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Remembering Joseph Bartscherer Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

6 September 2020

The fine art photographer Jospeph Bartscherer passed away from hypertensive cardiovascular disease on Aug. 13 at his home in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. He was 65.

His conceptual pieces often involved years of field work resulting in large installations of grids of images themselves arranged in conceptual themes apart from what he felt was the obvious larger story.

He was born in Queens and raised there and in Mineola on Long Island. His father was a bricklayer who became a foreman before opening Kelly Masonry Corp. as a co-owner. His mother was busy raising nine children.

Bartscherer went to Harvard in the early 1970s to study literature and philosophy. But Ben Lifson, a photography critic for the Village Voice, was teaching as a visiting artist there and suggested Bartscherer might better pursue the ideas preoccupying him through photography.

He enrolled in Nova Scotia College of Art and Design where he pursued an MFA and was Robert Frank's teaching assistant.

Bartscherer began his first conceptual work Construction in 1978. He had worked in construction between semesters and when he was laid off from a job in Times Square, he started bringing his camera to the site.

Back at school, he followed the demolition and excavation of a historic square block in Halifax with his camera.

The photographs described practical events and evidence of structural progress that would reveal, even to an outsider, a sense of what was being done. The pictures were made to be clear and singular, each a self-contained observation about a task or development on the site. At the same time the pictures were intended to function in concert and fall into groups. For instance, I'd photographed an elevator shaft at four stages of construction and that formed a natural series.

This was an "establishing piece," he said, forming an approach he would follow throughout his career.

He spent nine years photographing an irrigation project in Washington state to turn a desert into fertile ground with water from a new dam. He had been invited to visit the site by a writer friend who proposed collaborating on a book.

To make the images, Bartscherer learned how to use a 4x5 view camera and manipulate his special Beers film developer to achieve precise tonal adjustments. His friend James Welling described the process:

In the early 1990s, when Joseph and I worked in adjoining studios and darkrooms in SoHo, he told me about the special Beers developer that he used for "Pioneering Mattawa." Beers is made from component chemicals, so that by varying the primary ingredients, metol and hydroquinone, the photographer can precisely control the light and dark values of the print. With this exacting protocol, Joseph was able to effect the microtonal adjustments that gave the series its exceptional clarity and definition.

Bartscherer largest work, begun in 1990 and still ongoing at the time of his death, was Obituary, a collection of New York Times editions in which the front page featured an obituary. Each unfolded copy was laid out on Plexiglas in a group of 12 forming two rows, the older ones yellowing, the newer ones smaller but in color.

He became fascinated by a hilly stretch of land scarred by glacial activity that became Forest. He found in the forest's cycles of life and death a parallel to his own life story. Year after year, he would return to photograph the changes he found there.

Welling's interview in 2008 for Bomb magazine titled Joseph Bartscherer provides a fascinating look at his work and methods.

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