Ever since his father built him a darkroom when he was 8 years old, Lon Holmberg of Madison County has been taking pictures.
His life has taken some unexpected detours and he’s captured them all on film. At age 67, the Radiant area man is now going through all 150,000 black-and-white negatives he has taken on vintage 2 ¼ inch and 35 mm still cameras.
This year, he hopes to get a digital camera. It will be a difficult transition.
“I’m starting to see images for digital photographs rather than film images I have been working with. This is something I have done for over 50 years and I am good at and now it’s an obsolete technology. Just think what it would be like if all of a sudden motherhood would be obsolete.”
His book projects
The main project he is working on is a book about his year spent in Vietnam during the war as a staff photographer. He took 6,000 photos – mostly using Kodak Tri-X film – while he was stationed in Vietnam during the war.
“When you think of the Vietnam War you think of combat, but people still had to go to work during the war and make a living. Cities went on. The country went on even though there was war,” the Bootoons Lane resident said.
He has always wanted to write a book using his photos and shopped the idea around in the 1980s but got disappointing responses. One publisher said, “We don’t do important books.” Another person asked, “Do you have anything on Vietnamese cooking?” Even with such crazy responses, he still hopes his book will be published.
He also wants to write another book about the impact the war had on his life. He said it was a spiritual altering year for him personally. He said it will be about the transformative process of going to war.
“These are different books than they would have been 30-40 years ago,” Holmberg said.
It is not the first time he has written a book. He wrote his memoir called “Crossing the Pass of Clouds,” but it has never been published. It is named after a mountain pass in the center of Vietnam called Haivan, which translates to pass of clouds.
Homberg’s roots and schooling
Holmberg grew up outside Chicago. He was born in Winnetka and moved to Wilmette in Illinois. He attended a small college preparatory school, Gunnery School, in the Berkshire Mountains in Washington, Conn., where he was into photography and the school newspaper. He graduated in 1963.
“It was a great experience for me. I really liked the environment. Teachers were great and I made a lot of friends,” he said of the prep school.
He studied English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and graduated in 1967.
He then moved to New York City and went to New York University. He said he had a horrible time at this college compared to the collegial atmosphere of UVa, but still managed to get a master’s degree in English. Afterward, he got a job teaching English to eighth and ninth graders at a boys prep school in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Poly Prep.
Unfortunately, a disagreement with the headmaster made him resign and he got drafted weeks later. He had assigned students to see a movie about the Holocaust that led to powerful discussions and stories of survivors from students’ families. He said it was incredibly moving a high point in his teaching career.
“At the same time, this was a period of heavy anti-war protest in the country. This was ’68 and some of the students had taken the school flag and put it upside down, which is an international distress call. And the headmaster was very conservative and extremely upset about that.”
The headmaster made a speech and accused members of the faculty of being supportive of this behavior and Holmberg snapped. “It was an outrageous attack,” Holmberg said. “I walked off and never came back.”
He said, “A few weeks later I got the draft notice. Uncle Sam grabbed me in his clutches.”
His experience in Vietnam
He said he had a “lucky break” from being drafted though. He had illustrated a book for young readers about Civil War battlefields called “Strike the Tent” with his friend Jefferson W. Baker.
“The editor loved my photographs. Unfortunately, he used lots more of them and then was forced to use a poor quality printer so the book does not look good. It is not reproduced well. It just broke my heart,” he said.
However, fortunately, he had the book to show the sergeant to prove to him that he could take pictures.
“I skipped the Army photo school and went directly to a documentary unit in California for the 221st Signal Company. They had a branch in Vietnam. They had veterans returning for Vietnam and I was talking to them and it sounded like very interesting work. So I volunteered to go to Vietnam to photograph,” Holmberg said.
He ended up on a military base in Long Binh outside what was then called Saigon (it is now called Ho Chi Minh City).
He said after being there, he got “itchy” and wanted to do something outside of taking photos of awards and meet and greets and so he volunteered to go in the field.
The Army needed film photographers and he had made a student film in college and so he was up to the challenge. They supplied him with a 16 millimeter Bell & Howell silent movie camera. He shot raw footage and it was sent back to the Pentagon.
He filmed combat operations. “I was lucky they never got in a fight,” Holmberg.
He went on intelligence reconnaissance missions to plant electronic sensors along the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was suppose to count how many people were traveling along the trail. Unfortunately, when they went to assemble the electronic sensors, they realized they had no batteries. Someone removed them back at the base.
He then became General Creighton Abrams' staff photographer. Holmberg said Abram, the American four-star general commanding the allied forces in Vietnam, was interested in photography and they got along really well.
“He enjoyed having me along because I was someone who hadn’t heard all of his World War II stories. It was wonderful being with him. He was a wonderful man,” Holmberg said.
The Army issued him a 35 millimeter Beseler Topcon and a 2 ¼-inch Graflex cameras. He ditched them for a Nikon Nikkormat 35 millimeter single lens reflex a friend picked up for him while on vacation in Hong Kong.
He was told to get rid of all his pictures by a colonel, but he snuck 6,000 pictures back to the U.S. inside Playboy magazines he gathered from soldiers.
He said he shipped 80 pounds of Playboy magazines out of Vietnam to Chicago and only one sergeant thought it was odd. He just replied, “Sarge, I couldn’t leave my Playboys. Seems plausible. That’s how I got the pictures out. Crazy times.”
After the war
After the war, he worked in a photography studio in Chicago. He then decided to use the G.I. Bill to go back to school. He got accepted to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and earned his Ph.D. in English in 1977.
He taught English at University of New Mexico and at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. He learned how to fish for trout in Colorado.
“I could leave my office and be at a trout stream at 9,500 feet in about a half hour. It was just beautiful. I love the trout fishing,” he said.
He helped develop a media program at Western State College through 1982-1985 to integrate the visual with the written word.
“Our students ended up competing with students from the big universities in Colorado going for jobs in Denver. We didn’t have the most up-to-date equipment, but our students could tell stories with the camera and they were interesting and they got jobs right and left,” Holmberg said. “That was satisfying to help students go out and find their place.”
He also taught commercial photography at the Southeast Center for Photographic Studies at what is now called Daytona State College (it was then Daytona Beach [Fla.] Community College).
His photographs have landed in magazines and album covers. He did the cover of an avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier’s album “Music On A Long Thin Wire.”
He has also been a co-producer of a film for PBS called “Doing Time” about the Santa Fe prisons. It won a Rocky Mountain Emmy award. To this day, Holmberg is involved with the local jail system. He teaches GED classes at the Orange County Regional Jail in Orange. He also does a religious service at the jail through his church, St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Orange, and teaches a literacy class in the jail. “I like working with them,” Holmberg said.
He also worked on another the PBS film in 1992, “Living with AIDS,” about four people in Atlanta who were living with the disease.
He moved to Madison County in January 2000 during a snowstorm and built his home in the Radiant area. The UVa alumni magazine made him want to move back to the area. His wife Sandy Stillwell helped design the large cottage-style, four-bedroom house. He has previously been married but has no biological children of his own.
He went back to Vietnam last year to teach English to advanced Physics students at the University of Hue. He knows of two students are working on their Ph.D at the University of Virginia now.
Name: Lon Holmberg.
If you were an activist, what would you want to protest against: “The ugly political environment in our country now.”
If you could be president for a day, what would you do: Have a huge barbecue on the White House lawn for the students in Washington, D.C.
What do you like about photography: The ability to portray the human heart.
Hollywood crush: Years ago, it used to be Barbara Walters and now it is Diane Sawyer.