Globe 150th: Jim Brandenburg’s lens on life at the Globe
“What a magical time — that was a Ph.D. in journalism to me,” Jim Brandenburg said.
WORTHINGTON — Jim Brandenburg honed his photography skills near Blue Mounds State Park and what is now the Brandenburg Foundation’s Touch The Sky prairie, but it was his introduction to Globe newsman Jim Vance that forged his place behind the lens and led to a storied career with National Geographic.
While enrolled at Worthington Junior College, Brandenburg was convinced by friend Jerry Serie to meet Jim Vance.
“That first minute inside the Globe was … probably the biggest life-changing event of my life,” shared Brandenburg, who found himself inside the Globe’s airplane and taking aerial photos of the foundation work on the new junior college the very next day.
One of his photos ran across the front page of the Globe, marking the start of a memorable career with the local newspaper.
Brandenburg shot sports — football and basketball — county fairs and advertising campaigns, among numerous other projects for the Globe. He worked alongside local newspaper greats like Lew Hudson, Bill Brouwer, Paul Gruchow, Ray Crippen and Bob Cashel.
“They were family to me,” he said. “I almost have tears in my eyes talking about it.”
Leading the newspaper was the Vance family — Jim overseeing the newsroom, his brother Bob the head of advertising, and their dad, V.M., serving as proofreader.
“The Globe was such a powerful force in publishing,” Brandenburg shared. Jim Vance traveled the world talking about the newspaper industry, everything from photography to the printing press. The paper was a destination for University of Minnesota photography students to learn.
And while Vance traveled the world, Brandenburg traveled the backroads. Not only was he a talented photographer, he was also a paper delivery boy.
“We’d have bundles in the trunk, back seat and passenger side of the car,” he shared. “I’d take off for Sheldon, Sibley, Arnold’s Park, Okoboji, Round Lake and drop papers off and the paper boys would deliver them. Then I’d shoot pictures along the way and they’d show up in the paper the next day.”
Jim Vance demanded a strong work ethic from his staff — and no excuses Brandenburg admits he was in awe, and mildly intimidated by the man.
When Brandenburg transferred to the University of Minnesota, quitting college on the first day because he couldn’t find a parking spot, it was Jim Vance who got him into the University of Minnesota Duluth. Vance was friends with the head of the art department up there. He knew people — lots of people.
In 1971, Brandenburg returned to the Globe to serve alongside Bill Kuykendall, photo editor from 1969 until August 1971. Kuykendall went on to teach photojournalism and new media at the University of Missouri and University of Maine, respectively, before his retirement in 2013.
From 1971 to 1978, Brandenburg was one of the Globe’s full-time photojournalists. He recalled numerous young people getting their education and experience in the local newsroom.
“Jim (Vance) just embraced young talent,” Brandenburg recalled. “He was brilliant at finding people and recruiting them. We had gifted, gifted people.”
Among them was Gruchow, the author of several books and a frequent collaborator with Brandenburg. The two would often get in the car and drive wherever the road took them in search of stories. Gruchow wrote, Brandenburg captured the images and together they provided the kind of local journalism readers loved.
“What a magical time — that was a Ph.D. in journalism to me,” Brandenburg said.
By 1978, Brandenburg was doing assignments for National Geographic. He doesn’t recall exactly what month he left the Globe and never returned.
What he does remember is the transition from the Globe — then with a readership of about 40,000 — to National Geographic with its readership of 30 million, was ever so slight.
“It wasn’t any more difficult,” Brandenburg said. He had to work his butt off for the quality that Jim Vance demanded at the Globe, and it was no different at Nat Geo.
Vance was much more than a boss, Brandenburg shared, noting how both Jim and Florence were life coaches. It’s how he went from flunking English in high school to acing the subject in college. Brandenburg just didn’t know how to put his thoughts on paper.
It was Vance who called Brandenburg in his office during those early college days and asked, ‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’”
Vance wrote what Brandenburg said, and within two weeks, Brandenburg was doing the writing on his own — and doing so well with it that his teacher read his work before the entire class.
Brandenburg wasn’t the only one to benefit from the attention, generosity, care and sense of excellence. There were many benefactors of the Vance family’s kindness, he said.
Brandenburg uses the talents fostered in him by the Vances — and the Globe — in nearly all that he does. He has written more than a handful of books and penned forwards for others, not to mention his published photographs.
Ely is now home for Jim and Judy Brandenburg, though he is more likely to be working on projects in Europe these days. He has written and is currently producing a movie in Italy about music and the mystery of violin making and the unique trees they are made from.
In addition, he is the subject of a movie being produced in France about his life and work.
“The producer of March of the Penguins saw my work and they’re making a feature movie,” Brandenburg said, noting that a French film crew has visited Minnesota three or four times already, including Touch The Sky prairie north of Luverne.
“It is about my life in nature, from prairies to northwoods wolf country … and making a difference in the world,” he said.
Touch The Sky prairie and Brandenburg’s work will make a difference for years to come; and the Globe made a difference for a young man with a camera and an interest in capturing nature.