The Blog

April 28, 2018

Thoughts about my dad…discovered through my Leica.

Robert F. "Bob" Sbiral


Many people say that you should live in the moment. The moment you are in is all you have, they argue. I can think of many moments that have influenced my photography. In high school, I was shooting a K-1000 and receiving advice from John Vance, an art teacher I never formally took a class from but grew incredibly close to during his unfortunately short fight with cancer. Another moment was time spent with the trusty Canon equipment, Shirley Dynes made sure I was stocked with from the local camera store (back when we had local camera stores). Like moments with my photography, I can literally think of hundreds of moments that have influenced my relationship with my dad. This is a narrative of how these moments met.

In late August 2017 I started to work with Nicholas Pinto in an effort to grow as a photographer. “You need a project,” he said. Previously my photography was a fusion of street and travel photography, with an event, safari, and portrait or two thrown in for variety. A “Project” was certainly a new idea and I struggled to come with a worthy topic.

This is another moment I thought, I needed something that was familiar yet important. I needed something that I was emotionally invested in and would not only encourage creativity but tell a story. It is harder than you would think to develop that type of project.


There it was. Right in front of me. I would photograph my father. “A bear in his natural habitat,” one might say. I told Nick I would go home and photograph my dad. “Great,” he said, “go this weekend.” What? Are you seriously kidding me? It’s five plus hours away, and I was swamped already. Nick and I planned to meet the next week, I explained to my wife, so I needed to go. I was a bit excited about going home as I hadn’t been in awhile. My wife, Amy, thought I was crazy. But off we went. I wouldn’t really look at the work I had completed that weekend until late in February 2018, nearly six months later. Life just gets in the way sometimes. But there were the images of my dad, on my memory cards, waiting to be downloaded.

Life just gets in the way sometimes.

Isn’t that the truth? I woke up that morning in August wondering how I was going to incorporate my camera into the activities of the day. That warm summer afternoon as I photographed my father in front of the tree we had planted more than thirty-five years earlier on a rural farm in northeast Iowa, I wondered where the time had gone. What happened to change a young, strong man into a weathered, weakened man and an optimistic little boy into a busy professional in Chicago who was clearly not nearly as optimistic anymore? The farm had been in the family over one-hundred years before we moved away, first my mother and me, then eventually my dad. Now owned by a neighbor, buildings changed, and the tree we had planted now easily six times our height, seemingly infested with emerald ash borer and likely coming to the end of its life.

Where does time go?

I had to ask that question as my dad gazed at the square 126 photographs of us planting that tree. He sat in my mother’s house in a dining room he sat in my entire childhood when he visited his mother, the first owner of the house. Old Lovey Dad or Grumpy Old Dad, depending on the day, was not something either of my parents had experienced. At least the old part. Both had lost their fathers early in their life. Here I was at forty-two years old spending the weekend taking pictures of him as we laughed and talked and ate way too much food for his congestive heart failure/diabetic diet. I really don’t think I ever took this for granted. We enjoyed the time we spent together.

Dad and the Ash

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A long time ago...

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This Leica intrigued the hell out of my dad. I don’t know what bizarre movie he watched where some kids trekked across Europe with a Leica, but ever since then he was completely enamored by the fact I had one. He had no idea how much the camera cost, or God forbid the lens. He just knew, “those damn things are expensive according to what I know.” He was used to seeing me with it. So he was at ease with that little expensive beast being with me at all times.

I was in fact determined to get some good images. An old town, slowly writing its new history and losing some old history with each passing year. A Czech ethnicity that is captured only in the museum, the food, the church, and the card game played at the local tavern. A window into a simpler life where people help each other. A tavern where everybody really does know your name. That describes the town that my father grew up in, lived in all of his life, and never had a desire to leave. Spillville, Iowa was as much a part of the identity of my father as my father was of Spillville. Images of the tavern, the card players, the Veterans Memorial Band Stand, his home and he himself, that is what would make up this project.


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The Czech Inn

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The guys playing cards...

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2017 had already turned out to be a tough year. Early during spring training we made a trek to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Mesa, Arizona for a Cubs game. My dad and I were there to see Cleveland play the Cubs for the first time since Game Seven of the 2016 World Series where the Cubs took the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Hats were purchased by all. The Cubs lost. But that doesn’t matter because we saw that game. Upon returning to Chicago from Arizona, my dad got in the car as my mom drove them home to Iowa, but he didn’t get home that day, instead they went straight to Gundersen Hospital in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, original home of G. Heileman Brewing Company and the Old Style Kreusening Warehouses.

I digress.

Dad was having an increasingly difficult time keeping fluid from building up. He was having high pulmonary pressure. He would be in the hospital again later that year. In the process of fighting the symptoms of congestive heart failure and diabetes through medicine and diet, he would lose a tremendous amount of weight and, worse yet, muscle tone. We were worried. He was having a really hard time getting around. The options had become very limited. Dialysis would be the next logical step in order to improve his quality of life. But he didn’t want that life sentence of three days a week reporting to a center and sitting for three to four hours. “I’m not doing that,” he said. And that seemed to be final.

