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A photographer’s opus PDF Print E-mail
Feature
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM   
Wednesday, 28 November 2012 19:14

In 2002, Vernon Biever of Port Washington became the first photographer inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Now, two years after his death, his work as the team’s beloved lensman is memorialized in that very hall

    The late Vernon Biever, whose iconic photographs of the Green Bay Packers through the decades have given fans glimpses of the emotions of the game and the personalities of the people who played it, both on and off the field, is being honored with an exhibit at the Packers Hall of Fame.

    “The Man Behind the Camera: The Life and Work of Vernon Biever” features not only his photographs, but also memorabilia — including his darkroom, which was removed from his house and brought to the Hall of Fame.

    “That’s kind of the highlight,” Vernon’s son Jim said of the 60-squre-foot darkroom. “I think people will be really surprised at how little the space is and how many pictures came out of it.

    “As a youngster, I can remember peeking over the sink and watching these pictures develop. And as we got older, both my brother (John, a photographer for Sports Illustrated) and I learned to develop photos there.”

    Hall of Fame Manager Krissy Zegers said the temporary exhibit is intended to honor Vernon, who spent 60 years of his life chronicling the Packers after essentially creating the position of team photographer.

    “We wanted to capture the man behind the images. He really captured our history from a very early point,” she said. “He was able to use his skills to help us tell the story of the Packers organization and who we are.

    “For a lot of our younger visitors, they know the photographs but for the older people, they remember a lot of these games.”

    The darkroom, she said, adds a special dimension to the exhibit.

    It may also have promoted one of the most unusual clauses in local real estate history.

    Hall of Fame officials began talking about the idea of an exhibit around the same time Vernon Biever died in 2010, so when his house was sold, the family included a clause in the contract specifying that if the Hall of Fame wanted the darkroom, they could remove it, Jim said.

    The darkroom isn’t the only area of the house depicted, Jim said. The exhibit also recreates the viewing area where Vernon would review his photos each week during the football season, complete with his slide projector, the stool he sat on and his martini glass.

    “It was a Monday night ritual for him to look at his slides from Sunday’s game,” Jim said. “There were so many, it usually took a martini or two to get through.”        The exhibit also includes a display of between 200 and 300 of Vernon’s press passes —including those for Super Bowls I and II — the khaki Lands End jacket Vernon wore to Packers games, the cameras he used,  newspaper stories about Vernon’s career that were published in the New York Times and Ozaukee Press, letters and autographed items Vernon received.

    One wall of the exhibit is devoted to Vernon’s life, reflecting not only his time with the Packers but also his high school years, career as an Army photographer with the 100th Infantry Division and his years as a Port businessman, operating the Ben Franklin store in downtown.

    But central to the exhibit are the photographs, which span 30 years of Vernon’s work with the Packers, beginning with the 1954 season and ending in 1984.

    “They were looking for his favorite photos,” Jim said.   

    About 20 of these photos are in the exhibit, culled from a collection of thousands that the family helped narrow initially to about 100.

    While the number may seem small, it helps to remember that Vernon’s photographs can be seen throughout the Hall of Fame — not just in the exhibit, Jim said.

    “Just about every picture there is my father’s,” he said.

    Vernon’s favorite, Jim said, was of legendary coach Vince Lombardi receiving the Super Bowl I trophy from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in the Packer locker room. Vernon was the only still photographer in the room at the time.

    “He knew it was the start of big things to come,” Jim said. “He had a feeling the Super Bowl was going to become huge.”

    Vernon’s favorite action photo, which is included in the exhibit, depicts Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston as they executed the famed Lombardi sweep, Jim said. In the background, Lombardi is watching the action unfold.

    “You couldn’t script a better picture,” Jim said. “It really described the era. They ran that play 1,000 times.”

    The photos Vernon liked taking the most are those that gave people a behind-the-scenes look at the team and the game, Jim said — a close-up of the bloodied hands of Ken Bowman, for example, or a player hunched over in his muddied uniform.

    “He really enjoyed that aspect of photography,” Jim said.  

    Curating the photographs was the most difficult undertaking in compiling the exhibit, Zegers said.

    “It was very cool, and a little bit overwhelming,” she said, adding the Hall of Fame hired a temporary curator to help go through the images.

    Jim said his father shot just more than 1,000 Packers games, taking roughly 250,000 photographs during his career.

    “When he started out in the 1940s, he would maybe take four to six pictures a game,” Jim said.

    In those days, photographers would have to prefocus their cameras on an area of the field and “wait for the action to run into it.”

    But as technology improved, so did the volume of photos taken.

    By 1959, when 35mm cameras were popular, Vernon was shooting about three rolls of 36-exposure film per game, Jim said. By the mid-1960s, when photographers began using motor drives, his father was shooting six rolls of film at each game.

    By the 1980s, Vernon would shoot 10 to 15 rolls of film a game.

    As much as the exhibit is a tribute to Vernon, it is also a recognition of team photographers — something that Jim, who followed in his father’s footsteps as the Packers’ official photographer, said is special.

    “A lot of times, sports photographers are forgotten people,” he said. “It’s a good occupation, and very rewarding.”

    Vernon basically created the job with the Packers. He had taken photos of the team for the Milwaukee Sentinel before his stint in the Army, but when he returned from World War II he found someone else had been given the job.

    So he approached the Packers organization, offering to take photos for free in return for the field pass. The rest, as they said, is history.

    Vernon earned the respect of players, fans and other photographers through the years. He shot such famous games as the Ice Bowl and 35 Super Bowls, and football legends — many of whom became his friends.  

    His images grace not only the Packers Hall of Fame but also the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

    He earned the title of NFL Photographer of the Year in 1984, and in 2002 was named to the Packers Hall of Fame — the only photographer so honored.

    “My dad had quite a following of people who enjoyed his work,” Jim said.

    Jim said he’s seen the exhibit several times since it opened Oct. 27.

    “It keeps getting better and better,” he said. “It was kind of emotional to see the whole thing come to life.

    “I’m sure my dad would have liked it.”


Image Information: MEMBERS OF THE Biever family, including (top photo, from left) his son Jim, daughter Barbara Farley and son John, attended the opening of the exhibit honoring their late father Vernon at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field in October.  One wall of the exhibit is dedicated to images that span Biever’s life on the field, at home and at work in Port (bottom photo).             Top and bottom photos courtesy of Jim Biever


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