Jon Kral’s ‘Insight’: Riveting images at the Backus

An exhibition at the A.E. Backus Museum in Fort Pierce, up now through Jan. 3, features the work of Fort Pierce native son Jon Kral, a photographer who for decades documented the land and people of Florida for the Miami Herald and other Florida papers, as well as a private citizen.

Titled Insight: Photography of Jon Kral, the show features a selection of Kral’s black and white pigment prints in the rotating exhibitions gallery.

Over his 18 years as a staff photographer for the Miami Herald, Kral amassed notable honors, including a citation in 1998 from the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation’s annual Journalism Awards for his series on teen gangs in Miami.

Many of his images from Hurricane Andrew were included in the Herald’s entry that earned it the 1993 Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service.

In addition to the photos he took in south Florida, Kral traveled all over the world on assignment, including the volatile Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s. Kral was a Pulitzer finalist in 1995 for a series about conditions in Venezuela’s notorious prisons.

Today he is happily retired and living with wife Beth in the mountains of North Carolina, where he splits wood to heat his home in the winter and revels in not having to go anywhere.

“This show was put together specifically for the Backus,” says its director, J. Marshall Adams.

And although the images in it range from the 1970s to the present year, Adams says that the exhibition “is not a true retrospection of Jon’s career,” because it includes none of Kral’s international work.

Before they began to correspond about the show via telephone and email, Adams knew Kral only by name, and learned about the man himself courtesy of several of the Backus museum’s board members who remember Kral fondly.

“There is a connectedness still,” says Adams, who put together the show as a last-minute response to the COVID-19 crises.

“When we were considering this show in the early part of 2020, we knew we could work with Jon to select images that people living nearby would respond to,” he explains.

After Adams decided which images he wanted to see in the show, Kral had prints made and shipped them with ample time for the museum to frame them.

Beautifully mounted under glazing in substantial black frames, many of the prints are displayed, alongside title and date information, with brief reminiscences about their subjects, supplied by Kral.

As you might expect, three of the prints in the exhibition depict the Backus Museum’s founder, painter Bean Backus. A shot from 1983 shows him relaxing in a corner of his Fort Pierce studio, which was located on East Backus Avenue in what is now known as the Platts-Backus House. The double name refers to the home’s original owners, as well as that of the artist.

Long before photography became his career, a 12-year-old Kral met Bean Backus, who cheered on the lad’s blossoming interest in picture-taking. Years later, when Kral signed on as staff photographer with the Miami Herald, Bean was still around and beaming with pride. According to Kral, Backus congratulated him, saying “the cream always rises to the top.”

A 1984 photo, “Bean + Art,” shows Backus and his friend, musician Art Pottorff. The latter is shown in the act of giving Backus a big smooch on the cheek as Backus, gaping, grins at the camera. The label on this one recalls the trumpet lessons that grade-school-aged Kral took from Pottorff in Backus’ previous studio (located, prior to 1960, in the now-vacant block south of the Platts-Backus House). Kral wrote that he “would be blowing a lot of sour notes as Beanie painted in the other room.”

“Bean’s Kitchen,” also from 1984, captures a thoughtful-looking Backus seated in front of his stove that he decorated in paint with Pollock-like abandon. That very stove can be seen a few steps away in the gallery devoted to Backus’ work. The photo shows the order in which Backus kept his spices, saucepans and cooking utensils, lined up like soldiers at attention left, right and above the stove.

Snapped in 1970, one of the earliest images in the exhibition is of another memorable character, Harold Williams. In Kral’s picture, Williams is shown strapped into the cockpit of his crop-dusting plane as it races above the regular rows of a huge citrus grove. The image documents one of Kral’s first assignments as a Fort Pierce News photographer. To get the shot, Kral allowed Williams to tie him to the top of the fuselage of the one-seater plane, just in front of the cockpit. The title of this print, “Happy,” refers to the nickname Kral bestowed on his gruff pilot friend.

Another local personality in the show is found in a 1979 portrait of fisherman William Summerlin, shown in profile, and draped in the netting of his trade. Titled “Uncle Bill” (Kral grew up a short distance from the Summerlin home), the grizzled subject appears to be a hard-boiled type with a squint born of many a sun-blasted day at sea.

When it comes to characters, many of the photos in the show attest to Kral’s focus on Florida’s cattle culture, particularly the cowboys – er, cowhunters – who continue to work on ranches scattered about the state.

“Rush Hour” of 1995 shows six mounted men splashing through a tranquil, watery expanse on Alico Ranch in LaBelle, Florida. From the same shoot, “John and Dogs” is the image of a cowhunter leaning down from the saddle to pat the heads of his hopeful looking hounds.

Closer to home, on Adams Ranch in St. Lucie County, Kral’s dignified portrait of Bud Adams shows the rancher’s head and shoulders silhouetted against a bright sky. Although there is no trace of a horse in this photograph, you can bet there was one under him when the 1995 photo was taken. Kral’s 1979 photo, “Follow the Leader,” shows Adams on his horse leading a herd toward a hammock-lined horizon.

The grueling work, mud and blood of life on the ranch-end of the cattle industry is nowhere to be seen in the works on display. That would be out of sync with the gentle tone of this show, which tends toward affectionate observations of people in environments familiar to them.

For instance, in “Late for the First Day of School,” a little shorts-clad girl is shown knocking at the closed door of her classroom; and in “Waiting,” a child in a summery dress, frilly ankle socks and saddle shoes stands staring through her home’s front door with a moue of impatience on her pretty face.

“Jon made some broad selections for me to choose from,” says Adams, who admits that he did not always pick the artist’s personal favorites for the show.

And although the show is about a specific set of people, the places that formed them and Kral’s relationship to them, Adams is confident in its aesthetic appeal. w“You don’t have to know all the stories to respond to the universality of these images,” he says.

When asked to point out his favorite in the show, Adams “ers” and “ums” for a few seconds; he is having trouble deciding from among the riches on display.

Finally, he asserts: “My favorite one for today is ‘Mending Fences,’ with the old cowboy leaning in to repair the cattle fence. There is something about the act of repairing and making things whole that appeals to me.”

As it also may to wistful visitors at the close of this long and difficult year.

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