Robert Schoenhut: A Profile


He was a tall rawboned man with a gravely voice. He had a restless energy about him, an enthusiasm, so I asked him what he did. He told me he was a writer, working on his second novel. I asked him if I could read the manuscript, and a few weeks later he handed me the first hundred pages.

The story began on the flat plains of South Dakota, where a young Indian man was visiting a boyhood friend. Of mixed parentage, he had been born and raised on a reservation, but was now living amidst the cement canyons of Los Angeles, working in a bank as a loan officer, dreaming of becoming a successful photographer. “A good beginning,” I said to myself, and continued to read.

A week or so later, when I phoned the author in order to return the manuscript, he answered on a cell phone. Over a poor connection, he told me he was in the hospital, and something about being drained. He would be home in a few days. When we finally had a chance to talk again, it was in his eighth-story apartment on Northrup Street. Mainly, we discussed his novel, a story he playfully denied was based on his life, even while telling me that he was a photographer, and had worked as a loan officer in an LA bank.

Robert John “Holy Bear” Schoenhut was born on December 12, 1940, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North Dakota, of Lakota and German parents. His father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a job that entailed moving around the country, unwittingly planting a life of wanderlust into his son.
When Robert was 10 years old, the age when young Lakota men and women go on their first Vision Quest, the family settled in Portland. Bob attended Portsmouth Grade School, then Roosevelt High, where he pitched for the Rough Riders baseball team, and began to use a camera.

In 1961, Schoenhut joined the Marines. After basic training, he was sent to the U.S. Naval School of Photography, where he was trained in photo reconnaissance, making sense of pictures taken from above. This experience blossomed into a life-long passion for photography. Returning from the Far East, a civilian again, he tried his hand at several disparate jobs: steel worker, loan officer, Public Relations Specialist with General Motors….but his quest lay somewhere else.

Schoenhut’s next step was to enter the Brooks Institute of Photography, in Santa Barbara, CA., earning a BFA. Bethany Pearson, Brooks’ Alumni Relations Coordinator, wrote me: “What I know about Robert is from his file: Great student! Was nominated for and won the Alumni Association
Semester Scholarship. He graduated on 2/22/74 with a BA in Motion Picture. It asks on his application why he has chosen photography as a profession. His response: ‘To be happy in life is to be creative. I plan on creating through photography for the rest of my life.’" He parlayed this degree into a fellowship at the American Film Institute, from which he received an MFA.

For the next few years, he wrote and did camera work for KEYT-TV, ABC’s Santa Barbara affiliate. Then, in 1975, he moved back to L.A., to begin building what would be a distinguished career as a cameraman. He worked on TV shows such as “The Waltons,” “Knots Landing,” “The A-Team,” “Air Wolf,” “Quantum Leap,” “Dallas,” and “Ellen,” along with PBS specials such as “I’d Rather be Powwowing,” and “The Trial of Standing Bear.” In film, he was the lead camera operator for the buffalo hunting scene in the “Dances With Wolves,” which, along with winning the Oscar for Best Picture, also won for Best Cinematography.

In his novel, Holy Bear’s girlfriend also was a loan office at the bank, working a few desks away from him. She had been a promising actress, but refused the advances of producers, the so-called “casting couch,” just as Schoenhut detested the business of Hollywood movies. His protagonist drank too much, and slept with the owner of an art gallery in order to get a show of his work. In other words, he did what his girlfriend refused to do. It is if the author were analyzing various parts of himself and turning them inside-out. Thus, Schoenhut worked in the film industry only when he needed the money; then, flush, he would leave to travel and work on his own photography and writing, until his money ran out.

The mid-1990s found him in London, married to the costume designer Niki Lyons, working on documentaries throughout Europe, shooting fine art photographs, and writing screenplays. Back the USA, the failure of this third marriage was followed by years of drinking. All his life he had traveled extensively, never quite at home anywhere, in city or on reservation. Finally, as the century turned, he returned to Oregon, where he rented an apartment in Northwest Portland, settling down to write his second novel.

In the book, one weekend Holy Bear and his girlfriend go the Catalina. He’s apprehensive about the trip. Although loving each other, they weren’t yet lovers. He’s also worried about the expense, as he spends his money as fast as he can make it. She wants to go sailing, and, knowing how he is, rents the boat. After he makes a fool of himself at the rudder, which he takes lightly, she takes the wheel and expertly sends them on a wild ride over the ocean, showing a wild side of herself that takes him by surprise.

I learned that Schoenhut had for years been suffering from “a big heart,” with both ventricles pinching, and kidneys threatening to shut down. In the face of reassuring doctors, he suspected his end was near. Yet he told me he was enthusiastic about his future, determined to finish the novel and have it purchased for a film, so that he could get his finances straightened out. He was walking a lot, eating good food, entering a short story contest, and planning to have surgery on his throat.
On the morning of June 14, I saw a man and woman dressed in black pushing a gurney out the lobby door. On it was a long body covered with a blanket. The next day, to my dismay, I learned who it was.

About a week later, in Schoenhut’s apartment, I met his Portland boyhood friend, Archie Jamison, along with Julie Downs, his niece from Boise, ID., here to collect her uncle’s things, which included a suitcase full of carefully bundled and grouped photographs from around the world.
We spoke of his life, and I looked over the collection of books, from the Holy Bible, to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War ; from The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, to Legends and Lore of the American Indians…, ranging as wide as his journey from the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota to Hollywood’s manufactured glitter; from military photo reconnaissance specialist, to cinematographer, independent filmmaker, and writer.

Shortly before he passed away, Schoenhut wrote several letters to a friend in New Hampshire, where he had also lived, copies of which she sent to me. When I asked permission to quote an excerpt from one, she replied, “Bob specifically asked not to have a service and with that sentiment the family has asked that the excerpts not be used.” Which is not only a non sequitur, but experience tells me that, even in personal correspondence, a writer always has a larger audience in mind, especially after his death.

Sadly, in order to honor their request, this brief profile of Robert “Holy Bear” Schoenhut ends without a sample of his strong and insightful last words. However, I can tell you that the day we discussed his novel he told me: Further on, it becomes a story about ghosts.

©Joel Weishaus 2007
© Northwest Examiner 2007