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Jan Staller

Jan Staller, ‘Water Purification Plant,’ Hempstead, Long Island, 1991, Heckscher Museum of Art

By Kevin Redding

Heavy metal is coming to Huntington’s Heckscher Museum of Art this month. Not in the form of head-banging music but the photography of Jan Staller — a Long Island native whose large-scale shots of industrial landscapes, urban infrastructure, neglected buildings and construction materials have been subjects of beauty and acclaim for almost 40 years. 

From April 21 through July 29, nearly two decades of Staller’s career will be on display at Heckscher’s Heavy Metal: Photographs by Jan Staller exhibition, which will feature more than a dozen of his “monumental photographs,” a three-channel video of his work and an in-depth discussion with the artist himself on May 10 at 7 p.m. 

Jan Staller, ‘Pile of Rebar,’ Flushing, Queens, 2007, on loan by the artist

Staller, who moved to Manhattan in 1976 after gathering up degrees at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts and Maryland Institute, rejected the trend among photographers at the time to journey across the country in search of subjects and instead began capturing his immediate surroundings. A deteriorated highway along the Hudson River. Buildings in ruin. Unfamiliar architecture. All with a focus on pattern, geometry, line color and light — both natural and artificial. 

Staller has said of his unique work that he “looks for the sculptural, formal and lyrical qualities of objects that are not always thought to warrant contemplation.”

This ability to zero in on the unseen and passed-by in the urban setting, and capture the gradual development of Manhattan over time, has brought Staller’s work to the pages of Time and Life Magazine, Forbes and The New York Times and inside the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Since the 1970s, he has taken his camera across the country and world and was chosen to photograph on the sets of such films as “12 Monkeys” and “Fargo.” The latter’s snowbound setting was a natural fit for Staller, whose snapshots of blizzards in empty New York City in the ’70s and ’80s are among his most famous. He has also had two monographs of his photographs published — “Frontier New York” and “On Planet Earth.”

“Jan’s photographs show us our ordinary, everyday surroundings in a way that many of us do not perceive them,” said Lisa Chalif, the museum’s curator, who first met Staller during an exhibition in 2009 titled Long Island Moderns, highlighting local artists from painters to photographers to architects. “He makes me stop and see things differently. You see the beauty there and most of us are not able to look and isolate the formal structures necessarily in those sights. You can see all the color in the rusted steel. I didn’t always see that but he helps me see that.”

She continued, “Staller perceives in existing manufactured forms, seen in random industrial settings, a serene beauty that he isolates with his camera, discerning order in chaos, beauty in decay and a sense of mystery within the ordinary.”

In a recent interview, Staller, who grew up primarily in Sag Harbor, said he became infatuated with photography at an early age as his father pursued the art as a hobby, dark room in the house and all. By the time he was 13, he had his own 35mm camera and was snapping pictures of the garden and nature. A couple of years later, at 15, he started developing his own prints with the aid of a dark room he built at school. 

Looking back at his long career, Staller said the common thread in all his work is an “ephemeral” subject matter.

“Things in transition are, for at least in the moment that I’m there, of particular interest,” he said. “I think that’s something I’ve always been captivated by. But if you look at my work over the years, you can see there’s a gradual [inclination] to get closer in on the subject matter, a lessening of the contextual details and a greater emphasis on the thing itself. Until the thing itself is the only issue being explored, such as these photographs made of construction materials … ” 

The photographer, who still resides in Manhattan, said he was looking forward to the exhibition and gauging the public’s response to his work. “I think that being an artist, we’re exploring some ideas and are hoping to impart those to others,” he said. “So when people understand that in a very clear way, that’s probably the most gratifying thing.” 

Staller continued, “I often quip that we artists are all wannabe cult leaders, in the sense that we think that we have this vision of the world and art is something that is affirmed by a consensus or not. So it all depends on who or how many people are affirming the work. A show at The Heckscher Museum is an affirmation and one that I’m very satisfied with.”

The Heckscher Museum of Art, 2 Prime Ave., Huntington will present Heavy Metal: Photographs of Jan Staller from April 21 to July 29. The community is invited to a Gallery Talk on Thursday, May 10 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. $5 per person, members free. For more information, call 631-351-3250 or visit www.Heckscher.org.

Photos courtesy of The Heckscher Museum

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