Photographer Richard Prehn will leave for Latvia this summer to see the fruition of an idea born six years ago, that of a one-man show in the Soviet Union.
Prehn, 44, a Murray free-lance photojournalist and abstract artist, has received a rare invitation to exhibit his work and conduct photography seminars this June in Riga, capital of the Soviet republic of Latvia."A lot of people have told me I'm crazy and a dreamer, and that my dreams would never materialize," Prehn says. "And maybe I am, but I wasn't about to let that get in my way."
"I just wanted to see if one individual, without backing, could pull this thing off. To have a one-man show by an American in the Soviet Union is scarce, it's very hard to do. I wanted to make it easier."
Two years, dozens of letters and hundreds of phone calls later, he has obtained the final go-ahead from the Soviet Union. He is preparing to take with him more than 200 display pieces and 500 rolls of film "to photograph why I'm over there."
"I really can't answer honestly if I'd do it over," says Prehn, who is emptying his savings account to finance the trip. "I wanted to give up more than a couple of times. But I think this will make it easier for others. That's what it's all about."
His only backers have been his father, Milton, who contributed to the trip, and Brandess-Kalt Co. Inc. of Chicago, which is providing Prehn with oil paint to take with him to the Soviet Union.
Prehn specializes in photo-oils, which are black-and-white photographs colored by hand. He became convinced the technique would help Soviet photographers who may not have the same access as Americans to equipment. The materials needed are relatively inexpensive and the basic method is easily learned.
"I've seen some exquisite work by the Soviet photographers, and I believe the oils could enhance their work. Photo-oils could provide a medium for them to expand their photographic ideas," says Prehn.
"This is an alternative to color photography. Many black-and-white prints are more striking, detailed and technically perfect than color because the photographer is able to work with them in the darkroom and go for effect. With photo-oils, the photographer has the option of adding color where and when he wishes, to portions of his print or to the whole print in order to create effect."
Prehn first got the idea for the trip by reading a profile of Ulvis Alberts, a Latvian-born U.S. citizen who in 1983 became the first American artist, traveling alone and unsponsored, to exhibit in a major gallery - the Riga Fotostudija - in the Soviet Union.
Some 14,000 people viewed his work during the four-week exhibition in Riga, with photography buffs braving the harsh winter to stand in long lines. The popularity of a photo show in the Soviet Union, said Alberts, is "equivalent to a rock concert here."
What particularly caught Prehn's interest was Alberts' description of the dearth of modern equipment available to Soviet photographers, including color film and processing materials.
Following in Alberts' trail-breaking footsteps, Prehn determined to hold a one-man show in Riga, share his photo-oil expertise and, more ambitiously, lay the groundwork for a permanent U.S.-Soviet cultural bridge.
"I hope to be able to set up a sort of photographic exchange whereby they will have an outlet for showing their work here, and for U.S. photographers to show there," says Prehn. "Riga is kind of a haven for Soviet photographers, and it would be great to be able to get an exchange going - not just of photo exhibits, but of ideas, styles and culture."
"What I'm trying to do is have other artists come into the Soviet Union without all the bull I've had to go through. I want to go back after getting these photo-oils started and set up a competition with other Americans and other artists judging the work of the Latvian photographers."
Prehn's attempts to obtain permission for the show started with calls to Soviet officials in Washington, D.C.
"I kept getting the runaround. Every time I'd call they'd give me 10 more numbers to call somebody else. It was dead ends, dead ends, dead ends."
Prehn, a native of San Dimas, Calif., sent samples of his work to officials in Moscow through a contact he made while photographing a goodwill gymnastics meet of U.S. and Soviet athletes in southern Utah in 1987.
When that, too, failed to produce results, Prehn turned to Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, both Republicans from Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, who provided letters of recommendation and made contacts through diplomatic sources.
Prehn finally went to the top, sending a letter to Vasily Zakharov, Soviet minister of cultural arts. Six months later, this March, he received a written invitation from Nelly Janaus, vice president of the Latvian State Committee of Culture.