Guided by the Light
When a close friend struggled with the unexpected death of his kid sister two years ago, Jacob Fiscus helped in the best way he knew.
He led his distraught pal, Brett Maher, into the basement of his college-town rental house with its wood-paneled walls, set up some lights that he borrowed from school and tried to capture the man's emptiness with a camera.
Maher took off his shirt to show the tattoo on his chest of the fallen girl's middle name, Faith. The southwest Iowa teen had died in a July 2010 car crash on the way to an early morning volleyball practice. She fell asleep as she drove.
Maher stared into the camera lens with his hands on his forehead, and Fiscus went to work. He moved and tilted and changed the brightness of the lights that flashed on each side of his friend's solemn face. And his camera clicked.
That photo - which shows a man and his pain, trying to find a path forward - now sits in downtown Carroll at Fiscus' studio. He bought the long-standing business, Sundermann Photographic Studio and Custom Frame Gallery, and took ownership of it officially this week.
Ask Fiscus how he captured the emotion of his friend in pain, or the other, happier moments in the studio of the girl dressed as a pirate or the smiling drummer hunched over his snare.
He'll tell you: "Dang good light."
That's what good photographers do. They take light - whether it's the shine of the sun or the glow from a bulb - and they cast it and bounce it and use it to tell a story. The camera is just a tool.
And that's why Fiscus thinks his business will succeed amid a growing number of hobbyists who - thanks to photography's evolutionary switch from film to digital images - can now afford to own some of the same tools.
"If you're confident in your work and can do it better than others, then you'll be fine," Fiscus said.
Fiscus is a 22-year-old Carroll native with trendy messed hair and a three-days-old beard. He sacked groceries and stocked shelves with milk at the local Hy-Vee Food Store at age 14 and at Carroll High School signed up for a class he heard was sure to boost his grade-point average. An easy 'A,' as they say.
It was a photography class, and it sparked Fiscus' career. He got a glimpse of the old way, with strips of film and darkrooms.
"It was the 'wow' factor of taking a photo and processing it, running it through chemicals," he said. "I enjoyed the technical part of it."
To meet a final requirement of the class, Fiscus tagged along with local photographer Steve Sundermann for a day. At the end of their time together, Sundermann made a half-serious offer: go to school, come back, and buy the studio.
Fiscus found true inspiration for his photo work later at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, where he studied the craft for two years before returning to an assistant manager job at the Carroll Hy-Vee.
He knew he faced a choice: continue to climb the corporate ladder of a successful grocery chain or strike out on his own. He set up a meeting with Sundermann, drew up a business plan, found a bank that would fund his dream and inked the deal in May.
Fiscus' high-school sweetheart, Taylor Caughey, has studied accounting and plans to handle the business' finances. Fiscus will shoot.
It's the same way the studio has operated for the past 34 years with Steve and his wife Patti, who have helped Fiscus' transition before they move this year to a new life in Glenwood Springs, Colo., a town about the size of Carroll just west of the Rocky Mountains. They plan to take a year's vacation from work and join a bicycle club for a 30-day, 1,300-mile, late-summer's ride from Tacoma, Wash., to Yosemite National Park in California.
The Sundermanns feel fortunate that someone will continue the business they built from scratch.
"His good customer service and good-quality work is really important," Patti Sundermann said of Fiscus.
The Sundermanns' studio started in their home in 1979 and moved to Westgate Mall in 1993 and then to its current location at 526 N. Adams St. in 1997. Steve Sundermann has been a pro photographer for 39 years as of today. He got his start at the local Wandel Studio, which has since closed.
While the Sundermanns pedal their bikes for a month this year on the West Coast, Fiscus will capture the moments of local high school sports and plays and musicals.
He'll make weird noises to get young kids and their parents to smile for his camera.
And he'll use dang good light to tell stories.
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