Face to Face by Jonathan Morse at Whaling Museum

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Jonathan Morse holding his portrait of Peter Marcelle.

By Emily Weitz

A life of the mind: that’s what Jonathan Morse explores through his upcoming photography exhibition at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum Museum, titled “Face to Face.” The manner in which he explores this concept is through raw, intimate portraits of the artists and writers of the East End who have spent their lives engaging their deepest thoughts through images or written words.

“These ideas arise in your mind,” explained Morse as we meandered through his 19th century home on Main Street in Sag Harbor, “and you explore them yourself and then you see if they affect other people.”

Some artists create only for themselves, and others find their work resonates with others. But the impulse of an artist is to continue delving into the inner workings of the mind.

“To live a life where you’re constantly in a creative world, interacting with your own ideas,” said Morse. “The idea is that people who live a life of the mind develop a character you can see in their faces.”

The faces that comprise the show, as well as the comprehensive catalogue, are ones that any Sag Harbor local will recognize from Main Street. The way Morse captured them was stark and intimate, as if you’re sitting across the table from them at the coffee shop, engaged in conversation.

To accomplish this intimacy is easier said than done.

“When we really look at people, they’re alive and moving,” explained Morse. “The way the eye sees is in twenty different snapshots a second.”

So one image might capture the smile, but the gesture might be slightly off. Or a blemish that would barely be noticed in natural light might be heightened to the point of distraction. Morse worked with each image through Photoshop, not to eliminate imperfections, but to play with them until they achieved a more natural quality that was more true to life.

A portrait of Eric Fischl by Jonathan Morse.

Because Morse is among the community of artists and writers in Sag Harbor, this process became deeply collaborative.

“We’d take a few pictures, look at them, decide together what’s best, then shoot a little more,” he said. “As artists, they understand the collaborative process. And that’s why these pictures have the impact they do. Everyone who sat for me had fun.”

At first glance, one might think that all the images are similar. That’s because they were photographed in the exact same setting, in the same light, in the same style. All the images are in black and white, up close and personal, and they’re all men of a certain age. Each of these choices was conscious.

“Photographic color is so artificial and the emotional impact of color is so strong,” said Morse. “By removing color, one is really removing a distracting element.”

In the past, Morse has done portraits in all sorts of settings, including in their own spaces.

“These are all shot in the studio with a simple background and one simple light,” said Morse. “The emphasis is on the subject’s face as opposed to the environment.”

Shot with a high resolution camera, Morse was able to capture details that the naked eye might miss. This, he found, repelled his potential female subjects.

“Women don’t want to be photographed in this way,” said Morse. “It’s almost as if you’re examining their face under a magnifying glass.”

The list of subjects in the exhibition is astounding, and it’s a reminder that the East End is not only a place with a history of great artists, but also a thriving artists’ community today. Donald Sultan, Dan Rizzie, Jack Lenor Larsen, and Eric Fishcl are just a few of the world-renowned artists whose arresting gazes are captured in black and white.

Peter Marcelle, also a subject in the exhibition, is the curator. Barbara Pintauro-Lobasco, Co-President of the Board at the Whaling Museum, was an ardent supporter of an exhibition that celebrates the vibrancy of the arts in Sag Harbor today.

Morse also notes that the catalogue is of a heft and substance that is rarely seen at art exhibitions on the East End. A work of art in and of itself, the catalogue will be for sale and proceeds will benefit the Whaling Museum.

“The Whaling Museum has once again in recent years become a very important cultural institution,” said Morse, “and this will hopefully be an important fundraiser for them.”

Jonathan Morse: Face to Face will be on exhibition at the Whaling Museum in Sag Harbor from June 16 to July 12. The opening reception is Saturday, July 1 from 6 to 8 pm.

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