If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a resourceful and reliable photographer who creates good pictures over the course of a career is priceless.
Al Fredrickson was one of the best.
Like many of his thousands of friends, admirers and former colleagues, I was bummed to see the post from his Facebook account this morning:
"This post is from Al's brothers Dave, Don and Steve. We lost Al this morning after he fought with all he had to overcome a spread of prostate cancer. All three of us were at his bedside at home when Al left this life at 10 am.
“We are choosing Facebook to reach the 2,300+ people that he was connected with on this app. We will share his obituary and final arrangements within a couple of days. I hope that all of you share the fond and loving memories of Al that we will cherish forever."
I met Al shortly after I started working at The Milwaukee Journal in the late 1980s. Before the Journal and Sentinel merged in 1995 – and began scaling back about a decade later – its lineup of photographers was as talented as any in the country.
Al was working mostly in the photo lab when we met, back when “film” and “dark rooms” were a thing. I look back at those times now and realize it was like having an all-star player working on the scout team.
Some photographers are good at shooting portraits. Some are good at catching key moments in sporting events. Others are good at “news,” such as accident scenes, fires, press conferences, etc.
Al could do it all.
He loved shooting space shuttle launches, solar eclipses and national parks, but his eye and composition skills allowed him to create memorable images from seemingly mundane events like press conferences, parades, church festivals and unseasonably warm spring afternoons.
I first got to know Al when we were working for The Waukesha Journal, which was The Journal’s attempt to boost circulation in the western suburbs of Milwaukee. I was in charge of sports coverage for the project, and Al was – without question – my favorite photographer. Since I had a hand in laying out the sports pages, and liked to use big photos, Al always gave he his best effort.
He would come up to me on the sidelines of a football game, ask me what players he should focus on, and walk away. He would come back with an array of action and feature shots. One time, he came back with a picture of a couple sitting in the stands, watching intently and about to explode into a cheer. I didn’t know who they were, but Al said, “I was buying a bottle of water at the concession stand and I met the kid’s mom and dad. Maybe you can use that, too.”
When I arrived at OnMilwaukee.com in 2005, publisher Andy Tarnoff wanted to upgrade the quality of pictures on the site. Al had left the paper, too, and I knew he was available for freelance work. In fact, it’d be easier to list outlets that Al didn’t work for than those he did. The guy shot photos for Reuters, The Catholic Herald, The Medical College of Wisconsin, Associated Press and several other outlets.
I knew his skill set would be exactly what we needed.
When Andy asked me, “What kind of guy is he?” I had to pause for a second. Al was, and I mean this endearingly, a nerd. He was tall and gangly. His boyish face, framed by short, unruly brown hair, hid the fact that he had graduated from Kenosha Tremper High School in 1969. Al’s wardrobe consisted primarily of fun-run T-shirts that looked like they had been purchased from Goodwill or were about to be donated to a nearby store.
In short, he didn’t look like the kind of guy you would sit next to at a coffee shop if there were other seats available. If you did, however, you’d quickly have found that he had a huge heart, a quick wit and a knack for making people feel like they had been friends for a long time.
One of those friends, Jane Kegel, wrote on Facebook:
“I met Al in 1998 when he knocked on my Mother’s apartment door. She lived in the White Manor which overlooks Veterans Park. The Harley Davidson 95th anniversary bash was going on and Al wanted to get some good pictures. He fondly named her apartment REUTERs East, and we enjoyed a friendship over the years. I will miss Al’s wickedly funny wit and his love of democracy.”
Michael Juley, a longtime suburban editor at The Journal Sentinel, posted:
“If you worked in suburban news for the Journal Sentinel, then you worked with Al and knew how talented he was. He always worked to get the better shot and always made lemonade out of a lemon of an assignment.”
David Bernacchi, who also shot photos for OnMilwaukee, said “Al as so talented and brought his unique vision in his bag ... (He was ) so quirky, with a wonderful sense of humor that made it always fun to shoot alongside."
Like many of his friends and former co-workers, I spent an hour this afternoon thinking about Al and looking back at his incredible photos.
RIP, Al. You’ll be missed.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.