After decades behind the scenes, Michele Lundgren's art career is just getting started

A photographic phenom

Nov 18, 2015 at 1:00 am
Michele Lundgren in her Rust Belt Market shop in Ferndale.
Michele Lundgren in her Rust Belt Market shop in Ferndale. Sarah Rahal

For a few sweet short years in the 1960s, Detroit's Plum Street neighborhood was the epicenter of a community of artists, rock 'n' rollers, anti-war activists, and other bohemian types. That's the scene that drew Michele Lundgren, then 17, to the city from suburban Dearborn Heights, along with her future husband, Carl — whose psychedelic rock gig posters would come to represent the era.

But it took Lundgren more than 40 years of being peripherally involved in the arts before she set out in earnest to find her own voice as a photographer. And in the past three years, the 65-year-old has arguably already made a career's worth of accomplishments.

"Yes, I've been a photographer for about a minute and a half," Lundgren says.

Lundgren's path in photography solidified when she happened to snap a photo during the recent demolition of the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. She says she didn't even set out to take a photo that day. "I don't even know why I had this camera with me," she says. "I don't even remember where I got it or how I got it."

The image wound up getting Lundgren into prestigious photography shows at Detroit's Scarab Club and Petoskey's Crooked Tree Arts Center. And Lundgren says things kept snowballing from there. More recently, the Kresge Foundation purchased two of her images for its corporate collection.

Lundgren credits her lifelong involvement in the arts to giving her an eye for design and a knack for photography — even if it was from the sidelines. After Plum Street, Lundgren followed her husband to New York, as he shifted careers from gig posters to sci-fi and fantasy illustration, and later, fine art. In that time, Lundgren helped represent her husband's work, while also running two galleries of her own. "I've done matting and framing my entire life," she says. "I mean, seriously, my hands used to look like they were chewed by wolverines from glass cuts and stuff!"

She says all of the experiences helped prepare her to become a photographer, even though she never studied the medium formally. "I knew what art directors were looking for, and I'm a perfectionist in every aspect of my life," she says. "So it would only stand to reason that in my photography I would have an eye." Lundgren says that's how she came up with the name for her enterprise, "the Photographic Eye." She set up shop at Ferndale's Rust Belt, tapping into the city pride spirit by selling prints of Detroit cityscapes.

This summer, she self-published a book of her work, also called The Photographic Eye. And on Sunday, the Lundgrens will host a book signing event at upscale rock 'n' roll clothier John Varvatos' Detroit store (The Psychedelic Rock Art of Carl Lundgren was released this year on Hermes Press).

Lundgren says she approached the store with the proposal to do the book signing. It's a perfect fit — the store aims for the classic rock aesthetic, and already features some of Carl's iconic posters from the era. Varvatos, also a Michigan native, opened his downtown Detroit location last year.

"I've never been a fan of hobby art or hobby photography. If you can't make a living at it, then it's a hobby," Lundgren says. She comes from years of experience helping make prints of her husband's poster and fine art work. At her Rust Belt shop, she sells 16-by-20 and 11-by-14 prints, along with postcards and other products.

"What matters to me is what you shoot, how you shoot it, the clarity of it," she says. "But I'm all about the subject matter."

The Lundgrens moved back to Detroit in the late '90s, settling down in an 1895-built house in what is now known as Midtown. Detroit clearly holds a special place in Lundgren's heart. "I have captured almost every major iconic building or landmark in Detroit," she says. "All the views you can get — I've shot on every rooftop." She says she also keeps an eye out for minutia. "I look for little architectural details — like beautiful Victorian lamps on the side of the GM building, or the lock on the house next door to mine."

The move allowed Lundgren to fulfill a dream of getting a college degree, and led to her enrolling at Wayne County Community College. "I enrolled in when I was 62 and I graduated at 64 with a 4.0," she says. "Summa cum laude straight across the board."

When asked why she chose to go to school so late in life, Lundgren has a simple enough answer. "It was free," she says. "And it was around the corner. All you have to do is pay for your books and labs. It was always a dream of mine to get a little degree. I started off with one class to see if I even had the ability. I just kept going. I'm just as surprised as everyone else."

Lundgren studied mental health, and walked with an associates degree in science. Her degree wound up helping her deal with another life change that would come. In February, Lundgren had a stroke. It was a setback that she dealt with her typical good humor, however. "I probably blew a tire up there in my right occipital lobe," she says with a laugh. "I blew a rod here in this little engine."

The stroke affected her left eye peripheral vision, but it hasn't slowed down her photography. "It does feel like I'm a little wonky from time to time," she says. "But the stroke has not inhibited me at all. I'm moving forward with it."

Lundgren says within a week of leaving the hospital, she was back on the street taking photos. "I told Carl, 'If I can't do this, then put a gun to my head!'" she says. "That was all that mattered to me was that I could continue."

Carl and Michele Lundgren will sign copies of their latest books from 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22 at John Varvatos, 1500 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-437-8095;; free and open to the public. Guests are asked to RSVP to [email protected].