Allan Gebhard: uncelebrated photographer, recorder of history

By Kremena Spengler

Staff Writer

NEW ULM – Allan Gebhard is a quiet man who likes to hover in the background.

But if you look closer, you will notice that he always has a camera on hand.

Over more than 60 years, Gebhard, a now-retired physicist, has created a stunning visual treasure trove documenting local history and encompassing unique architectural structures, people and events.

He has also built what he terms a system of “historical recall” – an impressive database of more than 4,000 entries that index references to New Ulm and events central to it, such as the US-Dakota War of 1862, in newspapers, specialized books and other published material.

Gebhard has done extensive research into specific events and recorded oral histories from prominent local residents.

Gebhard’s photos have appeared in books by respected historians, train magazines, calendars and museum exhibits. For years, he provided photos for New Ulm telephone directory covers.

Gebhard has accomplished this work for reasons no other than personal satisfaction. He has never reaped any financial gains from his hobby, just goes on doing it because it gives him pleasure.

Why does he do it?

“I ask myself the same question,” he chuckles. “I guess it has to be something that interests me.”

“I am something of an introvert,” he later on muses. “My own world is good enough for me. I try to do what I like to do, what I want to do, what’s satisfying to me…”

The scope of his work has expanded beyond his own intentions or expectations.

“I never thought it would evolve into anything this big,” says Gebhard. “It just continued to grow and grow and grow.”

Interest in photography

Gebhard’s interest in photography started when he was about 13. It was kindled by award-winning local photographer H. Carl Schmidt. Schmidt owned a camera store in New Ulm and sold Gebhard his first, black-and-white, manual, German-made, camera. Gebhard still has it.

Gebhard served as New Ulm High School’s photographer in 1955-56 and did the 1956 year book. He left New Ulm after high school, to attend Mankato State University (MSU). He studied there for six years and then at the U of M earning five degrees: in business administration, economics, physics, mathematics and industrial psychology. As a 22-year-old graduate assistant in the physics department at MSU (he could not be told apart from the students), he led physics labs, which sharpened his interest in optics. This linked right up to his interest in photography. (At that time, photography was part of the physics department, not a specialized course load as it is now.)

After finishing college, Gebhard obtained a job in the Twin Cities as a physicist at Viron, a business that dealt with passive satellites. Four years later, with the advent of active satellites, the passive satellite industry came to an abrupt halt as federal funding ceased. He joined Federal Cartridge in Anoka as a research physicist (ending his career as director of quality assurance). He worked at the company (later Pentair) for nearly 30 years.

Yet he never severed, and always kept strong, his ties to New Ulm. He visited his parents on weekends and kept snapping, snapping… During the era of film photography, he had a dark room in both his own, and his parent’s house, developing his own film and creating his own prints with a perfectionist’s touch.

Gebhard returned to New Ulm after retirement and lives in the house he grew up in, which has stayed in his family for generations.

Subjects of photos

Every so often, Gebhard would walk down “Main Street” (Minnesota Street) and photograph its historic structures. The perfectionist in him requires that this endeavor be accomplished at just the right time of day, on the right day of the year, walking in the right direction to get the best angle depending on the position of the sun.

Apart from historic structures in his beloved hometown, Gebhard likes photographing trains. His very first photo was one of a railroad coaling tower, and if he can pinpoint any favorites, he would single out a pair of photos on his wall that depict successive steps of a steam engine backing onto a turn table. He took the shots at age 17, at the Northern Pacific Facility in Minneapolis, where he and a cousin had gone on a motor scooter, Gebhard’s folding camera in hand.

Gebhard’s interest in trains and railroads was fueled when he received a gift of an American Flyer train set from his parents after World War II. He would run, couple and uncouple the trains for hours.

“There are three structures that really impress me,” says Gebhard.

“The swing bridge at Redstone; the Great Northern Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis across the Mississippi, a magnificent engineering structure; and the St. Paul Union Depot.”

The swing bridge, a magnificent if not widely known local landmark, is a frequent topic of his photos.

