by Jill Ragar Esfeld
MARYSVILLE — As a little boy growing up in Peru, Dr. Fernando Ugarte had only one wish: to own a camera.
Many years later, after attending medical school in Chicago and during his residency in upstate New York, he finally got his wish.
Today, almost 40 years later, Fernando, a member of St. Gregory Parish in Marysville, is still a practicing surgeon. And also a gifted photographer. When traveling, it’s not unusual for him to take as many as 5,000 photographs in a week.
What may be unusual is that most of Fernando’s photographs are taken inside Catholic churches.
A dream come true
“We always do in adult life what we dream to do as children,” Fernando said. “When I was a little kid in Lima, all the American tourists were recognized because of their cameras.”
“I didn’t envy them,” he said, “but I always thought, ‘How would it be to have a camera? What would it do to me? They must be good things to have.’”
When he was in training to become a surgeon, Fernando noticed all the surgeons used Instamatic cameras to document their cases.
“I got an Instamatic to photograph my cases,” he recalled. “And that was the beginning.”
It didn’t take long before Fernando bought a better camera and began taking photographs for his own pleasure.
“And they were lousy,” he confessed. “They were blurry or the color wasn’t right. But pretty soon I started to realize what makes a picture work.”
In a word, Fernando was hooked.
Eventually, he returned to Peru where he met his wife Nina. They married in 1976 and moved back to Chicago, where Fernando practiced until he got an offer to be a full-time surgeon for a hospital in Marysville.
“I told my wife, ‘We’ll move there for two years and then we’ll go somewhere else,’” he said. “Well, that was in ’92, and I’m still here.”
Fernando found that small-town ways were a perfect fit for his old-fashioned approach to medicine.
“My life changed for the better,” he said. “Because I’m old-fashioned, I don’t depend on [technology].
“I depend on my knowledge, my common sense, my physical exam.”
“He has a big heart,” explained Nina. “This is why we live in a very small town — because he likes to have the relationship with the patient.
“He doesn’t have a practice like the doctors in big cities. He doesn’t want to rush himself, and he treats his patients like his own children. He’s a very good surgeon.”
Nina at one time taught Spanish at Kansas State University in Manhattan, but she now teaches part time at Highland Community College and substitutes in the local school district.
She said small-town living enables them to enjoy their personal life more and gives them more time to pursue their mutual passion — travel.
“We have family all over,” she said. “My mom still lives in Peru, my brother lives in Spain, and we have a lot of cousins and relatives in the whole world.
“That means we are always traveling.”
When the Ugartes travel, they enjoy visiting different Catholic churches.
“Because they are so beautiful, you can’t imagine,” said Nina. “In Italy, Germany, France — whatever country — they are beautiful.”
The perfect subject
Many years ago, Fernando started photographing the churches they visited.
“I can take pictures of flowers. I can take pictures of people; I can take pictures of everything — and I do,” he explained. “But I realized that you cannot be good at everything.”
Because they enjoyed visiting churches and were certain to go to Mass at least once a week, it made sense to Fernando to concentrate on becoming good at photographing Catholic churches.
He succeeded beyond anything he imagined possible, and it wasn’t long before his efforts became even more focused.
“I photographed the outside, the inside, the images, the altar,” he said. “And then, I started taking pictures of the Stations of the Cross.”
“They all vary,” he explained. “Some are round, some are square, some are oval. The writing varies, the color varies.
“I like to photograph all 14 Stations and then each [one] close up. I get the detail and then I try to focus on just the image.”
Fernando also researches the history of each church and its collection of Stations. He has photographed Stations all over the world and has thousands of pictures in his collections. He’s created four books of his Station photographs as gifts for Catholic friends.
“I could talk about the Stations forever, because I do have a huge collection and there are some that are quite unique,” he said. “There are some that are beautiful.”
His favorite of the 14 Stations is the sixth: Veronica wiping the face of Jesus.
“Because you can see the face in some of them,” he said, “it is like a painting in a little piece of the Station.”
His wife’s favorite is the crucifixion.
“All of [the Stations] are beautiful,” she said. “But the one that always impresses me most is Christ on the cross dying. It is the saddest, but it is my favorite.”
Though Nina admires her husband’s photographs, she is unenthused when it comes to his process.
“My wife frowns every time I go to a church,” Fernando said. “She thinks when you take a picture, you go there once and ‘pop’ and it’s done.”
“When he travels by himself, he can stay in church the whole day,” she said. “But if we travel together, I really count his time — otherwise, we are going to be only in churches.”
“I tell my wife this is pretty innocent what I do,” said Fernando. “Maybe it is an obsession.
“But it’s not a bad obsession.”
Fernando started his “obsession” using film photography. When digital hit the market, he refused to buy into it.
“I hated digital with passion,” he said. “I always took slides.”
“He thought he was not going to like it because he thought he was too old to learn something new,” said his wife.
But then tragedy entered Fernando’s life . . . and brought with it opportunity. “In 2005, I had a brain aneurism,” said Nina. “It was a horrible experience.” Nina collapsed while working at K-State one day and was rushed to the hospital.
“When they called Fernando from the emergency room, the radiologist told him he would be saying goodbye to me,” she said, “because they thought I was not going to survive.”
Though hospitalized and unconscious for several weeks, Nina did survive and made a miraculous recovery. Her brother came from Spain to visit her once she was home. He happened to bring along his digital camera.
“He had a little digital camera in his pocket,” said Fernando. “He had gone around the world taking pictures, and they looked pretty good.”
At one point during the visit, Fernando and his brother-in-law were at a Wal-Mart, where they saw a digital camera on sale for $70.
“In my opinion, for me it was cheap,” Fernando recalled. “My brother-in-law says, ‘Why don’t you buy that camera and test it? If you don’t like it, it’s only $70, so you haven’t lost much.’ So I said, ‘Yes,’ and I did.”
Fernando was impressed with the quality of the pictures.
“Not only that, but I could take a lot of them,” he said. “I could just continue taking pictures without having to change film anymore.
“Every time I traveled — for instance, when I used to go to Spain — I would take 100 rolls of film.”
No longer. Fernando was sold on digital.
“So I bought a Nikon and then I bought another Nikon and another Nikon,” he said. “And I have now, six digital Nikon cameras.”
Along with the switch to digital photography came an appreciation for technology. Fernando may be old-fashioned in his medical practice, but when it comes to photography, he enjoys working with graphics editing programs.
“With pictures, I have become kind of sophisticated,” he said. “Once I have them, I have the patience to go one by one and I proof them and modify them.”
Picture a prayer
Fernando claims photography makes him a better person.
“When I am under stress, when I have a difficult problem or I have a week of very hard work in my practice, I photograph a church,” he said. “I concentrate on the Stations, and it is a relief for me.”
Though a devout Catholic, Fernando claims he is not an overly religious person. Yet, when he talks about getting up at dawn and driving hours to photograph a church, it’s clear the process is his prayer.
“Always, when I’m taking the trip, I say, ‘This is nonsense! Why would I drive three hours on a Saturday at four in the morning?’” he said.
“But once I get there, my whole attitude changes,” Fernando continued. “I feel the Station.
“It’s something in my heart. I can’t convey to you. But I look at it and I say, ‘What a feeling!’”