2007, November 17, Columbia Chronicle, By Robert Bykowski

Memory lives on in posthumous exhibit Downtown gallery features photography of international student who passed away

In death, the dedication and passion of former Columbia photography major Pieter Ombregt can still be felt in a new exhibit of the artist’s work. Ombregt, who many of his instructors describe as kind and dedicated, died at the age of 27 in a bicycle racing accident in Chicago on Sept. 11. His memory is now being honoured in the form of a one-man photo exhibit at the City Gallery of Photography at the Historic Water Tower, which is curated by Columbia.

Ombregt’s exhibit is a first of its kind at the gallery, because it is a student exhibit. “This is not a student gallery,” said Bob Thall, chairperson of the Photography Department and one of the organizers of the exhibit. “We don’t generally show student work [at this gallery], but we thought this work was as strong as any of the work we’ve shown here.”

Thall said the idea for the exhibit came from the entire Photography Department faculty shortly after Ombregt’s death. “[His death] hit a whole lot of people in the department, and the work is terrific, so it seemed to be a great idea,” Thall said. Thall added it was the quality of Ombregt’s work that made the gallery a reality. “The idea was only possible because his work was at such a high level,” Thall said. “We didn’t have to bend our criteria.” Thall worked closely with fellow photography instructors Dawoud Bey, Barbara Kasten and Ombregt’s fiancée, Jennifer Kowalewski, to carry out the vision of what Ombregt would’ve wanted in an exhibition.

Ombregt shot the work on display, loosely titled “XYZ Project” on his website, with a medium format camera and colour transparency film, which he then scanned in order to make a digital print. The series of photographs at the exhibit display a man—often times Ombregt himself—wearing an orange jumpsuit and positioned in stark contrast to his surroundings, which are usually architectural in nature. Thall said the files were going to be printed in the department’s digital lab, and Ombregt had already adjusted almost all of the image files for printing, which made it easier for those involved to guess at how Ombregt would’ve wanted the work displayed. “We talked to Jennifer and tried to finish the prints and frame them and do everything in the way she understood he would have had them done,” Thall said.

Elizabeth Ernst, a former instructor of Ombregt at Columbia, described him as a perfectionist with an amazing work ethic. “In my 17 years of teaching at Columbia, there would probably be five students who ranked as outstanding and he’d be at the top of the list,” she said.

Bey, who also taught Ombregt in a couple of classes, said he was one of the most intelligent students he’d ever worked with, and said he had a wonderful imagination. “The thing I remember most about him is when you had a conversation with him, he looked you directly in the eyes, and you knew he was really taking in everything you were telling him, and it showed in the work,” Bey said.

Kowalewski, who met Ombregt nearly five years ago in an art history class at Columbia, reflected on the amount of time they spent together shooting the project, which took them all around the world from Chicago to France and Poland. “We were always going shooting together,” Kowalewski said. “It was a scavenger hunt, really. He was looking for that shot.”

Kowalewski felt the turnout at the opening was tremendous, and if Ombregt were still alive, it was exactly what he would’ve wanted.

“It’s always what he wanted—a gallery show,” Kowalewski said. “He was a simple guy, but the day that Pieter passed, I picked him up from Columbia and he said, ‘Jen, I’m done. I’m done with this work, done with this project. I’m ready to go on.’ That was Pieter, when he was finished he was finished. He put 110 percent into whatever he did.”

The exhibit runs through Feb. 3 at the City Gallery of Photography at the Historic Water Tower, 806 N. Michigan Ave. For more information, visit colum.edu/PhotoWeb.