Bret Gustafson

A Visual Footprint

“It's one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like. It's another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” - Paul Caponigro, digital photographer 

For the last 31 years, Bret Gustafson, administrative photographer, has recorded the history of the institution we call Johnson County Community College. He retires May 31. 

Gustafson has shot everything. If you’ve attended a JCCC event in the last few decades, you probably heard the soft click of Bret’s camera shutter. But you may not have heard much else. At events, he was stealth, silently shooting images of history as they unraveled before us. 

Building dedications, guest speakers, plates of lamb chops, piles of snow, faces of determined athletes and towering works of art – they’ve all been the subjects of Gustafson’s visual compositions, as have most of the staff and faculty of JCCC. 

In a recent StoryCorps presentation, which aims to preserve some of the history of JCCC through videotaped interviews, Gustafson said he survived and thrived on the switch from darkroom to digital photography based on the training he received right where he worked. 

“The resources to stay up to date with your job that the college provides are pretty amazing,” Gustafson said. 

Gustafson went to college majoring in medical and scientific photography. He came to the Kansas City area from Ohio to take a position as photographer at the University of Kansas Medical Center

After a few years there, he interviewed at JCCC, got the job and began constructing a portfolio that blended functionality with artistry. 

“I never thought I’d be in Kansas City longer than five or 10 years,” Gustafson said. “I didn’t think I’d be here for 31 years, but you know, it’s probably one of the better decisions of my life to stay because this is a fun place to work and fun people to be with. And challenging, too. You have to learn to do so many different things.” 

Carl Heinrich, assistant dean, athletics, wrote of Gustafson, “Number one and foremost there is no one on this campus that puts in more hours and serves more departments than Bret. Words cannot describe the job Bret does…You cannot go anywhere on this campus and not see or enjoy a photo taken by him.” 

Julie Haas, associate vice president, marketing communications, agreed. “Any look at JCCC’s history will be based on Bret’s visual record of what took place here. He’s known and appreciated for his skill with portraits, his sports photos, his great shots of children, his ability to move unobtrusively in the background for candid shots and for his more abstract pieces.” 

Heinrich and Haas were two of the four colleagues who nominated Gustafson for the college’s Bob Frizzell Award, which recognizes the employee who best exemplifies service and helpfulness at JCCC. 

Gustafson received the award at a recognition ceremony May 4. (For additional comments from coworkers, along with more of Gustafson’s photographs, check out this blog entry.) 

Gustafson said, “This position [of photographer] provides the welcome mat to college. People look at a brochure, or even online now, and an image can make a person feel at ease…I think it’s pretty important.” 

He said he hopes people remember his solid work ethic and his dedication to the college. 

“I hope that they feel that I’ve done my job, and I’ve done it well. I’d rather go out on a high point, and let someone else come in than stay too long and have everyone wish I’d get the heck out,” he said in his typical dry humor. 

“I do have the advantage of having left a visual footprint that even years down the road will still be there,” he said. 

It’s a visual, emotional and historical legacy, made by one man and 31 years of a creative life.