Arts & Culture

Brian Luenser captures Fort Worth with an artistic eye

Alittle less than five years ago, Brian Luenser joined Facebook, the social media site. Like a lot of people diving in for the first time, he had a hard time seeing what all the fuss was about.

“I just had one ‘friend’ for like three years,” Luenser says. “It wasn’t really satisfying. I didn’t quite get it. I’d post, and maybe that one friend ‘liked’ it and maybe he didn’t. I don’t remember when I decided to get a few more friends. I had a few people ask to be friends, and I thought, ‘Well, I just have one friend, so OK.’ ”

Then people began to notice the photos he was posting to his Facebook page.

Photos of downtown Fort Worth, taken from his condo at the Tower, depicting downtown architecture, approaching storms, and sun- and moonrise views. Then street photos and candid shots of Sundance Square nightlife. Photos of Fort Worth neighborhoods with classic craftsman houses. Time-lapse films of the construction of Sundance Square Plaza.

“By the time I had 10 friends, they started sharing my stuff, and it just kinda grew from there,” Luenser says. “I had maybe 120 friends a year [and a half] ago. But the stuff I like, a lot of people like. I take pictures of things that I love, and I found that a lot more people love the things I love than I thought.”

At this writing, Luenser has more than 3,600 friends on Facebook. For a shy, intensely focused 57-year-old man who says he didn’t have any friends other than his wife, Debbie, till he was 50, the number is pretty astonishing — and it can grow by 100 in as little as a couple of days. But more than increasing his reach, Luenser’s photos have opened a lot of doors.

“He captures Fort Worth in a way that brings forth the wonderful, warm emotions that we all feel about our hometown,” says Mayfest marketing manager Shannon Baumgardner, who saw Luenser’s photos on Facebook and asked him to be Mayfest’s official photographer. “That’s what I wanted him to capture for Mayfest, and that’s what he did. … He asked for nothing in return and was eager to give me discs of the photos that he had taken.”

Downtown Fort Worth Inc. uses Luenser’s photos in its brochures. The Star-Telegram and local TV stations have used his photos, and Fort Worth magazine runs them regularly. Charities such as The Warm Place and A Wish With Wings have hired him.

And this year, he will be an “emerging artist” at the Main St. Fort Worth Arts Festival, beginning Thursday. He’ll be exhibiting large prints of his photos — on Fourth Street close to Sundance Square Plaza — along with others selected in the emerging-artists category.

“He applied in the emerging-artists category because he’s a neophyte at showing his work in this fashion,” says Jay Downie, events producer of Downtown Fort Worth Initiatives, producer of the Main St. festival. “He’s the kind of guy that shares his work. He’s very giving, so there’s a certain reluctance on his part to suddenly go and sell work that he does, because he just wants to contribute.”

The photography bug

Luenser, who is originally from a town outside of Chicago, came to Texas in 1969, when he was 13 years old. His father, an electrical engineer, was transferred to Texas, and the family lived in DeSoto till Luenser went into the Navy. When he got out of the Navy, he bought a house in Grand Prairie, then in Arlington, then in Fort Worth — as he put it, he just kept moving west.

He went to school at the University of Texas at Arlington, getting a degree in accounting, and he has done well for himself as a certified public accountant and, since 1997, as director of finance for Aquasana, a company he co-founded that manufactures and sells residential water filters.

But the photography bug was always there.

“I had an SLR [single-lens reflex camera] when I was in the Navy and I worked at the photo lab, and then I took a couple of photo classes when I went to UTA. I was kind of into developing, and then I kinda got out of it for some years, I think mostly because it was kind of an expensive hobby, developing and printing,” Luenser says.

A couple of incidents helped him return to it. One was a question that Debbie put to him on his 50th birthday, when they were living in a town house near Eagle Mountain Lake.

“My wife asked me, ‘Well, if you died today, what would be your regrets?’ ” Luenser says. “I hadn’t really thought about it, but it came right out: ‘You know, I’ve never had any fun. I’m 50 years old, I’ve only been working or going to school or in the Navy. I’ve never done anything fun.’ I had tiny, little pockets of fun. I never had good times in college or high school — I never had any of that.

“She said, ‘Well, that’s unacceptable. What’s it going to take to change that?’ I said, ‘Well, I work all week, I work hard, and then it seems like on weekends, I’m working on the house. I never have any time.’ She said, ‘Let’s fix that. Let’s rent an apartment or something, where you have weekends.’ ”

That was about the time the Tower opened as a 35-story condo complex. The former Bank One tower had been ravaged by the EF3 tornado that struck Fort Worth in March 2000.

“[Moving in] was a great thing for me,” Luenser says, “because I feel like I need to be getting chores done all the time, and if I have a house, I’m always roof-patching or something. Having a condo is really a lot of freedom for me.”

