Cover Feature

Getting the Shot: Bonnie Launtenberg on a Lifetime of Art

Photo courtesy of Michael Paniccia

Photographer. Political Spouse. Businesswoman. Activist. Artist. Bonnie Lautenberg has held a number of roles in her career, and she continues to pursue new horizons in her work as an artist.

The arts were always important to the Long Island, New York, native who also spent years living in New Jersey before moving back to New York City after her first husband passed away.

“My father was a collector of the Ash Can School of Artists and my mother was a dancer and did the choreography for many of the PTA and synagogue shows and we always went to all of her performances,” Lautenberg said. “The lights and glamour of it all influenced me. I wanted to be on stage so I pursued an acting career but it was hard to continue once I had two young children.”

She did have some small parts as an actress, doing TV commercials, industrial films and a role as a pregnant woman in the film “Next Stop, Greenwich Village.” She was then pregnant, but they wanted her to be very pregnant so they enlarged her belly for the film shoot.

An avid photographer of her own children, using a simple point-and-shoot camera, a woman on the movie set introduced Lautenberg to Erika Stone, a photojournalist for Time and Der Spiegel, a specialist in photographing children and a member of the New York Photo League. Stone’s work is included in the National Gallery of Canada, the Center for Creative Photography and the New York Historical Society Museum and Library.

“Erika really taught me how to take good pictures with her Nikon camera as compared to my point-and-shoot,” Lautenberg said, “But it wasn’t until I saw my sister’s new Canon camera that I decided to upgrade and buy a serious Canon camera.  I quickly registered to take classes at  the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City. l also started taking photography trips with professional photographers. My first trip was a trip to Turkey with Arlene Collins, a teacher at ICP.”

Lautenberg began traveling around the world with many interesting teachers, photographing people, landscapes, communities and architecture.

“I went to Antarctica with Seth Resnick and John Paul Caponigro whose goal is to get the photographer in touch with themselves so they can take their photography to a higher level,” she recalled. “We would photograph all day and critique in the evenings, learning as we analyzed each photograph discussed.  My photographs of the incredible ice sculptures were amazing as I captured these magical forms while moving about in our zodiacs. India, with the Guggenheim Museum, was filled with color and people dressed in colorful saris, cows in the streets and fabulous architecture. When I brought my film in to be developed, the film lab raved about my photographs. ‘How long were you in India to get this fantastic body of work?’ I was quite flattered!”

Closer to home, Lautenberg photographed the Israel-Palestinian Peace Accord at the White House in 1993 with President Bill Clinton, Chairman Yassir Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Another lab told me my photographs were as good or better than many of the professional photographers,” she said. “I started thinking maybe I have some talent.”

Meanwhile, Lautenberg was studying the technical side of the art. Learning to use tripods, lighting and different lenses all added to her magical results. One of her most interesting classes, she continued, was a week in downtown New York City taking classes with Jay Meisel, a teacher whose home was a former bank.

“He really taught me how to see through the lens,” she said. “He was a fabulous teacher and a beautiful street photographer.” So, she continued her global travels.

“Vietnam was all about the sensitive, beautiful people and the famous places we only heard about during the Vietnam War, beautiful bodies of water and memorable caves that were stunningly lit,” she said. “Photographing Israel from a helicopter gave a different perspective than photographing this tiny country from the ground.”

Through all this travel and study, Lautenberg earned a degree from New York University in broadcast journalism but ended up going to work with her dad in his real estate business, giving her a solid background in business that has continued to serve her well. The degree did come in handy, however, when she made speeches while married to Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and later, as his widow, when she gave speeches on the Toxic Chemical Bill she worked on for three years with Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and David Vitter (R-LA). It also helped her writing skills for the book about her husband that will be published next October.

Her years with Senator Lautenberg were hugely rewarding, exciting and satisfying on so many levels, she recalled. After a 16-year courtship, they married in 2004.

During her life with him, she created the project “How They Changed Our Lives: Senators As Working People,” which is now online in perpetuity in the Library of Congress. Senator Lautenberg was a prolific lawmaker, including the law that banned smoking on U.S. domestic flights and the National Minimum Legal Drinking Act, which set the age at 21.

She was curious as to what the other Senators accomplished, so she asked them all to be part of this project and got all 100 Senators of the 109th Congress to participate, with their offices contributing quotes to her in-office portraits. She photographed Senator Barack Obama days before his election as President of the United States. That photo is in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and in the Newark Museum in New Jersey.

The Senator was also responsible for them going to see Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall in January of 2010 where Lady Gaga allowed her audience members to photograph her and that was the beginning of a series Lautenberg did called “Pop Rocks.” She also photographed Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. She has been exhibiting and showing these photographs ever since.

After doing photography for so many years and enjoying the Senate project immensely, in 2018 she created a new project called “Artistica! Where Hollywood Meets Art History.” This project juxtaposes a film still and a painting done in the same year and asks the question, how did one art form influence the other? This project has been hugely successful, not just by selling many prints of this work but also by having a solo exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum in Boca Raton, Florida in 2022.

A friend, Anthony Grant, was following her on Instagram and complimented her on posts of these works with words like “fantastic,” “fabulous” and “I love this!” When she read, “I Love This,” Lautenberg called him and asked him if he knew anyone at the Boca Raton Museum. As luck and fate would have it, Grant knew Chief Curator Kathleen Goncharov.

Goncharov loved the prints Grant forwarded her and saw that they would complement a planned exhibition on “Hand Painted Hollywood.” She and the museum director, Irvin Lippman, came to see Lautenberg’s work in person at her Florida apartment and offered her a show. The six-month show was critically acclaimed and highly regarded by museum visitors.

Her life as an active political spouse ended with Senator Lautenberg’s death in 2013, though she continues to attend alumni events. However, her role as an activist continues, as she supports causes and candidates. During the pandemic, for example, a series of her work, “Even Lady Liberty Lost Some of Her Freedom, 2020” was posted on the website of the Art for Biden auction catalog, and The David Benrimon Fine Art Gallery asked if she was interested in participating in its “Rethinking America” exhibition. Soon, Bonnie Lautenberg was exhibiting alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Robert Longo and Deborah Kass. 

“It was so cool that they wanted me in the show,” she said. The New York Historical Society also featured this piece in its exhibition of artwork made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The image of Lady Liberty also reappeared in her work after the U. S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned the 50-year-old Roe V. Wade ruling permitting abortion. This time, Lautenberg depicted the statue with tears on her face, and “ROE” printed on all points of her crown, calling the image “Tears of Roe.” She used this piece to support women’s reproductive rights and donated 100 pieces to pro-choice candidates.

“Women wanted this piece and wanted their daughters and granddaughters to have one as a reminder for 50 years women had the right to make their own decisions about their   pregnancies and their bodies,” she said.

Most recently, she has taken on gun safety, working with former U. S. Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ, and a survivor of gun violence) on “Guns Kill” with images of the Statue against a backdrop of automatic weapons. The image was displayed at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU this past year which closed on May 14. Lautenberg did an event with Giffords at the museum to raise money for the Giffords Law Center, her organization to help stop gun violence. Lautenberg’s activism will continue.

“I feel really good about being able to give back to help,” she said. “I’m not finished with this at all.”

In addition, Lautenberg supports various philanthropic causes, including the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF), in honor of her mother, who suffered from the disease. She was the honoree at the Palm Beach, Florida event for ADDF in March and the event raised the most money they ever raised in Palm Beach. “This is hugely important because as people get older, more people are suffering from Alzheimer’s and other Dementia related illnesses,” she noted.

Today, Lautenberg’s work is now in private and nine museum collections, including The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, The New York Historical Society, The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, The Newark Museum of Art and The Portland Museum of Art, among others. Most recently, the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU kicked off Art Basel Season in Miami Beach with “Lady Liberty: A Bonnie Lautenberg Retrospective,” a solo showing of two decades of Lautenberg’s work including photographs and conceptual art that ran from November 15 through May 14.

It’s a heady achievement, especially at a time when just about anyone with a cell phone can consider themselves a photographer.

“It’s hard for photographers and artists to make a living, there are so many of us,” Lautenberg said. “I feel very lucky that I’ve had this opportunity to have three solo shows in a year. I’m very grateful and very lucky — it’s a lot of fun but a lot of work.”