By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
If you do a web search for “the purpose of art” you’ll find millions of results describing a wide variety of opinions about the purpose and reason for art. But for Peoria, Illinois photographers Doug and Eileen Leunig, the purpose of their art is its power “to change the way we see and thus to change the world.”
Doug and Eileen are both natives of Peoria. In 2007, Doug retired from an advertising photography job at Caterpillar Inc., so most people associate him with photography. But his roots are actually in traditional art. After starting college in a pre-dentistry program, Doug eventually found his way into the art program at the University of Iowa and earned a BFA degree with a focus on painting and sculpture. It was his fascination with the camera as a tool of artistic expression that led him to a career as a corporate photographer.
Eileen recalls taking lots of pictures when she was young. She especially remembers learning how to photograph the television screen so that she could take pictures of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Her college education was in clothing and textiles with a minor in journalism. Much of Eileen’s career was in the publishing industry, both as an editor and as a photo editor before joining Caterpillar. Though she was always around photographers, she didn’t think about becoming a photographer herself until she and Doug got married.
Doug and Eileen each do photography independently, but most of their public work is done together. Doug credits much of their success to their collaborative approach. “My personal photography improved tremendously,” he said. “Every time we work on something, we pass ideas back and forth and those ideas get stronger and stronger.”
The couple is mostly known for their “light paintings” where a photo is created by painting a scene with light from a single high powered flashlight. The approach is very time consuming, starting with three or more hours photographing the scene. The camera is locked down on a tripod during the transition from dusk to dark while they capture from 300 to 1000 individual frames of the scene. For each exposure, they shine the flashlight across just one small area, essentially painting the scene with light. The technique lets them illuminate large areas with just one flashlight while creating fanciful lighting effects that couldn’t exist naturally.
Once all the images are captured, there is still a lot of work to be done. They will spend tens or hundreds of hours selectively combining the frames in Photoshop to produce the final image. While some photographers think of the time working in Photoshop as “time wasted” Doug and Eileen have embraced the computer as an integral part of their creative process.
They work collaboratively and exchange ideas throughout the process. They work together in the field by first deciding where to place the camera and how to frame the scene. They then take turns operating the camera and the flashlight. Generally though, one of the two will take the lead to process the images in Photoshop. Eileen says, “It’s a bit like calling “shotgun.”” Eventually, they both give input to the image to bring it to the point where they’re both happy to put their names on it.
When Doug retired, he made a conscious decision to focus on art and its impact on the community while working for the common good. “I wanted to use my talent for something other than lining my own pocket,” he said. “One of the first things was to do something with carbon offsetting.” His solution is to donate profits from sales of the “Dancing Landscapes” series to carbon offsetting projects, such as those approved by the United Nations. Profits from other series have been donated to the Sun Foundation where it’s used to advance the arts and environmental sciences.
Doug and Eileen are deeply involved in many aspects of the art community in Central Illinois. Their images have been displayed in local galleries as well as at the Atelier Building during the CIAO “First Friday” studio tours. They also teach photography for the Sun Foundation and have volunteered countless hours for ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. Recently, they were asked to curate the “CIAO and Friends Invitational Art Show” to be on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum when it opens in October.
When Doug retired, he didn’t know where his “Purpose Driven Art” would take him, but he’s enjoying it all. They explained, “Everything that we’ve done, we haven’t been able to anticipate. Each thing happens because of what preceded it. If you try to control that, you lose a lot of the thrill of surprise. As long as you’re open to surprises, that’s where we get new insight.” As Doug put it, “It’s all a new discovery every day.”
Learn more about Doug and Eileen’s “Purpose Driven Art” on their website at www.purposedrivenart.org or visit them during CIAO First Friday studio tours at the Atelier Building at 1000 S.W. Adams in Peoria.
Editors note: The light-painting photo of Doug and Eileen at the top of this post was done while they were actually creating a light painting for themselves. You can see the image they created from their camera position at www.purposedrivenart.org/pages/detweiller_portal.html. You can also click here to see a short video that shows how the images can be combined using Photoshop. You can learn more about the making of the photo of Doug and Eileen on my photography website at www.craigstocksarts.com/blog.