Stillwater native and musician Frankie Lee’s new album bares more than the city’s name as the album title.
In addition to recording “Stillwater” at his mom’s Stillwater home with local musicians, the visual album features the work of a prolific St. Croix Valley photographer who died in 1964 — John Runk.
With 14 hours worth of Runk’s 8 mm film, Stillwater resident and Square Lake Film and Music Festival Paul Creager crafted a visual album for “Stillwater.”
Lee performed the “Stillwater” visual album live Saturday, Aug. 10 at the Square Lake Film and Music Festival. The music videos featuring Runk’s films are on Lee’s YouTube channel.
“It’s like [seeing] 140 years in 40 minutes,” Lee said. “You’re seeing history happen live.”
John Runk was a professional photographer in Stillwater from 1899 until his death in 1964, said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society (WCHS). Prior to his photography career, Runk was a lumberman, he said.
Runk’s work includes historical events, such as an image of the last log rolling through the St. Croix Boom Site, as well as snapshots of daily life in Stillwater, like couples lounging on the beach along the St. Croix River, Peterson said.
“He had a curious mind,” he added. “He had that forward thinking.”
Runk, not only a prolific photographer, also collected photographs from locals. Today, the Minnesota Historical Society’s Runk collection contains about 4,000 photographs — the society’s largest individual collection, Peterson said.
In 2008, Runk’s grandnephew found 48 cannisters of Runk’s 8 mm film. The WCHS received a grant to digitize the film, he added.
Not long after, the WCHS hired Creager to write and produce “An Ode to Stillwater: the John Runk Films,” a 30-minute video that compiled Runk’s images and video he worked on before he died.
“It was kind of the unfinished film that I was able to finish,” Creager said.
The video still runs on public television, Creager said, which is where Lee said he first saw Runk’s films while working on his “Stillwater” album. Creager and Lee already knew each other from the local arts scene and Peterson gave them permission to use Runk’s films.
Creager, who spent hours combing through Runk’s film for the previous project, said he revisited images that stuck in his head.
“The composition was really good,” he said. “He would put his camera on a tripod and let life pass through the lens.”
Creager paired Runk’s myriad of images with new footage of the videos projected onto Lee as he performed the album. Creager said the new footage, also shot on an 8 mm camera, was filmed in Marine on St. Croix town hall as well as at the Square Lake festival grounds.
“All these layers of Stillwater are now kind of synthesizing together,” Creager said. “It just kind of fell in place.”
For Lee, Runk’s films authentically represent the people who lived in Stillwater at the time, a time before downtown was filled with tourist shops, he said.
The Oscar-winning actress and Minnesota native Jessica Lange, who lived in Stillwater during Lee’s childhood, told the New York Daily News in 2008 she moved because the town became “yuppified” by gift shops and condominiums. Lee’s first single off the album, “Downtown Lights,” echoes that sentiment, inspired by a dream Lee had in which he walked through historic downtown Stillwater with Lange.
“The town had been taken over, she said, by corporate interests,” Lee said. “I can relate. I grew up in a totally different town.”
The “Downtown Lights” video features Runk’s footage of locals swimming in and lounging along the banks of the St. Croix River, as well as the Historic Lift Bridge and sepia-toned films of downtown.
Creager said Runk’s collection of work is a “priceless resource” that captured the “emotional identity of Stillwater.” Peterson added Runk would be pleased with Creager’s and Lee’s work.
“It’s fantastic,” Peterson said. “Frankie’s project keeps John Runk’s photography alive.”
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