You may not recognize Kyle Lehman’s name, but you’ve seen his work.
The photographer from Eau Claire has done photography for many area businesses: The Lismore, Dive, ECDC, Blue Ox Music Festival, The Plus and Ambient Inks, among others. He’s currently working for Draft Design House to do marketing for Just Local Food’s “Let’s Grow Together” campaign.
Kyle Culver, who works alongside Lehman at Draft Design House, said Lehman has done some incredible work over the last five years.
“Sometimes it gets lost in translation because he’s behind the lens,” Culver said. “He’s not the one giving speeches, but his work is everywhere.”
In addition to his work in the community, Lehman said he has been the photographer on national tours with bands such as The Wrecks and All Time Low. The 23-year-old has traveled to 48 states and mentors up-and-coming photographers from around the country by connecting with them via his Instagram account.
Most recently, Lehman was offered to join the band The Wrecks on their international tour at the end of May. But the photographer, who just a few months ago thought touring was his dream, had a change of heart. Despite his love of the job, he turned the band down.
“It was kind of this realization that touring is really fun but it’s also extremely selfish, not only to my fiancee but also to my community, which I’m trying to become a leader in,” Lehman said.
Lehman proposed to his then-girlfriend in December. Since then, he’s started to think he might be more of an asset to the city of Eau Claire if he stayed than if he left.
Now, Lehman is working full time for Draft Design House and running for Just Local Food’s board of directors. If he doesn’t get that, he’s hoping to join Downtown Eau Claire, Inc. or another board — whatever it takes to be more involved.
“There was a time period where those who had the money and right last names were controlling (Eau Claire), but they are retiring and it’s opening up a world of possibility for people like me,” Lehman said. “And if it’s not me, who else? I’m willing to take on that responsibility to benefit and help the community.”
Lehman sees potential for a future here: Not just for him but for his family and, more than that, any creative person with ideas they want to pursue. Because the city is not too large, there is room to pursue business endeavors without everyone else already having done it, he said, but it’s big enough that there are always people willing to help.
Culver, 26, thinks it is that kind of thinking the city needs more of. A North High School graduate, Culver has seen many of his friends and young people move out of the city when something better comes along.
As part of Creative Economy Week (which runs through Saturday), Culver said it is great the community has fostered a place where creatives can thrive, but he thinks some of the programs need to be more geared toward middle and high school students.
“The creative economy is really great, but I don’t think we are focusing on what should be a huge component of that: the younger generations getting involved in the creation of these events,” Culver said. “If we don’t have kids stick around in this community, we won’t have much left.”
Culver hopes to work more with that age population in the future through volunteering with the schools and getting kids out into the community so they can see what’s happening, because that’s all it took for him.
“Ten years ago when I was in high school, Phoenix Park wasn’t a thing, none of the major developments were a thing,” he said. “To see tangible growth makes it really easy to stick around.”
Lehman sees himself and his fiancee building a life here, and has ideas of how to make Eau Claire even better. Because, he thinks, there are still things missing in the city, especially its music scene.
Building a scene
Working with Justin Green, owner of Eau Claire’s Toy Car Studios, the two talked about the lack of funding for musicians.
“What gets me really excited about working with Kyle (Lehman) is most conversations I have with people are about what has happened here in the way of Justin Vernon’s success,” Green said. “For us, the conversation is always, what’s next? Where are we going after this?”
Green, who moved from Austin, Texas, to open the recording studio, said he doesn’t see musicians being paid a fair wage for their time playing in area restaurants and bars.
Lehman added listeners need to be willing to pay to attend shows — as anyone in a big city would have to do. That, he thinks, would help to change the music scene from something good to something sustainable.
“The pinnacle of success does not mean winning a Grammy,” Lehman said. “The pinnacle of success, because it’s all taste, is being able to do what you love to do. If we have a local musician who plays jazz every single night, but makes a great living, has a comfortable life and enjoys it, that’s what Eau Claire’s music scene should be built on.”
