Lyle Bongé (1929-2009) Born in Biloxi, Mississippi at the Swetman family home to Eunice Lyle (Dusti) Bongé and Arch M. Bongé "Cowboy Painter", they returned to New York City where Dusti worked as an actor in theatre & film and Arch worked as head doorman of the Paramount, and painted. As a painter, Arch was beginning to become recognized, not just for his illustrations of cowboy life, but sometimes rather infamously for his exhibition of nudes which drew the wrath and fury of New York City's vice squad and resulted in the seizing of his paintings and mostly positive and supportive articles in the newspapers of the day. On discovering she was going to be a mother, Dusti soon gave up acting to be a full time mother and wife. When Lyle was about two years old Dusti and Arch decided to move to the more pastoral setting of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to raise their child. New York just didn't seem the best place to be a family and Biloxi was pretty idyllic in those days. Friends reunited, Arch and his art school buddy Walter Anderson (best man at their wedding) his wife Sissy and Dusti began what would be a life-long friendship. Not long did this idyllic life last as Arch was diagnosed with a debilitating illness, later identified as Lou Gherig Disease or ALS and died in 1936 when Lyle was 7. Dusti had been painting in the studio with Arch to keep him company and upon his death, Dusti accepted that she was "cursed with an art" as she would often say, and later became one of Betty Parsons first female abstract expressionist painters, exhibiting a few small works in a group show at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery in 1945 before Betty opened her own gallery. Beginning in 1950 along with her friends Barney Newman and Theodoros Stamos, Dusti had a solo exhibit at Betty's gallery every second year until 1974. Being cursed with an art has been as nearly genetically transmitted to each subsequent generation since as it is possible to be. Lyle early on demonstrated a lamentably non-existent talent for drawing and often with a tinge of sadness Dusti would say, "Poor Lyle couldn't draw at all, showed not talent for it and it puzzled me how Archie and I produced a son who could hardly manage stick figures." With this in mind, and a childhood filled with art and artistic pursuits, Lyle discovered photography as a potential avenue for his own aesthetic sense to manifest itself. Around 1950 Lyle moved to Mexico City, ostensibly to study Archeology at the University of Mexico, though in truth to evade, without breaking the law, being drafted into military service. There he purchased his first camera to document his travels. Later when finally entering the army and being sent to Korea, Lyle purchased a Contax III while on leave in Tokyo and this along with his other Contax were the cameras he used to first photograph Mardi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans. When he returned to the U.S. in 1953 he began to pursue photography more seriously. Exploring the possibilities of doing it as a business he quickly realized that photography as a creative or artistic endeavor would net him little in the way of monetary return. Both Lyle and I have heeded Dusti's mantra, "Honey, if you're cursed with an art, then find another way to make a living." In order to maintain his independence as an artist, Lyle began doing anything and everything to "make that living." Whether it was fixing up inexpensive rental properties often buying them for the back taxes and becoming a landlord, working as a tree topper, being on the Board of Directors of the family bank (for which he was paid a nominal sum), or spending the whole of his life as a self-enlightened/self-taught investor in stocks and gold bullion as a way to support a wife and 4 boys and his pursuit of photography as an art form.
It was about 1954 when he girded his loins for the first time in heavy black tights and further costumed himself in a blue striped French sailor shirt, and a faded green tail coat. The crowning flourish of this Mardi Gras costume was a codpiece which had been the gold bullion "left" epaulette of General P.G.T. Beauregard. With his light meter, two Contaxes with 35mm lenses and the tails of his coat filled with rolls of film, Lyle Bongé began his first assault upon the celebrants of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He missed not one single Mardi Gras from 1954 to 1989 and for this one achievement his place in the pantheon of 20th Century photographers is secure. The Mardi Gras archive alone comprises an estimated 25 to 35 thousand images. Lyle was the first still photographer to seriously photograph Mardi Gras, seeking the demons and horrors that lived just beneath the masks and painted skin of it's attendants. It is no accident that Lyle's first book of photographs, being solely of Mardi Gras, carried the epigraph from Francisco Goya's collection of war engravings, "El sueno de la razon produce monstrous. - The sleep of reason produces monsters." and became the title of the book as simply The Sleep of Reason.
Lyle's approach to photography other than Mardi Gras was characterized by an intuitive and very subjective and sensitive approach to his subject which with the exception of nudes, was entirely non-objective. Mardi Gras on the other hand he spoke of almost as a job, one that he took very seriously and which required a certain ruthlessness and aggressive approach to his subjects which he tolerated only that one day a year. His images often bold and burly, athletic and chiseled, equally delicate and beautiful, naïve and evocative, or grotesque and always revealing, all together characterize a singular and very individual artistic vision.
