Curt Stahr to retire, DMACC loses a legend

By: Nevin Cornwell

curt-stahrIn just over two weeks, DMACC is losing an instructor who was taught by Ansel Adams, did seven tours in Vietnam, has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro multiple times, summited k2 the second highest mountain in the world, has walked among the Terracotta Army in China, photographed bald eagles from Canada to Mexico on foot, photographed Bob Dylan, Neil Young and The Beatles during the 60s and 70s, and has had 48 one man art shows.

When Curt Stahr came to DMACC in 1989, there were only a few photography classes and less than two dozen photography students. In the fall 2013 course schedule there are nine subjects with 14 classes offered.

When you need Stahr’s attention it is best to sit in one place.  Step into the photography department, have a seat and let the chaos wash over you. In any given five minute span from 7 – 11 a.m.  Stahr is assaulted by at least five people – students, co-workers, prospective students and old acquaintances that might stop in.  It can cause a headache just watching him handle the masses.

Coming from humble beginnings, Stahr grew up on a farm in North Eastern Iowa. “[the farm was] self sufficient, we made our own soap and butter,” Stahr said. His family farm had cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens.

He had a desire to travel from a young age, hitchhiking to Tijuana Mexico during summer break when he was 13 years old. This was his first of many trips out of the United States.

“I had this thing about traveling. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what it was,” Stahr said.

After high school Stahr began college at Ellsworth Community College. He transferred to Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska. He chose the school to learn from George Wells.

Wells had studied under Mauricio Lasansky at University of Iowa. Lasansky was a print maker best know for The Nazi Drawings, which show the brutality of the Nazis.

From Peru state college he entered a program that takes students to different colleges every semester. He went to University of Wisconsin in Madison Arizona State University in Phoenix, and University of California Berkley in San Francisco.

curt-stahr2Stahr’s first teaching job was during a summer break in college. They sent him to teach art in Watts in east LA, where there was widespread rioting going on. His first day there while moving into his apartment, “I drove in on a motorcycle and parked it and I lived on the third floor and carried boxes up and came down the fourth or fifth time and the motorcycle was still sitting there and no motor,” Stahr said.

During that summer Stahr had 400 students in his Friday class and he had $100 to last all summer. As a class project they would bus to the ocean and collect rocks, shells, bottles and whatever they could find, bring it back and built a wall around the school with it.

“We got it all built and they could go in with paint and paint their own section of wall. I was there three or four or five years ago and the wall was still there,” Stahr said.


Stahr graduated college when he was 20 years old with a degree in education and five minors. To accomplish this Stahr took 18 or 20 credits every semester.

After graduation Stahr worked around San Francisco on and off for ten years, hanging around San Francisco during the 60s and 70s. The times being what they were this allowed Stahr to rub elbows with artists of all kinds, from musicians like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, to writers like Alan Ginsberg.

“I have millions of pictures of The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Van Zandt and Dr. John, Neil Young and God knows how many. The reason I got so many pictures is because they always knew I wasn’t going to photograph their soul and sell them for money, and I never did,” Sthar said.

If you talk with Stahr long enough you can hear story after story like this: stories about San Francisco in the 60s to meeting with the first person to summit Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary. If some one was interesting enough Stahr would want to photograph them.

Stahr has been on every continent except Australia. He has been to both the South and North Poles. He has walked from San Diego Calif. to Bogota Colombia and back and from Phoenix Ariz. to Alaska and back with a dog each time.

A few themes seem to always be involved in Stahr’s life; Photography, motorcycles, traveling, and dogs.

To this day Stahr travels an enormous amount. Teaching travel photography at DMACC alone takes him to New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York City nearly every school year. On top of that he takes DMACC students to other places like the Boundary waters in Northern Minnesota and China to just name a few.

When Stahr started at DMACC, travel photography was offered as independent study, but soon there was upwards of 20 students taking the class, more than is allowed in independent study.

“My dean Tom Nelson came and said you got to write a class or we can’t do this anymore,” Stahr said. “I was leery at first. I didn’t know how long it was going to last and now we travel from 9 years old to 85 years old and everybody takes care of each other.”

Stahr never really intended to teach at DMACC. One year while riding a motorcycle across the country a friend told him about a photography teaching position at DMACC, and that he should come in for an interview. The interview went well but Stahr didn’t have a resume or any paperwork but Borgen, the DMACC president at the time, told him he needed to have something.

The always resourceful Stahr went to a local library and printed out an off-the-cuff one-page resume. The resume includes headings like “Education – Some, all over the world” and “Politics- yes and no.” It got him the job and President Borgen kept a copy until he retired.

“If you are any kind of decent instructor at all your kind of like a mother or a father and hope your students grow to be more successful than you,” Stahr said.

Over the last 23 years at DMACC Stahr has touched the lives of thousands of students, seeing many of them go on to become professional photographers or just learn to shoot their grandkids better.

Nate Thessing is currently taking classes to get his Photography Diploma. He studied under Stahr in 2003 and got a job working with a local photographer. He came back to take advantage of Stahr’s last years and get the photography diploma, which wasn’t offered in 2003.

“He has traveled so much. I am so so grateful I have been able to travel to San Francisco five or six times and go to New Orleans a couple times,” Thessing said.

Stahr goes to extreme lengths for his travel class. He sets up deals with anyone willing to buy photos of where they are going, driving the price down for the students.

He is the only instructor, keeping tabs on everybody and making sure there are no chaperones being hired that could drive the cost up for the students. He also has a personal account he sets aside every year for students who have ability and talent but not the funds to travel and helps them financially to go on some trips with him.

“Not only does he teach everyone, he gets all these trips set up and calls everyone, gets the motels set up and can multitask like it is impossible,” Thessing said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *