It has been said for years that a photo is worth a thousand words. If this is true, then university photographers Robert Barclay and Peggy Brisbane have written a full-length encyclopedia during their years at Central Michigan University.
The husband and wife duo got their start in Mount Pleasant in 1980 when Barclay was first hired at the university and was followed to the same office by Brisbane in 1985. The two have witnessed almost everything at the university, but this fall, for the first time in more than 30 years, they will not spend their days documenting the campus. Robert and Peggy are retiring.
“We have always felt that we are very lucky to both have jobs here at the university because we know there aren’t many photography jobs out there,” Brisbane said. “We have felt very fortunate to have all these photography jobs over the years. Being at the university has been interesting, and we have met at photographed many interesting people.”
Barclay and Brisbane first met at Brooks Institute of Photography, a for-profit college of about 700 in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“I was drying prints and she was washing her prints back way before the digital age,” Barclay said. “We just started chatting because we were outside the dark room waiting. She said she was from Oregon and I talked about how I had hitchhiked through Oregon before.”
From there, the two ended up getting married and starting their careers as photographers.
“When I graduated, I thought I would work for a newspaper because I had a part-time newspaper job, but then the University of Southern California advertised for a photographer to do everything that happens on a college campus,” he said.
Robert worked at USC for 14 months and shot two football seasons, but Brisbane didn’t like Los Angeles and had always wanted to work for the Smithsonian. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Barclay found work and she got a job at the Smithsonian.
Soon, the commute and price of living in the D.C. area started to wear on the couple. Barclay had enjoyed working as a university photographer and started to look for a job in a smaller town. Eventually, he came across a job listing for CMU.
“CMU advertised nationally in Editor and Publisher magazine,” Barclay said. “I wasn’t familiar with the school, so I looked it up. I had this idea of a midwestern college town, which it is, and sent my portfolio in. Then I got an interview and ended up with the job.”
When the two moved to Mount Pleasant in 1980, they had a two-year-old son, so Brisbane worked part-time at a community newspaper and at The Morning Sun. In 1982, she started to teach photography and journalism classes and eventually joined the Public Relations office in 1985.
Over the next 30 years, Barclay and Brisbane got to experience many moments and watched the campus grow.
“We have witnessed all the high points of the university. We aren’t sent to photograph a class where everyone is struggling, we see the best faculty and the brightest students,” she said. “Just think of all the buildings we have seen built since we came. We’ve seen the IET, the Student Activity Center, the Music Building, the revamping of the library, Dow Science, Education, Health Professions and Med School built during our time. Half of campus has been built while we have been here. Every one of those, we would do the ground breaking, the construction, the ribbon cutting and the buildings in use. If you think of what campus looked like in 1980 compared to what it looks like now, we were the photographers of documentation for all that expansion.”
They have also captured and experienced many interpretational and famous moments on campus.
“We were both here in 1987 when, during men’s basketball games, they would throw toilet paper into the air after the first Central basket. Thousands of rools went flying through the air and that made national news,” Barclay remembers. “Peggy’s version (photo) got put in People Magazine across two whole pages. It got a lot of positive attention on a national scale. It was a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Robert and Peggy have also met many famous and interesting people during their time her at CMU. They have been up close and personal with everyone from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Maya Angelou, from Jane Goodall to Colin Powell.
“That’s part of the reason we got into photography,” Barclay said. “We wanted to have the chance to get up close and personal with the big world such as music, art, theater and athletics.”
Barclay and Brisbane have witnessed and captured history at CMU, but they have also left their mark on the campus.
When the renovated Events Center was being planned, it became apparent a mural was going to be made out of a collage of noted photos around campus — photos taken by the husband and wife duo.
“I would say the murals in McGurik are 90 percent our photos,” Brisbane said. “It’s very gratifying to have something like that on such a big display. It is fun because our work is used. We are lucky that there is evidence of our work all over campus.”
Barclay was also involved in leaving a different mark inside the Events Center. While photographing his first commencement, he captured speaker Dick Enberg giving a student a thumbs up. More than 30 years later, a bust was made of Enberg — a CMU alum and legendary sportscaster– giving a thumbs-up and placed in the entrance of the Events Center.
“I thought he must have done it a lot,” Barclay said. “He was explaining to a group on campus when they unveiled the bust that the bust was based on a photograph at commencement in 1980. I told him I shot the photo and he told me to send him 10 more copies. And he sent back a signed photo that said, ‘Oh my, and thanks!’
“I had no idea the thumbs up was based off my photograph. That was the beginning of my time here and close to the end. What a great, small way to leave a mark.”
The most important part of their time at CMU has been creating relationships with the people around them.
“You meet people from biology, theater, dance, athletics and business. Over the years you build up friendly, professional relationships with virtually everybody. Some of the Board of Trustees had been on the board for 10 to 15 years,” Barclay said. “Roger Kesseler knows me by name, I’ve met his kids before. You build up friendly relationships with people like that.”
Though they haven’t made official plans for after retirement, Brisbane said she will have more time to water plants and quilt, while Barclay will have more time to listen to music and prepare for his weekly radio show, “The Juke Joint.”
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Brisbane said. “We live a few blocks off campus and we aren’t moving. We are part of the community, so we will still see people. That’s the nice thing. It doesn’t feel like a real hard end. We will be retiring, but we will still be connected.”
After Robert and Peggy retire, they will be replaced by CMU alum Steve Jessmore, who taught journalism at the university and has a long history of newspaper work.