Rough Spring

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But of course it wasn’t. Dad loved nothing more than spending time with Amy and me, playing cards, driving around, and puttering and tinkering with whatever lawn mower or project tripped his trigger. Additionally there seemed to be an endless amount of The Big Bang Theory to watch. And there were watermelon plants to grow every summer. So when it came time to make that decision, off to dialysis he went.

I was there the first day when we walked into Gundersen to have a dialysis treatment. None of us had any idea what to expect. Dad was very nervous. I was very nervous. But the experiences were becoming more intense. How long would my father last on dialysis? This wasn’t good. He was weak. I suppose in the back of my head I knew some day he would be gone but the company line here is that you can live a long, healthy life on dialysis. And damnit if that wasn’t going to happen. Of course it would. Forty-two years my dad had been around, he’ll be there. Right?

A week later I would return at Nick’s direction to do my “project.” Then, those photos would sit there and wait. They were sitting quietly in the memory cards of my Leica. Waiting. Again, I knew in the back of my head someday he would be gone, but that was someday. Everything will happen someday. We enjoyed that weekend.

50" Deck

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Late in January we made a quick trip home. My best friend’s mom had passed away and a memorial service was being held. When we left that Saturday evening, I hugged my dad. I told him I love him as I always did. I told him to take care of himself because we worry. His eyes had tears as they often did when I left for Chicago. Looking back, something didn’t seem right. I love you…and with that we honked the horn and drove away.

Someday is today.

February 4th my mother called me late in the day. “I have bad news. Your dad coded in Walmart, they are taking him to the hospital and are going to fly him to LaCrosse. This isn’t good Keith, come now.”

Someday is today. There is a moment you don’t easily forget.

I can’t believe the words. In suspended animation I packed my bags, taking direction from Amy on what to do, and drove to LaCrosse driving by the world’s largest six pack and arriving at the hospital at ten at night. My father was in the ICU. Machines administering medication, assisting him in breathing, and monitoring him. Dr. Al explained within minutes, “Keith, what your father is dealing with isn’t good. He coded nine times. We have him stabilized now, though.” Essentially, we would have a rough twenty-four hours but there was hope.

Hope. Hope is the best of things…right?

I sat and laid by my father’s side all night. Around 2 am I noticed fewer activations of the ventilator triggered by my father. Increased medication was needed to keep his blood pressure up. Morning brought the sunrise, new doctors, and nothing more.

Time of death 1:31p.m. With Mom, Amy, and me by his side.

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During the following week there were so many times I thought about those photos. My Leica cameras sitting at home nestled in their Fogg and Ona bags, memory cards sitting on my desk. Waiting. My father captured on the digital media through the highest quality lenses and the scientifically superior sensor. I was so pissed I didn’t have them with me. Photos. Sitting in their German made machine. Waiting. My father never having the opportunity to see the work I had completed on my “project.”

Why? I don’t get it. Because while August and September and maybe even some of October were rough…November, December, and January were just great months for Dad. He was happy. Lovey Old Dad was enjoying his life. He was eating again, talking to the ladies at dialysis. Tormenting the nurses during his appointments. Driving my mom nuts on occasion. Driving the Honda every day and the Volvo on “good days.” Why now? Why so quick? This is bull shit.

But there I was. Unfolding the pall at Dad’s funeral. A reclaimed barn wood casket rolling right in front of me falling into a glimmering vault on the cold, sunny, February day. Photos out of my reach. The crucifix handed to me by Fr. Robert Gross. That was it. It was over. Everyone went home.

Don’t get me wrong, people went out of their way to come and pay their respects. Martha from D.C., Mike from Des Moines, Aaron from Rochester. So many people from so many parts of the world were touched directly or indirectly by my dad. But in seven days everything had changed.

But what about these photographs? Frustrated I didn’t have them there, eternally grateful I had the assignment to take them, I returned to Chicago. To-do lists in hand. Goals. Busy life back in full swing. Tired. “Nick, let’s meet via Zoom on Tuesday night at 9:00.” There it was. A commitment. And only two weeks after Dad was gone, the the photos were on my hard drive.

Let’s face it, a lot of them were shit. But, then there was a one star, and a two star, and maybe even a three star. And the emotional connection to these photos, looking at them for the first time out of camera was like having my dad right in the room with me. So much of his everyday life was captured in just a few images.


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The Dryer

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The Farm

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What makes a moment stronger? Connection.

I am grateful I have the images I have of my dad. My Leica is my tool to connect. I had never realized that until the moment I downloaded these images. The images speak for themselves but on a deeply personal level it is about connection. It’s the raw emotion connected to making a manual image. My Leica makes me a far richer person just by using it. It enriches the moments I have because of the ease of connecting with the subjects of my life.

We should all live in the moment. And record the images of the moments we live.


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Robert F. "Bob" Sbiral April 18, 1942-February 5, 2018

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August 14, 2015

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Once upon a time there was a city manager who wanted to travel the world and record moments as he saw them...this is the story of that journey.
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