Luenser, who loves the mix of old and modern buildings in downtown Fort Worth, had been taking pictures there since the late ’90s, starting with a cheap digital camera and then upgrading with encouragement from Debbie, who said that if he was going to be taking pictures every day, he needed better cameras.

It took him years after his move downtown to start photographing people — sometimes fashionably dressed women in the streets, sometimes couples enjoying a night out, sometimes kids playing in the intermittent fountain at Sundance Square Plaza. For a while, he just shot from his Tower condo (he still does; one of his cameras has a zoom lens so strong that he has taken clear shots of the Watauga water tower, more than 10 miles away).

“My first year downtown, I didn’t go out after dark,” Luenser says. “I wasn’t comfortable with downtown, and my wife didn’t want me to. I woke up one day and said, ‘You know, I pay too many taxes to not be using those streets anytime I want to.’ I’ve just decided that I’m going to do it. I’m not going to not go out at midnight just because I’m scared. I’ve never had anything happen to me.”

Now, Debbie Luenser says, she supports his excursions, and adds that there’s more to them than just Brian’s keen eye and creative spirit.

“The beauty of his photography is one thing, these gems that he’s created,” Debbie says. “And people have had such a favorable response, and it’s generated a deeper relationship for us with the community. … The ripples that have gone out from the epicenter, which is his photography, have kind of strengthened my craving for community.”

Luenser moves fast, even when he’s not shooting, so fast that people ask him if he’s in a hurry when he really isn’t — it’s just the way he walks. He shoots his street scenes quickly, and though he doesn’t generally ask for permission, he’s rarely had anyone refuse to be shot. Sometimes he’ll get someone who initially demurs, then asks to be emailed copies of the photo. The majority of the photos aren’t posed; Luenser says it’s more hit-and-run.

“I remember watching a Cheers episode one time where people on Halloween were wearing masks, and all of a sudden they were sociable,” Luenser says. “When I have my camera, it’s really not me. It’s my shield, and it’s kind of turned me into a different person. I didn’t shoot people until [a little over] a year ago, mostly because I was too shy. And now it’s become a hobby.”

There’s a lot behind the mask. Luenser says that he spent his first 50 years pretty much as a hermit. He entertains himself easily, reads a lot, and when he’s working on something, he works on it 100 percent, so he just really didn’t have time for friends. He is still shy, but he’s very open in conversation and in the well-informed, witty captions he puts on his Facebook posts.

“It’s like a geode,” Debbie Luenser says. “You crack it open, and it’s kind of sparkly and magical inside. At the risk of overstatement, Brian doesn’t have a natural inclination to connect with people, and doesn’t have a natural inclination to create. He’s a CPA kind of guy, so that side of thinking is where he’s comfortable. But at this stage of his life, he’s found a way to connect with the creative process and to have this blossoming interest in community generate around it.”

The walking man

Luenser also shoots neighborhoods, especially the older ones near downtown, with houses dating from the 1910s and ’20s, one of his favorite periods. He shoots within a 7- to 8-mile radius of downtown, mainly because he walks to his subjects. He started doing it for the exercise after getting another wake-up call a couple of years ago.

“I had a near-heart attack,” Luenser says. “I had three heart stents put in. … My heart was stopping. I’ve always been concerned with my health, and I’ve always been in fair shape and concerned with my diet, but genetically, I don’t come from a line of long-lived people. I come from a whole bunch of people who died at 55, about my age.”

For three years, Luenser has stuck to what he calls a “super-vegan” diet — he doesn’t eat anything but fruits and whole grains, avoiding foods with oils such as nuts and olives. He walks as much as he can, and the neighborhood shoots are a way of adding thousands of extra steps. Not that he notices that much anymore.

“As I got in better and better shape,” he says, “I just forgot about the exercise aspect and now I’m just seeing what I haven’t seen before.”

Although Luenser has several large prints of his photos to show at the Main St. fest, he doesn’t ordinarily make prints. Yet he does see himself as a chronicler. It’s why he did a time-lapse of ESPN setting up in Sundance Square Plaza last week — he has a camera mounted in his ceiling for the time-lapse shots. It’s why he followed the construction for years, why he gets those shots of Fort Worth nightlife.

“I am positive that not having kids, I have a sense that when I’m dead, it’s all over,” Luenser says. “I kind of tackled that, starting about five years ago. When I did the time-lapse of the construction that’s been taking place, that right there, it’s just a little bit of me — it’s not so much vanity as a chronicle of history. I kind of like having this important event on a video, and with technology, it’ll be around for many years.

“My name’s on there, and I like that. I like to think that on my deathbed, I’ll have left something good and something that’s important.”

This story was originally published April 10, 2014 8:58 AM.

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