Photo exhibit shows a different side of Kenny Rogers

The Gambler’s passion for photography is on display at Booth Western Art Museum.

Kenny Rogers wasn’t a one-note performer, nor was he one-note in life. He dove into diverse interests anytime he pulled off his trademark sequined stage jacket.

Nearly two years after the singer and actor best known for “The Gambler” folded ‘em for the last time at age 81, the curtain is rising on his deep passion for photography in the Booth Western Art Museum’s new exhibition “Through the Years: Kenny Rogers’ Photographs of America.”

Just as Rogers’ music career crossed many genres — country, pop, rock, jazz, rhythm and blues — the Cartersville museum’s retrospective is far-ranging, including Ansel Adams-inspired wide-screen landscapes, intimate day-in-the-life street photography and a whole wall of celebrity portraits. (Dolly Parton signed hers, “Kenny, Picture me always loving you.”)

Credit: John Sexton

Credit: John Sexton

Rogers’ photographic pursuits may come as a surprise to many of his music fans, but he hardly kept his passion a secret. He produced three photography books — “Kenny Rogers’ America” (1986), “Your Friends and Mine” (1987) and “This Is My Country” (2001) — and his images were included in two Country Music Hall of Fame exhibits. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2017.

In an interview with nola.com, he called himself an “impulsive obsessive,” explaining that, “I impulsively get involved with something, and then I obsess with it.” He was the same way about landscaping, interior design and tennis.

Rogers began shooting pictures with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye in the mid-1960s, and his interest grew when he was introduced to fashion and celebrity photographer Milton H. Greene, famed for his Marilyn Monroe portraits. It was the first of several crossed paths with celebrated photographers that influenced him to different degrees.

His two most notable mentors were famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, who photographed Kenny (and vice versa) and shared insights over a long weekend at the singer’s Athens-area farm; and John Sexton, a noted landscape photographer who served as Ansel Adams’ late-in-life assistant.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In the early ‘80s, Rogers began taking portfolio portraits of his then-wife, Marianne Rogers, a model-actress. She gave her husband a Christmas gift of a private workshop with Sexton in 1984. That three-day class became a marathon, instructor and student averaging 18-hour days in the darkroom at the Rogers’ Beverly Hills home.

It sparked a friendship with Sexton that included several shooting-trip adventures (and sometimes misadventures) over the next two years and a friendship that extended to the end of Rogers’ life.

Speaking from Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, Sexton recalls one of the most memorable of those trips, less than a month after their initial meeting, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and Tacoma, Washington, which were tour stops with Rogers’ duet partner Parton.

The two men shared plenty of shop talk on Rogers’ private jet on the flight from Los Angeles, and continued the conversation under the bleachers in Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum while Parton performed her opening set.

Clad in his typical offstage jogging suit, Rogers was approached by his road manager Gene Roy, who excitedly exclaimed: “Kenny, Kenny, you gotta get dressed! Dolly’s wrapping up, she’s into her last song!” Sexton recalls with a laugh. “Kenny kind of dragged away; he didn’t want it to stop.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

But the fun had just begun. The next morning, a chartered helicopter carried them up the British Columbia coast and into the Fitzsimmons Range, setting down in unblemished spots where they wanted to train their lenses. When the tour moved to Tacoma, they spent another day of chopper exploration in the Cascades.

Even with all-day trips and concerts at night, Rogers was stoked to get back to his Beverly Hills darkroom ASAP to see what they had.

So, he came up with a scheme. He offered the helicopter pilot front row seats in exchange for flying him and Sexton to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where his private jet would whisk them to Los Angeles. Sexton and the pilot sat together during the concert but left early so they were in the copter, ready for departure, when the show ended. The blades were whirling when, Sexton recalls, “Here comes Kenny and his closest crew running out of his show, Kenny still in his sequined costume and everything.”

They walked through the darkroom door in Beverly Hills around midnight. “It was pretty exciting and a bit bizarre,” acknowledges Sexton, who developed film with the singer until 3 a.m. After a couple of hours of shuteye, they went right back at it, making proofs and prints before sunrise.

“That’s how intense Kenny was,” Sexton says. “He was gifted in what we today call multitasking, and proud of his stamina.”

More shooting trips followed for the sleep-sacrificing duo at wonderous sites such as Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, the California coastline from San Francisco down to Santa Cruz, that state’s Redwood National and State parks, Northeast Georgia and Sheridan, Wyoming. Those frequently were followed by more darkroom hours.

At some point in 1986, Sexton knew he needed to get fully focused on his own photography. Just as important, he concluded that Rogers was ready to fly solo.

“Kenny didn’t need me,” Sexton said. “That didn’t mean that I wouldn’t later receive a box of prints unannounced (for critique), saying, ‘Look at what I did at Yosemite!’”

Wanda Rogers, Kenny’s wife of 22 years, said her husband never paused in his pursuit of worthy subjects on which to focus his lens, including cemeteries in Europe and churches wherever the music took him.

“We’d get up in the morning, get in the car and drive around whatever city we were in and ask the locals whether there was anything good to shoot,” Kenny recalled in an interview with Sports & Entertainment Nashville not long before his “The Gambler’s Last Deal” farewell tour. “A lot of the time they’d say, ‘No, I’ve lived here 30 years and there’s nothing.’ And then you’d turn around the corner and you’d find Niagara Falls.”

Wanda retreated from the road after their twins Justin and Jordan were born in 2004, but she remembers with fond amusement one time where her husband didn’t get his shot. They were tooling down the Joshua Tree Parkway and though there were multiple signs warning not to leave the roadway, Kenny spotted something he wanted to shoot. The SUV’s wheels immediately sunk in the sand. Efforts to extract it failed miserably.

The cellphone service was iffy, cutting off before connecting, and it was getting dark. Finally, a 911 call went through. “And he goes, ‘Hey, this is Kenny Rogers ....’ And (the operator’s) like, ‘Oh my God, the Gambler!’” Wanda recalls. “And Kenny said, ‘No, no, no, you gotta find out my location,’ and then ... click, the line went out.”

Some five hours later, a wrecker finally rode to the rescue.

Close calls like that aside, Rogers’ photographic expeditions made him appreciate the American landscape in a way that a boy who grew up in a Houston housing project could hardly have imagined.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

He tried to emulate Ansel Adams and photograph nature unmarked by man. “Photographing American wilderness from this perspective has brought me in touch with the timeless quality of nature and with the realization that we are all just temporary visitors on this planet,” Rogers is quoted in Booth Museum wall text accompanying an epic Adams-like landscape of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

The comment raises some interesting questions.

The first: Was Rogers modeling his photography on Adams and/or his assistant?

“I think there was definitely an emulation (of Adams) initially,” Sexton replies. “As an instructor, you don’t want to teach someone how to copy you. You want them to discover their own vision. And as time went on, I think Kenny did.”

Final question: Was Rogers happier making music or taking photographs?

Wanda Rogers doesn’t hesitate. “I never think anything could take the place of music for Kenny, but his experience with photography was a huge highlight in his life. He loved the challenge of the composition and, as he used to say, chasing the light.

“He said that so often: ‘We’re chasing the light!’”


EXHIBIT PREVIEW

“Through the Years: Kenny Rogers’ Photographs of America.” Through July 10. $13. Booth Western Art Museum, 501 N. Museum Drive, Cartersville. 770-387-1300, www.boothmuseum.org.