A journey beyond: BGSU alumnus Jan Bell '76 turns an inspirational lens on life, nature and his battle against cancer
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From his fine arts education at BGSU to winning acclaim in the Ansel Adams Photo Competition, Jan Bell's passion for preserving the beauty of nature fuels his remarkable photographic odyssey
Bowling Green State University alumnus Jan Bell '76 grew up on a farm in the flatlands of northwestern Ohio, which instilled in him an appreciation for the land. He found delight and discovery in those solitary times when he wandered through the woods. This innate passion has followed him throughout his life and culminated in a collection of photographs organized in varied portfolios.
After transferring to BGSU midway through his college career, Bell would earn a degree in fine arts. Bell said Ron Jacomini, a retired instructor in the University's graphic design and photography program, instilled in him an unending search for perfection.
“He would say that 'good is not good enough.'”
Additionally, Bell recalled that he often heard his father say, that ”any job worth doing is worth doing right.”
“The wisdom of those two men stayed with me,” Bell said
After three years of employment at a photo studio in Toledo, Bell was hired as the art director at WBGU-PBS, the University's PBS affiliate. He spent 31 years at the post.
“The best part of the job was working with University students,” Bell said. “They received on-the-job training while working with me.”
During countless forays into the wilderness, often for weeks, or even months at a time, Bell captured an array of stunning photographs as he explored the world beyond the pastures, cornfields and woodlots of his childhood.
He shares those spectacular images in his hardcover book “Quiet Contemplation” which was published in 2021. Many of the images in the book have received numerous awards.
For instance, “Distant Island” has been shown in 18 juried exhibitions since 2015.
“The majority of my images illustrate natural beauty that cannot be replaced once it’s lost. I feel that it’s important for me to document the splendor provided by these landscapes before they disappear,” Bell said, stressing his devotion to wilderness areas and the need to protect those sites.
“I enjoy being off the grid, immersing myself in the landscape,” he said. “While I enjoy interaction with like-minded people, some of my best moments and favorite images have come from those solitary times.”
While the commitment to his family and his position at WBGU limited the time Bell could spend combing across wild places in search of memorable images, he said he was able to regain his strong connection with photography around 2000.
A decade later, one of Bell's images, titled “Agave,” won the grand prize in the Ansel Adams Photo Competition. His passion for horticulture, combined with his love of art, come together in this photograph. Several years ago, Bell attended a workshop at the Ansel Adams Center. Since that time, most of his work has been black and white, the approach favored by the iconic Adams.
“On an emotional level, I feel that black-and-white photography disconnects the viewer from what they are accustomed to seeing,” said Bell, who prefers to shoot on overcast days when the harsh shadows produced by the sun will not impact the ethereal feel that his work imparts.
Bell said the dream of creating a collection of his most-prized images in a hardcover book had been on his to-do list for several years, but a cancer diagnosis in 2017 expedited the work on that project.
“Cancer moved it to the top of my list, because once you get that diagnosis, you tend to look at your life differently,” he said.
He received more than 100 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to treat his multiple myeloma, which was diagnosed just after Bell returned from a 12-week trek capturing photos in the Pacific Northwest. This trek was funded by a Luminous Landscape grant, which was awarded based on a portfolio of work captured on the shores of Lake Superior, one of his favorite places to photograph.
Bell has continued to photograph the extremities of the world around him. He holds an annual photography workshop at Rock Island Lodge on Lake Superior, an area that allows his participants to immerse themselves in a sublime environment.
“It is so important to me to do everything I can do, while I can still do it,” he said. “My problem is I want to do everything at once.”
Bell’s book, “Quiet Contemplation,” took three years to produce and was printed on premium stock by Hemlock Printers, Ltd., one of the top fine art book publishers in North America. He couldn’t have done it without numerous contributions from friends, colleagues and prior customers.
Five nationally recognized photographers – the likes of Alan Ross, who was one of Ansel Adam’s assistants, and Art Wolfe – offered to write text for the book. Seeing the progress from dream to reality was extremely gratifying.
“The book is my biggest achievement,” he said.
While he continues to battle cancer to a stalemate and place himself in remote locations where he can patiently await nature revealing the beauty of its inner soul with his camera in hand, Bell remains content.
“I've never been bored, and I don't think I ever will be,” he said.
Updated: 10/19/2023 02:53PM