Lingner, who enjoyed the late-night scene at the C-Haus on Mondays, recalls quipping something like, “Maybe you could call me?”
From then on, when Tuesday morning rolled around, the phone rang in the hallway near Lingner’s room. (Cell phones and private landlines in dorms were still in the future.) Lingner would pick up and hear Michael’s cheery voice. “Hi Tom! This is Michael. I’m looking forward to seeing you in 20 minutes!”
With phone calls like these and with countless other similar acts, Simon took something deeply rooted in Beloit’s values—the importance of personal attention—and elevated it to an art form. He and his wife, Carol Winters Simon’82, were surrogate parents, mentors, and friends to legions of students, many of whom still keep in touch. Their roomy house on Church Street, across from Emerson Hall, functioned as a kind of college annex, with students visiting, eating pizzas, taking photos, and having their own portraits made.
From 1969 through 1998, Simon demonstrated his passion for photography in class, on field trips, and in his home. It set students on fire. An outsized number either became accomplished photographers, filmmakers, or visual artists, or learned how to bring their A game to anything else they tackled.
Simon’s photographs from his Beloit years encompass everything: friends, family, neighbors, dogs, Wisconsin landscapes, the faces of students—all stunningly rendered on black-and-white film. In an email that came to me out of the blue last spring, Simon explained that he was scanning his negatives, numbering in the six figures. Many were portraits of former students, and he was already on number 820. Most had the dates and the students’ names scrawled by hand along the edges of the large format proofs.
“Would you be interested in making an article out of them?” he wrote. After many emails back and forth and a visit to the Simon home in Maine, I began to understand what alumni had been saying for years—that through the person of Michael Simon, his photographs, and his influence on students, you could begin to understand a piece of Beloit’s soul.
“There is something about that image,” Howard Korn’87 says of the portrait Simon made of him in 1986. “I’m looking right into myself.” Now a commercial photographer, with clients that include U.S. universities and colleges, including Beloit, Korn recalls the intense impact Simon had on him. “My goal was to be like Michael Simon,” he says. “I just didn’t realize how hard that would be.”
Korn remembers going on field trips with Simon to shoot photos of grain elevators in nearby Clinton, Wis. After developing his film, he discovered that the images looked dramatically different from what he had in mind.
“I thought if I could somehow harness what I had in my head when I shot it, that would be the coolest thing ever,” Korn says. With Simon’s encouragement, Korn kept practicing, photographing constantly on and around campus. After spending a semester off-campus at the Art Institute of Chicago, he returned to Beloit with a lousy attitude: Beloit’s photography equipment paled in comparison to what the art school offered.
“At the time, I didn’t understand that photography wasn’t all about the technology,” Korn says. “Michael was teaching us how to see and navigate the world and understand our relationship to it. Through Michael, I figured out who I was, and what I liked to do,” he says. “But at the time, I thought it was about the equipment.”
When Carol Lollis’87 arrived on campus in 1982, she was already interested in documentary photography. “I wanted to work for National Geographic,” she says. However, in those days at Beloit, people were pushing the boundaries of the photographic medium as art rather than concentrating on photojournalism. “It was confusing,” she says. “Beloit had Michael Simon and all these star photographers doing artsy work,” she says. “I didn’t know where I fit in all of this.”
Lollis had come to Beloit on the personal recommendation of Loren Pope, the longtime New York Times education editor and author of the book Colleges That Change Lives. She designed her own interdisciplinary major in photojournalism, a rarity at the time. When she realized she was a tad short of credits to graduate, Simon advised her on a documentary project photographing the interiors of Beloit-area diners. For a month, she stayed on at Beloit, getting up early each day and heading off to one of the diners in the city. She still sees that project as a turning point.
“It was the first time that I inched my way into observing and photographing people in a classic documentary way,” she says. After working for a while in a photo lab, Lollis studied photography in graduate school, then took a position as a photojournalist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass. That was more than 25 years ago, and she’s still there, still enjoying her work, though she’s moved up to become the publication’s photo editor.
Kathy Fridstein’77 was into photography as a high school student, and when it came time for college, she set out on a search for a school with a strong photography program. The noted American photographer Barbara Crane alerted her that Michael Simon was teaching at Beloit. She enrolled.
“He inspired me to get my work out there, and I’m still doing it after all this time,” Fridstein says of Simon. She landed her first job out of Beloit as a photojournalist for an alternative newspaper in Seattle, Wash., and eventually headed to graduate school. Since then, she’s made fine art, commercial, and editorial photographs and also taught photography. Lately, she’s focused much of her energy on graphic design.
Beyond the photographic inspiration, she remembers Simon’s role in fostering a close-knit community at Beloit. Even now, she can recite the Simons’ former street address. “You felt like you were a part of his life,” she says of Simon. “They made their house very welcoming, too—it felt like a great big farmhouse inside.”
Photography has been a through-line in Tom Lingner’s life, despite those early classes back in the 1980s. After working in professional photo labs, doing architectural photography, and freelancing, Lingner landed a post at Harvard. That put him in a nicely equipped studio where he photographed one-of-a-kind objects among the Harvard library’s impressive collections.
“Death masks of poets, jewelry owned by Mary Todd Lincoln, original drafts of poetry by Dickinson and Keats, Shakespeare’s First Folio, the Gutenberg Bible … it was a rare opportunity to see and work with some amazing objects,” he says. Lingner quit once to take a freelance job on an archaeological dig in Tuscany, but Harvard ended up hiring him back. Several years ago, Lingner says he stopped freelancing on the side and accepted a front office position in the photo department of the Harvard College Library.
“Every job I’ve had since Beloit has involved photography,” he says. “None of them has really felt like work, because photography is something that I love, and my love of photography I owe to Michael. He cared about photography, and he cared about his students.”
You can see that care in the photographs.
“I always felt the students were most important, rather than what they made,” says Simon. “In the book Howards End, Margaret Schlegel says repeatedly, ‘Only Connect.’ That is the shortest summation of my college experience.”
Simon made a practice of challenging students, dispensing advice, and checking in when they struggled. This dedication seems to have come naturally, and it grew out of something that was missing in his own youth.
After living through Nazi and Communist occupations of Hungary as a child, followed by the Hungarian revolution that forced him and his mother to become refugees, Simon knew what it was like to face an uncertain future without the grounding support of a family. Some of his closest family members, including both grandmothers, were killed in the Nazi gas chambers, and his mother narrowly escaped the same fate.
Simon immigrated to America and studied electrical engineering at Penn State, where his fondest memories were made in the photo club’s darkroom. He went on to become a successful commercial photographer in the late 1950s and 1960s New York, shooting photos for the magazine division of McGraw-Hill publishing and then going into business for himself. Eventually, he and Carol relocated to the Midwest to raise their two children, and that put Simon in northern Illinois, right in Beloit’s backyard.
When you look at Simon’s photographs of students, questions surface: Why did he photograph these particular students? Did he recognize their potential? Was he trying to boost their confidence? Simon insists there was no plan or long-term vision behind this body of work. “Everybody got photographed,” he explains. “To say otherwise would be claiming more intelligent foresight than was in it.”
Lollis remembers feeling honored to have Simon take her photo. “You knew he was genuinely interested in you.” Lollis adds that Simon was a stickler for serious work and best efforts. “Getting his praise, you really had to work for it,” she says.
Korn also says he felt “incredibly privileged” to be photographed by Simon. “The students he’d shot before me were pretty important photographers on campus. In some ways, it was validating to have your photo taken.”
George Tatge’72 was among Simon’s earliest students and the two remain friends today.
“He was my mentor, and he was fundamental in my choice to dedicate my career to photography,” says Tatge, who majored in English literature. After moving to Rome in 1973, Tatge worked as a journalist and later as a freelance photographer and writer. Today, his photography is in collections around the world, including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and he continues to teach workshops and exhibit his work. For many years, Tatge was the director of photography at the legendary Alinari Archive of photography, founded in the 1850s in Florence, where he still lives with his wife, Lynn Farnsworth Tatge’72.
Tatge and many of Simon’s students went on to build lives and careers around the world—some involved with photography, others not. But no matter their trajectory, the distance, or the passage of time, they will always be connected to Simon, to Beloit, and to one another through these stunning photographs and the memories they conjure.
Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.
Why We Make Photographs
By John Dolan’82
When I arrived on campus in 1978, the Beloit art department had one photography professor who taught two classes. Over my four years, I took the same course, Advanced Photography, six times. It took me that long to even begin to understand what Michael Simon was teaching me.
Photo classes took place at night in the basement of the Wright Art Center. Each evening was a combination of psychoanalysis and philosophy. Critique sessions were thrilling and slightly terrifying. We were introduced to such deep thinkers as Carl Jung, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, and Studs Terkel. Photographic technique was rarely discussed. Working a camera was the easy part. Instead, Michael challenged us to think about why we were making photographs.
Thirty years later, I still hear the words and phrases from Michael’s lectures, in his Hungarian accent:
“A photographer does not take a picture, rather you make a photograph. You are the author.”
“Mr. Dolan, please define the question. The question is more important than the answer.” (Years later I would realize this idea is the essence of a search engine like Google. The answer depends on how you formulate the question.)
“Don’t describe what a photograph looks like, tell me how it makes you feel.”
“Each photograph is a self-portrait. The viewer learns about the photographer’s relationship to the subject.”
Over the years, we have maintained a strong connection. His son Nicholas worked with me in New York, his daughter Amy asked me to shoot her wedding in San Diego. I’ve visited Michael and Carol up in Maine and they have visited my home in the Berkshires.
Thirty-five years after graduating Beloit, I have not met another photographer who received a richer photographic education. Michael’s lessons created a framework for my approach to photography as well as literature, film, and life. He took my passion and gave it a structure to grow into a full career as a working photographer.
John Dolan’s work ranges from advertising and editorial projects to fine art and wedding photography. His pioneering, editorial approach to wedding photography has attracted assignments from celebrities and art directors, and landed many of his images on the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. His studio is in New York.