At home with the shutterbugs

Oak Park photographers Alex and Laura Husar Garcia view life through a lens

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By DEB QUANTOCK McCAREY

Six years ago when Chicago Tribune photo editor, Laura Husar, 40, married staff photographer, Alex Garcia, 40, nine "paparazzi"-two friends they asked, and seven wedding photojournalists, including three Pulitzer Prize winners-fired off roll after roll of film to document the big day for their good friends.

The no-longer newlyweds say all the rolls of film are developed negatives, but there's no wedding album yet. Their walls support two wedding portraits, and on the end tables sit a smattering of disposable camera shots-which brings to mind the venerable fable of a cobbler who owns no shoes, don't you think?

In their defense, the Garcias have become family people, and are raising Grace, 5, and Mateo, 2. What's more, Laura, who initially left her job at the Chicago Tribune to be a stay-at-home mom, is currently turning her penchant for taking in-home, documentary-style portraits of friend's kids into a photography business, sans studio, called Red Cup Photography. Filling in the gaps, meanwhile, between working full-time, getting married, being pregnant, raising kids and launching a freelance photography business, the prolific Husar Garcia has penned and published five children's books and hopes to begin another one this fall.

Recently, four of Laura's candid photos-including a heart-warming Norman Rockwell-type shot of Grace shaving off Alex's beard in the bathroom while Mateo watches; a photo of Grace in princess shoes and fairy wings; another of her son Mateo with his blue blanket; and a Hitchcock moment using a mirror to reflect Laura and her kids in dress-up mode-were published in the collaborative coffeetable book project called America At Home. Alex was chosen as one of the top 100 photojournalists for the project, and several of his pictures appear in the book as well.

Laura confesses she has a habit of photographing nuns. Years ago in Santa Fe, during her full-time stint as a staff photographer at the local newspaper, she participated in a group exhibit called "La Camera Plastique" at Galeria El Zocalo. Her favorite photo from that show is a cloistered nun mowing her lawn.

Between the ages of 17 and 34 when she was living and traveling in and out of the country, Laura also photographed Tibetan refugees; urban Czech gypsies; Andean farmers; Navajo weavers; Day of the Dead pilgrims in Oaxaca, Mexico; the Dalai Lama; and, when she finally landed back in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, you guessed it, Polish nuns.

"I'm mesmerized by the nun's devotion, [their] way of life and faith," says Laura. "I won the Illinois Humanities Grant's first prize along with photographer Iwona Biedermann. We collaborated on our year-long project and had our work exhibited at the Polish Museum of America, in 2002-2003. I am continuing to photograph them and plan to do something again."

Through a lens, lightly

But Laura is quick to tell anyone that her husband, Alex, has won numerous professional awards, local and international, for his compelling portfolios, including the coveted Pulitzer Prize, which he shares with the staff of the Chicago Tribune for their coverage of gridlock at O'Hare. As a photojournalist, Alex says he's never been a "run and gun" sort of guy. Rather, he's the sort who goes into a situation to capture the pathos after everyone has left. This is what he did recently as volunteer, traveling to Rwanda with Pastor Rick Warren, leader of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of The Purpose Driven Life. Garcia says he was asked by Warren to photograph a few of his health initiatives and document his "40 Days of Purpose" project in Africa.

"On a superficial level, I was stunned by how beautiful it was in Rwanda. I knew it was known as the country of 1,000 hills," said Garcia, "but what really interested me was what was happening in Rwanda now that the cameras had moved on, and it is no longer in the spotlight."

"So I am walking around like everyone else and all the mental images of what I'd seen beforehand I am playing out in my head. I was struck by how genocide could really happen here. The people seem so wonderful, and you know that every other person you talk to had a hand in it, whether they were victimized by the act of genocide or were a part of it. It was a very odd experience."

Garcia has some experience with foreign lands. In 2001, he took an extended assignment in Cuba as part of the first-ever Havana bureau of the Chicago Tribune. The son of a Cuban émigré, who came to this country prior to the revolution, Garcia snapped a series of award-winning, documentary-style photos, including Olympic-hopeful boxers, scenes of everyday Cuban life, and Fidel Castro, with whom he pressed flesh. He had previously traveled to the island on assignment for the L.A. Times, as well as taking a sabbatical there, but meeting Fidel Castro, especially since he still has family living in-country, was surreal, Garcia says.

"There I am, the first guy in line from the Cuban Bureau of the Chicago Tribune, walking with the bodyguards and realizing that I am actually shaking Castro's hand with no TV screen in between us. That was really bizarre," he recalls.

When he worked for the L.A. Times, Garcia says he had to spend his introductions with celebrities explaining he wasn't a member of the paparazzi. Over the years his camera has captured three U.S. presidents-Bush, Clinton, and Bush-and brought into focus a long list of celebrities: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Quincy Jones, George Lucas, Richard Pryor, Ice Cube, Oliver Stone, Donald Trump, Billy Corgan, Courtney Cox, Christopher Walken and Vince Vaughn,.

"Once I was photographing the guy who played Jesus in the Mel Gibson film and in the middle of our photo session, he went into character and started talking to me as if he was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and I said, 'Dude, you are freaking me out," Garcia says, laughing.

In Oak Park for four years now, the bi-lingual Garcias previously called "casa" a loft in Chicago's East Pilsen neighborhood. Laura says they enjoyed "crashing cultures with the old eastern Europeans, which is her heritage, and the Mexican community they both love.

Asked about that pesky unfinished wedding photo album, Alex and Laura sheepishly admit that when Grace starts school, they hope to get around to it. But taking contemplative photos in their comfortable home isn't difficult, and now young Grace has acquired a digital camera, and is "on assignment."

On one white living room wall is a row of thoughtful black-and-white prints. Stacked on the wooden bookcase are more professional art photo books in which Alex has the prestigious honor of being among the notable photojournalists assigned to take pictures for two photographic compendiums, America 24/7 and A Day in the Life of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Nearby, in a simple, stand-up frame is an "artsy" out-of-focus wedding print and a 40-year-old framed treasure: a black-and-white photograph of baby Laura sitting in an open metal filing cabinet drawer gazing at her dad, the late Chicago Tribune Outdoors and Sports columnist, John Husar, busy at work in his office at the Tribune Tower.

Modestly, Alex walks to the wall and removes one of his all-time favorite photos; it depicts a stopped clock that someone had retrieved from the rubble at Ground Zero in the days following 9/11. The idea of a clock stopping at the minute when the second tower fell reminds him of the fragilities of life, he says.

Another photo is a fitting metaphor for the aftermath of the tragic Columbia Shuttle crash in February of 2003. Garcia was sent to Texas to record the mood. As he scoured the backyard of an elderly couple with a flashlight, he found and photographed a white space boot that had planted itself on top of grass and leaves. The Chicago Tribune ran the powerful image in a Sunday perspective piece about space travel, and later across two pages in their year-end review of photos

"With journalism you have these tickets to enter people's lives," observes Laura, who still enjoys photo editing. "It is all about relaxing and looking for the most beautiful light and the most tender, everyday moment, rather than trying to make something happen."

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