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Solitaire with pictures

John Menapace reflects on his life as a photographer

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On Sunday, Sept. 3, the North Carolina Museum of Art will launch Contemporary North Carolina Photography from the Museum's Collection, a show of work by 10 North Carolina photographers. Though the first photograph entered the NCMA's collection in 1974, the museum only recently began actively acquiring photographs, in 2003 under the aegis of Linda Johnson Dougherty and then-curator Huston Paschal, who focused initially on works by North Carolina photographers.

Fellow photographer David Simonton has called John Menapace "the father of art photography in North Carolina." Through his lifelong involvement with the medium, his quiet presence and exacting standards have gathered an active community around him.

Now 78 years old, Menapace reflects on the history of photography as he has experienced it since his arrival in North Carolina in the mid-1950s. "One might consider one aspect of what I've done over the years as an interminable series of games of solitaire with my photographs as cards," Menapace observes, his intent blue eyes piercing through round wire-rim frames from under the brim of his ever-present jaunty cap.

He sits in a director's chair in the living room of his Chapel Hill home, a cozy cottage-like house on a hillside, accessible by a dozen steep steps. Bookshelves fill the room, brimming with books of all types. Sybil, a cat with tortoise-shell markings, curls up on a book on Eugene Atget, which is stacked on top of archival boxes on a chair.

Books were essential to Menapace during his early years in North Carolina because of the dearth of photographic activity here in the late '50s and early '60s. "There was really very little going on," he says. "People got together to look at each other's vacation pictures, and there was a camera club connected with the Arts Council in Durham that was not very enterprising." He was already deeply involved in the world of books through his job as designer and production manager at Duke University Press, which had lured Menapace from New York City to the South.

"Books were something that really gave me a sense of possibilities--monographs and show catalogs," he says. "On the technical side, for example, I made Ansel Adams' basic photographic series a kind of textbook on practice." Walker Evans' and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a touchstone for Menapace, as were the works of late 19th- and early 20th-century German photographers Karl Blossfeldt and August Sander. "One book that got to be particularly appealing to me was Lee Friedlander's Self-Portrait. He gave me a lot to think about. The way he would fill a frame as one might pack a box of objects that are apparently unrelated but simply seen together."

The short-lived but deeply influential Black Mountain College near Asheville provided an important point of connection for Menapace and poet/photographer Jonathan Williams, who founded Jargon Society Press, which published books of poetry and art by some of the college's leading lights for many decades after it closed. "[Williams] had come to Black Mountain College partly because I think [photographers] Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind were doing a summer session there. While there, Williams became enmeshed in the making of poetry, but he continued his taste for photography and photographers," Menapace says.

Throughout the '60s, Menapace taught himself the craft and "wandered about looking at other people's work," scouting exhibitions wherever he could. He saw a traveling show in Wilson hosted by Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) of the work of Eugene Atget, the late 19th- and early 20th-century French photographer known for his Paris cityscapes. Atget's work had long been a source of fascination. Having studied Atget's chronology, Menapace discovered that the photographs he responds to most were created in the last years of the master's life, when freedom from financial constraints and from concerns about what was marketable enabled the artist to make work Menapace considers of "a more personal character."

The idea of making photographs for oneself resonates with Menapace. "I'm a very solipsistic photographer," he insists. "I work for myself. I've occasionally sold, published--but this was just the icing, not the cake--that's not what I worked for."

In the 1970s, things began to pick up: From time to time Menapace participated in group exhibitions at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. In 1973, a photography gallery called The Light Factory opened in Charlotte, providing another important venue for viewing art photography in the state.

Menapace taught a couple of summer classes at UNC-Chapel Hill and taught a course at Penland. Though he presented all kinds of work to his students, his own work firmly embraces "straight photography," that is, work that is relatively un-manipulated.

It was in 1971 while Menapace was teaching a course in photography at Duke that students Caroline Vaughan and Robert Roscow came to him with the idea of founding Latent Image, a photographic publication that would center on the university community.

"Untitled" 1976, a gelatin-silver print, 6 3/16 in. x 6 3/16 in. - PHOTO BY JOHN MENAPACE
  • Photo by John Menapace
  • "Untitled" 1976, a gelatin-silver print, 6 3/16 in. x 6 3/16 in.

"One of the things we were very uncertain about was where these photographers might be," says Menapace. To draw them out, he organized a workshop with famed photographer Minor White, a contemporary of Ansel Adams. "He came down and for three days, he taught us something about how to look at photographs. It was illuminating. He would show us a slide and talk about some aspect of it and put us through little exercises in response to the image, which might involve drawing on butcher paper or writing something or moving or what have you. It was a kind of sampling or distillation of what he was doing with students at MIT at that point. We thought that would bring photographers out of the woodwork, and to a certain extent, it did."

