FAIRFIELD – If you’ve ever seen a breathtaking photograph of Fairfield, or watched a video featuring one of the town’s festivals, there’s a good chance it was taken by Werner Elmker.
Elmker was born and raised in Denmark but has now spent most of his life in Fairfield since coming to the United States in 1985. He has become a fixture of the town, shooting video and still frames at Art Walk, concerts, awards ceremonies, and just about every other gathering under the sun. His main occupation is videographer, and he also makes money on photography and graphic design. But much of his work documenting Fairfield and its people he shares freely over email, social media and on YouTube.
For the past two years, Elmker has produced a few video series that have drawn critical acclaim around the state. In fact, three of Elmker’s productions are up for an Iowa Motion Picture Association award. One of them is a series of recordings that Elmker titled “Planet Fairfield: Great moments in a small town in Iowa,” which is nominated for Best Web Series.
Another one up for an award is a series on native fruits, which was nominated for Best Educational Production. The third video, up for the Best Documentary Award, is a class on edible plants taught by Kathy Dice at Jefferson County Park.
Elmker said this is the first year he’s submitted any of his work to the motion picture association.
“I thought, ‘Everybody else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?’” he said.
When the IMPA held its annual awards ceremony in Fairfield in 2019, Elmker produced a video of the event. The IMPA was planning to return to southeast Iowa for its awards ceremony this year – to Ottumwa – but coronavirus fears forced the organization to postpone the event from April to August. Werner will have to wait until then to find out if he’s taking home a trophy.
Whether in his car or on his bike, Elmker is always carrying a camera. It allows him to capture tender, impromptu moments like children playing at the farmers market or a bird gracefully flying over a pond.
In January 2018, Werner started editing the footage he took around town into 5-10 minute videos. Every month, Elmker releases another video on YouTube. Not only that, but he also supplies the background piano music on the videos. The music is mainly his own improvised compositions, but often he will improvise on a classical theme or a Beatles song. Thus far, Elmker has produced 26 videos in the “Planet Fairfield” series.
After Elmker had produced some videos, he just needed a name for his series. A friend suggested “Planet Fairfield,” and Werner liked the sound of that.
“One of the reasons I take photos and videos of Fairfield is that I like this little town a lot,” Elmker said. “And I keep hearing that a lot of people are moving to Fairfield because of my videos.”
Elmker said that his photo and video business is doing well, which allows him to do so much work for the community for free.
Elmker is in the final stages of producing a nine-video series on fruit for the Native Fruit Association. The three fruits featured are pawpaw, persimmon and aronia. For each fruit, Elmker is producing three videos: an introduction, one on how to produce and market the fruit, and one on how to handle and cook it. The project was funded by the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. The name of the series is “Introducing Iowans to Growing and Enjoying Persimmons, Pawpaws, and Aronia Berries.”
“I do everything behind the camera such as filming, editing and the graphics,” Elmker said.
Wild edible plants
Kathy Dice co-owns Red Fern Farms in Wapello, Iowa, and has been a wild edible plant enthusiast for 40 years. She’s led classes on the subject at Jefferson County Park in Fairfield. A few years ago, Dice came to Fairfield for one such class, and Elmker showed up with a video camera and microphone. He asked her if he could follow her around and record her talk because he was interested in the subject. After the class, Elmker went home, edited the video, added some graphics and uploaded it to YouTube. It now has a quarter million views. In this video, Elmker was involved in not just filming the subjects but in concept development, the video’s script, and its graphics. For instance, Elmker films Dice leading the class on edible plants, and then he finds images online to better illustrate her explanations. He also takes photographs of plants the day after her class to use as still images in the video, all of which heightens the film’s quality.
Later on, when Dice and other farmers were searching for a grant to produce videos on edible plants, she remembered Elmker and the great work he did. She asked him if he’d be interested in helping them produce another video. Elmker gave them a price quote, the farmers submitted the grant and it was approved.
“This was a big project,” Elmker said. “It was 3-400 hours of work.”
This project began 2.5 years ago, and Elmker hopes to be all finished with the video by June.
Another locally produced documentary is up for Best Documentary, too, and that’s Fair Field Production’s feature on agriculture in Jefferson County called “A Place to Grow.” Elmker had a hand in that film as well, lending his photography talents, and one of his shots became the film’s poster.
The Fairfield photographer
Elmker has been sharpening his musical and photography talents since he was 13 years old. He routinely plays piano concerts at the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield where listeners can hear his unique compositions.
“More and more, I go into my own improvisations,” he said. “I also arrange classical pieces, popular pieces and folk tunes. I emphasize improvisation in everything I do, in photography and music.”
Shortly after Facebook was started, Elmker created an account and began posting his photos on the social media website. Over time, Elmker built a following, and now his photos routinely receive 500-1,000 likes.
“It’s a little bit embarrassing to go down the street because everybody wants to thank me for the photos,” he said, remarking that the photos are frequently run in The Fairfield Ledger and Southeast Iowa Union. “I mainly do it because it’s fun. It’s a nice way to promote Fairfield, and make Fairfield people feel good about living here. Sometimes people don’t see the beauty we have. That’s why I’m always out on my bike, looking around to see what’s happening.”
Elmker’s talents have been recognized through the community, and that has earned him the position of official photographer for a litany of organizations such as Fairfield First Fridays Art Walk, the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, Maasdam Barns and more. On top of his exposure to the community through photographs, Elmker has built a library of 1,000 videos on YouTube, where he boasts 5,000 subscribers and about 1 million total views.
“People tell me they see me everywhere,” Elmker said. “It’s because I like the people of Fairfield very much.”