“Obsessed by Light” Opens in Riverhead

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"Passion Falls" by John Stefanik.
“Bassion Falls” by John Stefanik.

By Rachel Bosworth

Artists like John Stefanik are rare in the digital age. Amongst Photoshop pros and graphic artists using multi-mediums to create various works, there are a few photographers like Mr. Stefanik that opt for old school methods and in this case, that’s good old film photography. With a collection of his life’s work currently on display at the Lyceum Gallery at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern Campus in Riverhead, “Obsessed by the Light” features the photographer’s first public showing of this scale of black and white landscapes and seascapes spanning nearly three decades.

Mr. Stefanik began his career about 30 years ago after receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1973. It was a year later that he moved to Long Island, where he currently lives in Sag Harbor. Inspiration for his work was first found from one of the biggest draws on the East End – the water. With an abundance of bays, estuaries, and ocean beaches to serve as his subject matter, his fascination with the way light reflected and changed against the constantly moving surfaces inspired many of the images he captured. While he spent the first 10 years of his career taking photos of anything and everything, Mr. Stefanik says he only choses about five percent of the 95 percent taken. “You take photos of everything because you’re excited,” he says of the beginning of his career. “It’s your training period.”

"Passages".
“Passages”.

As his skills were fine-tuned and his own photography process developed, Mr. Stefanik let new subject matter find him organically as his career progressed. Inspiration was often found by accident through simply exploring the outdoors. “I explore and imagine the stories of the people that lived there,” he remarks in regards to a particular series of abandoned farmhouses on the North Fork, several of which are featured at the Lyceum Gallery show. Four major themes are threaded throughout the gallery’s display of his work, including water, light between the trees, abandoned farmhouses, and images of upstate New York’s mountains and terrain. The farmhouses are Mr. Stefanik’s latest interest, and step beyond the bounds of a primarily nature-driven body of work.

Another remarkable aspect of his process if the use of a hand held light meter and cable release when photographing, along with Kodak film that is still in production today. These traditional methods allow him to create flawless negatives that require little to no adjustments when in development. Sometimes Mr. Stefanik pushes the boundaries of photography by facing the lens into the light rather than away, which result in some of his hauntingly magical displays of light as it filters through the trees.

Mr. Stefanik began teaching photography at Suffolk County Community College in 1990, and experienced first-hand how the industry changed as we moved into the digital age. The Eastern Campus had dark rooms to develop film for about 15 years before they were removed. At that time Mr. Stefanik transferred from studio art to the history of photography as he himself did not go with the new trend in technology. As a photographer that doesn’t even own a digital camera, Mr. Stefanik’s love and use of traditional film is evident in his work. “Film provides a wide tonal range from rich blacks to pure whites, and all the grays in-between,” he says. “It’s the photographer’s palate.”

By opting to stick with film, the photographer experiments how natural light can make or break a photograph. While sometimes timing is perfect and a published photo is taken on the first shot, others can take years. One photograph titled “Light Between The Trees 1” took ten years to capture. Mr. Stefanik returned to the same site over and over until he got it, and the photograph itself marks the beginning of this particular series. “It was worth the wait,” he recalls.

"Abandoned Farm House".
“Abandoned Farm House”.

When asked if he had any commercial photography jobs, Mr. Stefanik laughed at a specific memory of a paying gig to photograph a couple by their house in black and white early in his career. While he “flubbed it,” (a touch up artist was hired to correct some the flaws) the brief encounter with this type of subject matter confirmed his passion for fine arts. Now he happily sticks to landscapes and seascapes as his main area of interest.

This is not a typical show in a photographer’s career. Previously some of his work has been displayed at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts in Roslyn, the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, and the Islip Art Museum. The idea of a show of this scale was first brought to him a few years ago by a coordinator at the community college, but Mr. Stefanik felt he wasn’t ready at that time. “I wanted a solid body of work that represents my best possible array,” he says. Now after a year or two of preparation, sifting through old negatives and reliving the experiences of his earlier work, Mr. Stefanik is ready to share his work with the public.

With a showing of around 30 works spanning 25 years of his career, Mr. Stefanik’s accumulation of black and white photographs portray a diverse offering of images from his novice years well into his matured style. Through his lens Mr. Stefanik created a documentation of walking through life; his own unique stories through pictures. “These images are my stories that I experienced at a particular time in my life,” he says of his collection.

As he feels indebted William Henry Fox Talbot, an inventor who developed the word “photography” which means “drawing or writing in light,” and Kodak founder George Eastman, the show is dedicated to these photography film pioneers Mr. Stefanik holds in high regard. These historical figures will also be incorporated into some of his lesson plans for the college.

The opening reception for “Obsessed by the Light” will take place on Thursday, September 15 from 4 to 6 p.m., and an artist’s talk beginning at 5 p.m. The show runs through October 22.

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