Shot in 1980, this “Limbo #1” by Gary Gruber was taken at at 1950’s party at Rancho Las Palmas Country Club.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY GRUBER

There are not too many people in the world you can tell who they are when the camera is not pointed at their face. But in the case of one image in a current exhibit by Coachella Valley photographer Gary Gruber at CODA Gallery in Palm Desert, there is no mistaking who it is.

“It was early in the morning,” recalls Gruber. “We were photographing people on the first tee as they were getting ready to go out for the day on the course. He was there just waiting for the foursome in front of him to get moving. It was just one of those quiet moments that happens very rarely, and because of his physiognomy and the pose, you know exactly who it is. You don’t need to see his face to know that it’s Arnold Palmer.”

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Arnold Palmer, Bob Hope Classic

What makes the shot even more special is Gruber didn’t even know he had it until he went through his files at home about five months ago.

“I’ve got boxes and boxes full of stuff,” he says. “Actually, I discovered about eight months ago, going through the hundreds of thousands of negatives that I have, I say about 50 or 60 percent of the work was already in my portfolio and some of it has been exhibited at a prior exhibit at CODA three years ago. But, about every eight or nine months I will go through my proofs and I will look at them very closely, and I did that with this group of photos, and I found images that I had never printed before.”

The Arnold Palmer shot is part of a collection spanning the 1970s and ‘80s in the Coachella Valley when Gruber says there were not a lot of professional photographers living in the desert. “When I started in photography back in the middle ’70s, there were only six of us in town,” he says. “I have loved these photos my entire career, and both my wife and I saw the value in them, way back.”

“I think the idea that the photos had a somewhat surrealistic nature to them when you took them out of context gave them a sense of humor that buoyed them above everything else. The fact that they were commercial work and I was paid to do them, and then all of a sudden they’ve become very valuable to people who are collecting older photos of the valley.”

Gruber and his wife migrated from the East coast to the desert in 1972 when she landed a public relations job at the Cliff Brown Agency and he was hired to shoot. His work was spotlighted in the August 2018 issue of Palm Springs Life just prior to his then last show at CODA. Don’t be surprised if there is more to come.

Gruber chats with Palm Springs Life more about the exhibit, which is primarily black and white photography. The exhibit runs through Jan. 17.

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Gary Gruber

What do you like about black and white images versus color?

It’s two different worlds. It depends upon the image and what it says to me. I use color very sparingly, depending upon the subject matter. These images work in black and white. They don’t need the color because both the subject matter and the timing of the photo tell you everything that you need to know. There are a lot of photographers that never shot a roll of color in their lives. There’s a moment in time with each photograph, and you don’t need anything other than the composition, the timing, and the photographer’s selection of materials and tools to display that moment and preserve it. It becomes one of those things where less is definitely more. I’ve seen a lot of photos where color inhibits your ability to appreciate the photos because the drama is hidden by the color.

Which photo in the exhibit has a good story behind it?

One of the most popular images is of the three Bob Hope Classic girls. I know that today’s current culture, that picture might make some people bristle because the women are being displayed so to speak, and used for their beauty. But back in those days, even though the initial selection process was based upon how good looking the women were, they were treated with tremendous respect and were not manhandled or abused in any way. I spoke to them and I worked with them for the couple of weeks that they were ambassadors toward the tournament, and everyone treated them well.

Was this a shot you created or was it for a client?

This was just fun. Working for Cliff Brown. He was a good old boy from South Carolina, and he ran his business to the point that a lot of photographers didn’t want to work with him because he was vociferous about, “stand here,” and “use this angle.” They didn’t like to be told what to do, but Cliff paid his bills on time. You submitted your monthly statement and three days later you had a check. But it’s one of those things that all of the magic is there. The girls, the pose, the lighting, the camera lens selection. It all works in harmony to bring the photo out. But that was the way a lot of the work was with the agency. They had done this several years prior to my coming on board, so I was just the new kid with the camera and the shutter release.

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Bob Hope Classic

Digital photography allows you to know in the instant whether you got a shot or not. Shooting film, you didn’t. Did you ever get surprised by the shots you discovered when you developed the film?

There were parties, and there are a lot of party pictures there, and you’re going from set up to set up very quickly, so you’re grabbing a shot and sometimes your attention isn’t 100 percent focused, so you’re working unconsciously. The image appears when you look at it later, and you say, “Wow. This is great.”

Video likely has the biggest command of our attention now thanks to social media. Do you still believe a picture is worth 1,000 words?

It’s probably worth more than that. Most people don’t see the 50th of a second frames that go by in their life. Somebody has to be there to capture them, and I’m just grateful that I was able to do that. People compliment me. They say, “Gee, thanks for grabbing that. I never would have seen it.” So that in itself is plenty of justification for me for having done this for all these years.