Chris Lommel has an eye on the community

By Meghan Gutzwiller (Monticello Times May 14, 2009)

Local photographer Chris Lommel is a small-town type of guy. He's lived and worked in Monticello or the surrounding area all his life, and he has taken part in the community on many different levels, from a student in the school district to a Monticello Times employee, a business owner and church volunteer.

"Growing up and working in a small town, there are so many connections, so many stories, that you've shared with people," Lommel said. "I just can't imagine living any other way."

Lommel was bitten by the photography bug early, entering 4-H photography projects at the county fair as a sixth-grader. He took his interest to the next level later in junior high, taking summer photography classes, doing slide shows for school athletic teams and taking pictures for the yearbook, among other things.

"I just loved the camera," Lommel said. "I loved the idea that I could capture images and record history, tell stories with pictures. I loved everything about it; I have ever since."

He began working for the Monticello Times as a high school student in 1978 through his graduation in 1980. Former publisher Don Smith inspired him to go to journalism school, and so he attended the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and got a degree in photojournalism. He continued his career at the Monticello Times after graduation, doing photography, design of the paper and working with the news staff. He dug even deeper into the newspaper business from 1988-1993, as the Associate Editor for the Elk River Star News. Although he loved the newspaper industry and community journalism, he found his favorite part of the job was environmental and people photography. This interest was further enhanced by working part-time as a wedding photographer for David's Photography in Monticello. His passion for photography led him and his wife, Kim, to start Chris Lommel Photography in 1991, and he slowly shifted his mind and career from journalism to photography.

"The way I see my job now is I'm still a storyteller, I just do it a little differently," he said of the transition.

The business grew and flourished for the next ten years when, although the business was doing well, the photographer himself was not. After feeling ill for most of 2001, Lommel was finally diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, on New Year's Eve of 2001, just after celebrating his 40th birthday. He spent the next six months undergoing chemotherapy before having a stem cell transplant from his youngest sister on July 30, 2002. Friends and family volunteered to help keep the studio up and running while Kim stayed by his side to support him throughout the process. Volunteer photographers donated their time to see his clients, and community members supported the family through prayer and many other means.

Just because Lommel wasn't in his studio didn't mean he wasn't behind the lens, though. He took more than 1,000 photographs of his clinical and hospital experience, helping to create a photographic journey that he shared with the Monticello Times in April 2003 and also with KARE 11 news, which ran a feature about his experiences three months later. After not working for over nine months in 2002 and struggling for 2-3 years after that to re-gain his strength, Lommel has successfully emerged from his illness just as strong and even wiser than before.

"I look at things differently and I look at each day differently," Lommel said. "Every day that I feel good now, I want to pack as much into it as I possibly can. Every day I look to what I can do to serve other people, to make a difference for somebody else."

Seven years later, Lommel is back up to full speed as he jets from appointment to appointment all day and into many evenings. And he's even breaking into new territory, recently dabbling with the commercial photography industry with great success: last month he won an award for the top commercial/illustrative print in the Northern Light Print Competition through the Professional Photographers Association. The photo was taken for Viper Motorcycle Company out of Big Lake. He has also been speaking about photography at seminars and group meetings, where his personal experience of overcoming cancer often comes up. He is active in his local church and also enjoys family time with his wife and three sons, ages 24, 19 and 17.

While some may have the urge to slow down after going through a health crisis like he did, Lommel is not a member of that camp.

"I figure God left me here for a reason, and that's why I try to make the most of each day," he said. "I love meeting new people, [having] new challenges and learning something new every day."