at what is now Silo City to get an interesting perspective of the workers on the decks of the ships coming up the Buffalo River. In 2003 Gene took a photo of the last grain scoopers unloading on the Buffalo River at General Mills. After that day, the operation became mechanized. (photo "Last Dance, 2003")

Gene is semi-retired now but still taking photographs for Neglia Ballet, The Irish Classical Theatre and The Kavinoky Theatre. In the summer Gene enjoys crewing a 27-foot sailboat for races on Wednesdays on Lake Erie. In addition to Gene’s many interests and activities, he is a regular platelet donor at the Red Cross. Recently Gene achieved donating 700 units (yes 700) over the past 40 years. That equates to over 1,000 hours of time in the donation recliner. He said he’d rather be on the giving end of blood than the receiving end.

In the past year, Gene has returned to his love of astronomy. With his roll-out telescope he’s been able to capture high resolution images of the moon right from his backyard. This new technology has allowed him to accomplish the lunar dream he started as a teenager.

While some may wonder what’s the connection between photographing outer space, grain scoopers, sailboats and ballerinas, there is something that connects them all: the critical moment. Many times during his career of taking photographs, Gene just happened to be at the right place at exactly the right time. Gene seeks an intense facial expression, or a graceful movement, the perfect composition of color, or simply a well-placed shadow. And when he captures that critical moment, the impression lasts forever.

(photographs copyright and courtesy of Gene Witkowski)
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