The World in Black and White: The photography of Toby Vandenack

In 1978 Toby Vandenack’s uncle, a French teacher in Green Bay, invited him to take an empty slot on a student trip to Paris and perhaps help chaperone.

“I was 19 years old, barely out of high school myself, and I’d always wanted to go to Paris,” he said. “Coming from Green Bay, you want a little more excitement.”

With experience shooting for the school paper and yearbook at Green Bay East High School, he was already setting up a portrait business, so he took a Mamiya 645 and Kodak professional color film.

But on the next three trips he shot black and white with three medium format cameras – a Fuji GS635S that makes a vertical image when held normally; a Fuji 6×7 Professional which he always used with a tripod; and a Fuji GSM690 which makes a 6x9cm negative, nearly six times the size of a 35mm. 

“I knew early on that 35mm wasn’t going to work for what I needed to do,” he said.

He learned the best way to get around Paris was on a bike, carrying the three heavy cameras in a backpack. He chose to ride  a French Peugeot bike that he could include in some of his pictures.

“That may or may not be cliché, but it was my cliché right?” he said. “Paris by bike was my cliché, and I actually copyrighted it with the hopes of someday doing a picture book.”

Back home in northeast Wisconsin, he talked with local professionals, like award-winning Wayne and Cliff Harmann, to learn about techniques and equipment.

“They used to do some beautiful color Door County photographs,” he said.

He and his wife opened a studio in Green Bay doing portraits, industrial photography and some weddings.

“Within a couple years I started winning awards too, such as the Master Print Competition from the Professional Photographers of America, which made me feel pretty darn good,” he said.

After five years of studio work, his career was advancing in the paper industry, so they closed the studio.

“Weddings got tiresome after a while and I really wanted to do more artistic work,” he said. “That’s when I started discovering the heart of photography – black and white. At that time, color wasn’t really accepted [as artistic photography]. Closing the portrait studio allowed me to get more serious with my black-and-white, fine-art photography work – I had my first solo exhibit at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay when I was 27.” 

His work is now in the permanent collection of the Neville and the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay.

He returned to Paris three more times from the 1980s to the early 2000s, shooting in black and white this time, and exploring the city on a bike to create “Paris by Bike,” a series of film-based photographs.

“Many of my most popular and most published images are the result of those two-wheeled excursions,” he says on his website. “I have biked hundreds of miles in and around Paris, including all 20 arrondissements.”

In 2000 he launched a website for his photography, something of a rarity at the time. A publisher of posters saw his Paris work and called and offered him a contract. His work ended up in art shops, home-decorating departments and museum shops across more than 70 countries. At least six times, his pictures made appearances in movies.

He likes shooting rainy-night scenes. For Paris, he went prepared for rain with an LL Bean rain slicker and a helmet he brought from home. 

“I was American, totally – the only person riding a bike in Paris that brought his own helmet,” he said. “The city was not real bicycle-friendly back then. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. And there were two Japanese girls, tourists – they just got a kick from it. They had to take a photo of me with them. I must have looked huge to them, and I was in all this American stuff.”

He made decent money from the posters.

“It was a fantastic relationship for 10 years,” he said, pulling out a catalog that carried a few pages of the Eiffel Tower at night and “April Showers, New York,” taken in the park behind the New York Public Library showing four empty chairs and a rain-soaked walkway with umbrella-carrying pedestrians in the distance.

It proved to be his most popular image – it sold over 250,000 posters.

“And the weird thing that happened is I started getting fan mail,” he said. “I never expected to get fan mail in my life.”

The publisher warned him he would lose control and now his work is widely pirated, although he still gets an occasional check for his posters. He also gets the occasional excited email from someone who has a poster and wants to know if it is a valuable original.

“I’m sorry to tell them there were thousands of those made,” he said. “You don’t have an original, but I can make you an original for 300 bucks [he develops and prints his work himself]. And I’ve probably sold about half a dozen like that.”

Vandenack has roots in southern Door County – his great, great grandfather was probably a founding member of the White Star Church in Gardner, he said, a church he has photographed several times. 

From the late 1980s to around 2005, he and his wife did art fairs in northeastern Wisconsin, including Art Street in Green Bay for 25 years straight. 

“It did what it was meant to do, and we had fun doing it, but we don’t need to battle the rain anymore,” he said. “And now, all the work at the fairs is in color. It looks like a nice giant postcard, but I don’t think I’d want to hang that on my wall. I mean, it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, but it reminds me of a postcard for some reason. 

“People that buy stuff from me today say, ‘You’re getting towards the last of the black-and-white guys. And I’m buying from you because I want a gelatin, silver print, whatever you want to call it. I call it a silver print,’” he continued. “Well, thank you. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid.”