It links up to another of his favorite subjects, the nearby redstone quarry (the present site of New Ulm Quartzite Quarries).

Gebhard has taken some unique photos at the quarry, gaining access generally denied to the public by working on projects for the business at the management’s request.

Many of his photos are indeed unique: never taken and/or never shown, some being the only record of places that no longer exist.

Gebhard documented the restoration of Hermann monument, taking one-of-a-kind shots of the inside and outside of statue and site, at the request of the City of New Ulm. The shots are now part of the city record and official New Ulm history.

Black-and-white photos

Gebhard has a marked preference for the sharp clarity and exceptional timeless appeal of black- and-white photography, versus color film.

(In fact, he thought he’d never go digital, but with the technology improving, the techie in him saw the possibilities and finally did the switch, about 10 years ago. The advent of digital photography doubled his photographic potential, from some 10,000 photos on film, to easily that number of shots taken in just 10 years.)

Certainly what he considers his most interesting, perhaps luckiest, shot is black and white, and, shockingly, perfectly-composed, despite being taken under the most exceptional circumstances: to quote him, “backwards, upside down, through a window.”

It is a shot of an Amtrack turbo train coming into the Burlington Northern Station in Minneapolis, in 1971, with Hubert Humphrey on board, amidst dense welcoming crowds.

Gebhard tried to get to the train tracks to get a picture, but the crowds made it impossible; so he ran back into the overlooking waiting room of the train station and shot blind, with his back to a large double hung window with its top half open, arms outstretched and camera pointed upside down.

He had no idea what he would get – but ended up with a perfection of angles and composition.

To understand the brilliance of Gebhard’s black-and-white shots, one needs to remember how black-and-white cameras worked: separate light meters, no range finders, no auto focus and no double exposure prevention.

Interest in history

Noteworthy events in Gebhard’s youth may have sharpened his awareness of historic events, shaping his interest in preserving and recording history.

One such event was the 1951 Turner Hall fire. The Gebhards lived in the vicinity of Turner Hall, and he would walk by the building on his way to and from school (the New Ulm Junior High).

He remembers walking on the morning after the fire, and seeing more and more black specs in the snow; until reaching the smoldering remains of the building.

On the way back, a gym instructor let him take a closer look inside. Gebhard says he will never forget the devastation: roof and first floor collapsed into the basement, the corner of an upright piano peeking out of the rubble…

Another event – one that nudged him into the direction of research and showed him all the ropes involved in it – was the notorious 1904 “Gebhard murder.”

His interest in the case was sparked by the last name. The murder victim, Dr. Gebhardt, a dentist, was a distant relative of his father’s.

Pure curiosity led him to digging through court records, sifting through and evaluating evidence, interviewing and cross referencing the stories of multiple sources.

(This specific piece research also brought him into the Brown County museum, where he met his future wife, Darla.)

Historical recall

In the late 1970s and early 1980s when PCs came into being, it occurred to Gebhard that hard drives could be used to store data, then call it back out. The thought had not yet taken roots with museums.

At that time, the Minnesota Historical Society was selling microfilm of newspapers for about $3 a roll (compared to at least $30-$40 now); he went and bought them out of anything New Ulm-related, from 1873 until 1970.

Gebhard started meticulously scouring these records for references to anything of historic value about New Ulm, cataloguing and logging the data into the computer.

He has continued the process over the years, and is within a couple of weeks of being completely current.

He has his own microfilm reader.

The focus is New Ulm, with a substantial “sideline” focusing on the US-Dakota War of 1862, an event central to New Ulm yet also expanding the scope into state and national history.

Gebhard has since transitioned through several database systems, modernizing his storage and cataloguing methods.

Gebhard’s oral histories database started out on audio tapes. He recorded the memories of prominent New Ulmites. He has or is in the process of digitalizing the data.

Gebhard’s photography archive, the indexed data base and the oral histories complete and complement each other.

What will happen with his work in the future, I ask.

“Why, I don’t know,” says Gebhard.

He then adds, “It will probably be donated to the museum.”

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