Pause Effect

E ven before the rise of the internet and social media, “the speed with which the world went by us was not, I think, particularly considerate of pausing,” Stephen Kobasa says. But pausing is exactly what he hopes viewers will do when they encounter the photography of New Haven’s John T. Hill. Spanning 67 years and three continents, a collection of 22 of Hill’s photographs is on display in the exhibition John T. Hill: Persistent Observer, curated by Kobasa, at The Gallery Upstairs at the Institute Library through January 15.

In the role of “persistent observer,” Hill catalogs what he calls “found compositions,” as if the world were doing the composing for him. “His eye is just so keen, and he convinces you that you could see these things, too,” says Kobasa, a longtime friend of Hill’s who is also an arts writer and political activist. “There are some photographers that make pictures that say to you, ‘You wouldn’t have seen this. Only I would have seen this.’ But John’s not like that… His work is always an invitation in some way to join him in this exercise of attention.”

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Sometimes Hill makes what might be labeled street photography, capturing ordinary people in action, like a little boy who’s about to leap over a puddle and out of the frame of Piazza Navona, Rome, December, 1964. None of the other people on the cobbled piazza are watching him, though the puddles themselves stand in as eyes, reflecting the hand of a statue on the side of a nearby fountain, a man on a ladder arranging a shop display, a portion of the boy’s leg. While everyone else is turned away, the statue and the boy are in the foreground, turned toward the viewer as if to draw us into the fleeting scene.

Even in Hill’s portraits, his subjects are treated more like elements in a larger composition. A young man in Savin Rock, Connecticut, 1964 wears a classic look of the time: white T-shirt, pompadour hairstyle, cynical gaze directed at the camera. His full lips are closed, but in the background, the open-mouthed façade of the park’s Laff in the Dark ride opens its big-toothed grin as if to chomp down on him. Another portrait, Farm wife, Jackson County, Georgia, ca. 1953, features Hill’s own grandmother. “She was quite a presence,” Hill recalls. “A tough lady.” In a deceptively simple kitchen tableau, her aged hand reaches into a four-point composition formed by her pale face, a large jar of buttermilk and a white bowl and mug.

More often, Hill’s photographs—at least the ones Kobasa has chosen—are devoid of people, perhaps the result of his 30 years working as a corporate photographer for clients including J.P. Morgan and IBM, while teaching at Yale. In one of the exhibition’s few color photographs, Billboard, Queens, New York (undated), the shape of a bank of bright yellow signs lettered in red and black is echoed by a brick building striped with windows reflecting a cloudy sky. What the signs say is less interesting than how they say it, in chunky, matching sans-serif font lit with an orange glow. The interplay of architectural forms is striking, too, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1975. Here, the bare metal frames of beach canopies in the off-season play against the marching lines of a boardwalk making its own angular curve along the sand. Stabilizing the image are its two horizons: edge of sand and edge of ocean.

One of Hill’s greatest legacies is his role as co-founder of the photography department at the Yale School of Art. He began teaching photography there in 1960, shortly after graduating himself, when it was still a subset of the graphic design program. By the early 1970s, critics, merchants and dealers had discovered photography’s commercial appeal as an art form, Hill says, and students wanted to study photography exclusively. So, with his colleague Alvin Eisenman, Hill created and launched a separate, successful department.

Another of Hill’s Yale colleagues was the photographer Walker Evans, who asked Hill to be the executor of his estate, which included a valuable collection of 20,000 of the artist’s negatives. Hill served in that role for 19 years before arranging the collection’s acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. He has written and compiled numerous books on Evans’s work, some of which are also on display in the Institute Library exhibition, along with books he wrote, edited or designed on the artists Edward Weston, Erwin Hauer, Norman Ives, Peter Sekaer and William E. Crawford.

Hill’s own work is held by the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris and has been exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery. “He’s been such an advocate for so many other artists, especially photographers,” Kobasa says, adding that “it was time” to turn more attention back on the artist himself, who continues to make photographs today. “I’m pursuing whatever I see that fascinates me,” Hill says—whatever the world has composed for him.

John T. Hill: Persistent Observer
Institute Library – 847 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat 12-2pm through January 15
(203) 562-4045
www.institutelibrary.org/gallery

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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