Around the same time, Ansel Adams was teaching a workshop in the area. With Chapel Hill photographer Jerry Markatos in tow, Adams visited Menapace's house for lunch. "We grilled some steaks and he looked at our pictures and said some nice things."

But in spite of growing interest in the field, photography was still not recognized as an art by the state's museum. Menapace recalls that the North Carolina Artists' Annual, the NCMA's state juried invitational exhibition, didn't accept photographs. "I had been corresponding with one of the curators there about this who told me that 'photography is not really an art.'"

That attitude has changed, and Menapace helped to change it. In 1980, he was honored with an NEA/SECCA Southeast Seven Fellowship. In 1984, Jargon Society Press published letter in a Klein bottle, a suite of Menapace's photographic images. That same year, an exhibition of these photographs was held at the North Carolina Museum of Art, their first-ever devoted to photography.

Also that year, Menapace retired from his position at Duke University Press, celebrated by a 'round-the-country road trip with stops to visit his daughters in Louisiana and California. He continued to take pictures. His "retirement" allowed him to spend more time in the darkroom, more time considering the nature of his own images.

He considers his prints--made with his favorite cameras, a Nikon F-3, a medium-format (square) camera, and a 4-inch by 5-inch camera--an important one-on-one transmission from artist to viewer, because their scale invites intimate contemplation. Cryptically, he has never titled or dated any of his pictures. As a result, these uncompromising images must be viewed on their own terms, for what they yield to the viewer.

This interaction is critical to Menapace, who finds expression of the aesthetic in another artistic hero, Marcel Duchamp. For Menapace, the central element in Duchamp's work is the notion that "it is the viewer who makes art, who sees something as art, who understands it as art. Octavio Paz once said of Duchamp that he didn't think of art as an object, but rather as a cable for the transmission of ideas and emotions," Menapace says. "That cable can sometimes be a kind of closed loop, but at the other end, there is always the individual. I had felt that so many of the photographs by others that I'd been involved with over the years I could take as personal communication and see some of my own work as a kind of response to it. I wanted to work with a one-on-one sense of who I was communicating with."

Menapace doesn't like to be proscriptive, but he does have strong feelings about scale. He sees the large photography currently in vogue as an attempt to dominate the audience into a passive reception of a message, and he is critical of what he feels is the art-market driven perception that large work constitutes important work.

John Menapace outside his Chapel Hill home - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Despite health restrictions that prevent him from working in the darkroom, Menapace has continued to make photographs, especially while on travels to Europe in recent years. These works are in color, and have been ink-jet printed using the latest technologies. He finds them less satisfying than his work in black and white.

"They don't really work for me in the same way that my black and whites used to," he says. "Sometimes I find myself brooding about these mystical qualities of those clouds of silver particles in a layer of gelatin versus dot-dot-dot"--the matrix of the digital print. "It seems more organic, somehow. With a black and white silver print, you can have a mental image of the picture you are about to make, as it will look as a print--the pre-visualization idea that is so essential to Minor White's and Ansel Adams' teaching. I came to think of this as having something to do with the decision to photograph something, the decision to click on this vision that's out there."

He pulls a little piece of paper from his wallet and unfolds it. It is a quotation from an anthropologist describing the difference between the way Asians and Westerners look at a picture. Westerners, he reads, look first at the foreground, while Asians carefully view the background and take in the whole scene.

Taking a picture "of" something isolates it from its background, he says. With Menapace's aesthetic of excision, everything in the frame is used. Nothing is extraneous. If you can't make sense of everything you have put in a picture, he would tell students, "it shouldn't be in there."

He probes what a picture's subject might be, besides what the camera was pointed at. He has become aware of threads of metaphor traveling through his work by looking at groupings of his photographs. For instance, he notes, he often depicts edges of water--especially the sea--and walls. "Walls are an awful lot to think of," he says. "Enclosing, excluding, uniting." He describes his pictures as "visual autobiography seen rather indirectly. 'Taint always a pretty picture."

This has been a celebratory year for Menapace. In March, the Gallery of Art and Design at North Carolina State University presented a solo exhibition of his works curated by Huston Paschal and accompanied by an elegant catalog. Featuring 60 of his images chosen from hundreds of prints, he titled the show With Hidden Noise after a work by Duchamp: a ball of twine into which an unknown object had been placed, then sealed by two metal plates. The way Paschal selected the work "let me see some things in my photographs that I hadn't experienced before, in a way that led me to choosing With Hidden Noise as the title for that show," Menapace says, noting that the Duchamp piece expresses for him the idea that the same object may be valuable to different people for wildly different reasons, suggesting the validity of each of these perceptions.

Underscoring Menapace's influence on North Carolina photography, the upcoming NCMA show presents his work with that of nine of his photographic colleagues--two of whom, Caroline Vaughan and Elizabeth Matheson, are former students. "I consider an interplay of people working within the medium as something sustaining," he says. "To be able to appear on the walls with these other people is something I find particularly pleasurable."

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