This past winter, I lost a friend. He had been a dedicated, long-standing student and a talented emerging photographer.

Surrounded by loved ones, Dr. Bruce Ambuel, 65, passed away from glioblastoma brain cancer on Jan. 10, 2018.

With homes in both Brookfield and Ephraim, the Ambuel family held Bruce’s memorial service a month following his death, close to their full-time residence in the Milwaukee area.

The sanctuary was filled to the brim. I was grateful to find a seat beside Bruce’s colleague, Carlyle Chan, a mutual friend, and also a student. He was a pillar of composure and a reminder of happier times when, they together, had been in my workshops in Door County.

The service was as lovely as they come. Bruce’s siblings, children and friends warmly recounted his personal life, a side of my quiet friend of which I had only heard snippets. I was deeply moved by the long list of contributions to his community, commitment to family, his love of travel and his lifelong romance with his beloved wife, Helen.

His life was the epitome of the adage; “It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count.”

Afterward, in the fellowship hall, through my tears, as I shared my condolences with the immediate family I discovered the entire room was filled with Bruce’s photographs.

Photographs, perfectly matted and framed, of his best work. I recognized each and every image, but in this setting, this vast exhibition took on a freshness and deeper meaning. They represented the man I was most familiar with. Without a word said, this showing of his photography added the final defining layer that exemplified a life well lived through his dedication of a creative pursuit.

I left the church profoundly moved.

Driving home in silence, I contemplated life, death and the importance of artistic legacy.


In life, Bruce fondly referred to me as his mentor. I found it a privilege in assisting him in navigating a journey into photography as a second career. He had taken almost a dozen of my workshops. During this time, he often turned to me for advice on making both fine art and documentary portfolios.

In death, the tables have turned; my friend has now become my mentor.

By example, the lessons are vast and cover much ground, but when it comes to my work, he has shone the light on the importance in being prepared for death, photographically. As Black Elk, the Omaha Chief, once professed, “Death will come, always out of season.”


Every creative person, not just professional artists, has an artistic legacy. It is important to identify your value as an enthusiastic hobbyist, a serious amateur or as an emerging artist in a second career.

Creativity is not necessarily defined by documented success, a loyal following or even sales. Those that have been dedicated in making works merit a creative legacy and the opportunity to receive the full measure of recognition they deserve, if not in life, in death.

This attitude in preservation also bridges to family photos, Smartphone shots and social media uploads. Every family or individual has a personal story told through pictures and this story greatly matters. Diligently preserving your visual history with the same gusto and approach will strengthen and build connections while creating an invaluable archive for future generations.


Leonardo da Vinci once said, “While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” This has never rung so true.

Bruce opened my eyes to see that life and death are not mutually exclusive—one serves the other. To facilitate this reciprocation, one needs not to fear the end but to embrace it with a rock solid plan.

Doing the legwork now can make the difference in how your art is remembered or, if left to chance, taking the risk of your work being completely lost and forgotten. The key is to leave clear instructions making it effortless for your heirs to access your life’s work.

Taking baby steps is the best approach. With a task of this complex nature, the first objective is to avoid becoming overwhelmed, which can become an insurmountable obstacle.

The healthiest approach is adopting the mindset of “stewarding” your work to eventually stand on its own without you at its side. Slowly preserving your legacy as a living artist by incorporating a practice of organizing your work on a schedule, which makes the task manageable.

As I catalog my past portfolios and organizing my digital storage, I’ve discovered that this intentional preparation for the end is also fueling my new projects, filling them with deeper meaning and a high-octane energy.

The ultimate goal is to leave your loved ones with an informed sense of your creative life while leaving behind a well-organized body of work that is easily accessed. Communication is as important in death as it is in life.


Photographs, when at their best, somehow capture the complete emotional mood of a moment. It’s when poetic alchemy occurs.

These are the images that tend to stay with us in our creative imaginations and have the most personal value because of the full experience. It’s why I love shooting in the early morning. Just being out before first light feels magical.

On one of these early morning outings with a winter workshop, Bruce pronounced to the group, as we lined up our tripods to capture first light, that I was a full-service operation—taking care of the mind, body and spirit of my students.

Standing next to him, I saw a sparkle in his eye that early morning. I knew immediately that I had a like-minded photographer at my side. As the years passed, Bruce was in my workshops more often than not.

Time is said to be our most valuable commodity and to live each day like it’s our last.

Bruce, taken too soon, seemed to be on an accelerated path concerning his photography. As if somehow he knew his time was limited. He has successfully left behind an artistic legacy of the highest quality made in a relatively short period of time.

Norbert Blei, the Door County poet, author and friend, who passed away in 2013, has scripted on his tombstone, “Find me in my Books.” I hope to one day say “Find me in my images.” For the majority of us, this is where Bruce can be found as well.

Thank you Bruce for teaching me so much in life and in death. You are missed, my friend. May you rest in peace.

Visit to download a checklist to begin preserving your artistic legacy and family photographic heirlooms, check out my

upcoming workshops and more.

Back to top