Lehman, who has seen that success in big cities, thinks he can help fill that gap, helping the city’s residents thrive in their creative passion.
He recently took on another endeavor: Writing a book about his experiences.
“I want to take all that information I’ve learned from traveling, bringing that back to this community and giving them every piece of knowledge I’ve ever learned so we can build a scene, build a community,” Lehman said. “Because I want to live here, but I also don’t want to see crappy shows. I want to spend the rest of my life here. We absolutely love it here.”
The book will also include the realities of touring with bands, which he said isn’t as glamorous as people might think. His goal is to publish it inJanuary.
Culver thinks Lehman can be a great example for the community.
“He’s really solidified himself as an entrepreneur on the creative side, which can be kind of hard to do around here,” Culver said. “Not only that, but for him to be a proprietor of all good things in Eau Claire. You don’t see that drive from a lot of people, and it’s people like him who are really advancing our community forward.”
Knowing his stuff
Lehman has been doing photography since he was in high school. And though he has pursued portrait and wedding photography, it’s his band photos he is known for.
Ask Aaron Kelley of Bloomer, a band member of The Wrecks, who said Lehman has gone on three tours with the group.
“He’s pretty much like the other band member,” Kelley said. “Any time we tour and need a photographer, it’s Kyle (Lehman).”
Before Kelley joined the nationally known band, he was a member alongside Culver of The Last Semester, a group that formed while Kelley was in college at UW-Stout.
Kelley said he’s always been impressed with Lehman’s photography skills and thinks the rest of the band would agree.
He recalled a time recently when the group was taking photos without Lehman and using an app on their phone to filter them.
“Someone said, ‘When Kyle’s with us, he doesn’t have to do this,’” Kelley said. “He literally captures everything in the moment and makes it look so bad ass. He’s such a great photographer. He gets everything right.”
And he’s always willing to help out, Kelley added, pointing out Lehman’s hobby of seeking out budding photographers.
The photographer has created a following on Instagram, and he uses that to mentor people on a national level.
When out on tour, he will post a call to his Instagram for photographers in the area to join him for one night, and he will give them tips on where and when to shoot.
“I bring a kid to the photo pit and teach them, give them advice, tips and tricks and then I get to see them grow (via social media) as artists,” Lehman said.
Locally, he also works with bands when he is in town. Lehman said he has been asked to trade a six-pack of beer with a band from UW-Eau Claire to take their photos.
“I said, ‘make it a four-pack of Brewing Projekt and we’ll call it good,’” Lehman said. “That’s what we did, and it was an amazing experience we had.”
He hopes that idea, that trade in the form of pay, can also catch on if up-and-coming musicians don’t have funds to spare.
Making EC home
There’s an idea that has been floating around since Thrillist published an article in July titled “This Small Midwestern Town is the Mini-Portland of Your Dreams.”
While Lehman said he appreciates the coverage, he thinks it’s changed the city’s view on itself.
Instead of promoting who they are, certain restaurants and businesses are borrowing the creative talent of people from outside the area instead of pulling from the talented pool of people living in the community.
“ I want people to realize Eau Claire is its own place, has its own characteristics and is nothing like Portland,” he said.
Through his work with Just Local Food, for now, and eventually maybe on a wider level, Lehman hopes to be among those changing that view.
In addition to helping Just Local’s campaign and running for the organization’s board of directors, he has his sights set a little higher.
“There’s more things I would like to do, even on a state level,” Lehman said. “I think Eau Claire provides a place for me to be educated enough about the economy and the state so I can take it and go on to something bigger.”
At the same time, he hopes his book and insight from having “seen it elsewhere” can help Eau Claire move forward as its own entity. With its small town charm and big city opportunities, he thinks its the perfect place to create his life — and help others do the same.
“You have to become a creator of your industry, essentially, and I want to do that,” Lehman said. “I want to be able to inspire and kind of create a standard for the city.”
Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, firstname.lastname@example.org, @KatherineMacek on Twitter