By 1989, Lyle was deeply involved in the building of his sailing yacht, the Schooner Lotus, designed by family friend and Naval Architect, Donn G. Kaylor of Long Beach, California. Lyle then traded the camera for a welder and cutting torch. With these tools and a few lessons, he fabricated parts for the Lotus, and becoming increasingly bewitched by the magic of burning & cutting, the dripping of slag and the traces of welded beads on rusty old pieces of steel, Lyle became a sculptor. He stated one time that he really wasn't a sculptor, to which I replied, "Do you utilize a trained and sometimes sophisticated aesthetic sensibility to guide you in creating these constructions of yours? If YES, then is not that sensibility, whether used to inform the eye of the photographer, or painter, or sculptor still legitimate? Therefore, and I believe it to be true Lyle. You ARE a sculptor." Lyle's last few decades were spent making jewelry, welding up ugly, rusty pieces of metal into his sculptures, eating and drinking good food and wine which contributed to his demise and equally or more so, to his happiness. Lyle, as Dusti had taught both of us, spent his life awaking every morning to a world full of wonders. As he oft would say, "If you pay attention, you will see MAGIC every day."
Paul Bongé at present is still compiling a bio. However for the sake of this bit of self-indulgence, I began photographing around 9 years old. One rainy winter day while Lyle worked in the darkroom, I sat by the fire in the living room, devouring the images in a book of Edward Weston photographs, and Minor White's Mirrors, Messages and Manifestations. In the back of the Weston book were several images by Brett and Cole Weston which got me thinking and when Lyle came in from the darkroom for lunch, I proudly and impulsively announced that he was photographer, and like Edward's boys I was going to be one as well. Not long after this bold presumption of mine, Lyle gave me a 3 1/4 by 4 1/4 Graflex, an old and workable Weston II light meter and lessons in the use of them both. He then attached the Graflex to one of his heavy wood and metal tripods and instructed me I had to make 50 thoughtfully crafted exposures with the camera on the tripod before he'd consider letting me loose with a hand held camera. This took some time and energy, often I'd wobble down the street on a bicycle as the legs of the tripod dug viciously into my bony shoulders. So encumbered, I ventured into my hometown in search of things to photograph. I still photograph mostly from the tripod today, and I hope that even working handheld, more agile and quickly, that the discipline the tripod imposes also informs my seeing in those instances.
I have made excursions into some of the other visual arts mainly painting but also pottery with some satisfying results. However, even given long hiatuses from photography, I have always returned to the camera and though sporadic at times, I've photographed constantly over the years. At about 13, while in the Bahamas in 1974 & 1975 I got my first pretty fair images, very few of which survive due to hurricane damage or my own youthful neglect. In the early 90's I began to photograph, in color and up close with a 55mm Micro Nikor lens, peeling paint, burned metal, graffiti and other quite non-objective things. That reinsertion of myself into serious, thoughtful and determined exploration of the world (in an up close manner) for those magical things immediately impinging themselves upon our visual cortexes and seldom ratified by objective observance, had begun in a very singular way. I was driving down a Biloxi side street and as I absent mindedly passed a large blue BFI garbage container, easily ignored and most of us never give them a never mind, I was halted in my tracks. Dusti, recently croaked, had impaled me and fixed me there as a "patient etherized upon a table" forcing me to acknowledge the preeminence of the aforementioned BFI container. It had been set to flame perhaps by an errant homeless person, and in the days after the bare metal had rusted in gorgeous orange fields and runs of rust over burned and bubbled paint. The patina of oxidation and carbonization was so stunningly beautiful that I celebrated it by shouting into the still morning of Biloxi, "Thank YOU Dusti! Oh thank you for this. I SEE, I see it and thank you for sending me here." I sped home to retrieve my Nikon, scrambled to find color film, having never before seriously entertained it, and praying I'd not been dreaming or the can had been repossessed by BFI I returned to photograph it. After a number of years working in color another hiatus ensued and following Lyle's death in 2009 I began this most recent period of work.
My photographs are predominantly black and white with some color experiments with the bloody IPhone of all things, and comprise a wide range from purely non-objective work to expansive landscapes and forays into the Sierras or the desert. I will continue to work and occasionally post new work to this archive, taking down some in the process.
SALES and INFORMATION:
Please feel free to contact me for additional information on Lyle or myself, and to enquire about purchases. Lyle's work is strictly limited availability, though there are a few portfolios available, and perhaps small digital reprints at times for a reasonable price.
My own work is accessibly priced at the following levels: 8 x 10 to 9 x13 approx. $100, 11 x 14 to 12 x 18 approx. $200, and sizes in the range of 16 x 20 approx. $300
ALL these prints are digital and printed on an Epson 7900 large format printer with archival inks and on archival papers.