Roger Mertin, master of the understated eloquence of vernacular photography, died in Rochester, NY on May 7, 2001. For the past several years Roger had been commuting between Rochester and Saint Paul, Minnesota where he lived with his partner Elizabeth Ihrig.
Roger began his formal study of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and graduated with a bachelors degree in photography in 1965. He continued his education at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester earning a master of fine arts degree in 1972. Roger joined the faculty of the University of Rochester in 1972 and was a professor of art and art history at the University when he died. A memorial service was held for Roger at the Interfaith Chapel on the University of Rochester's River campus on May 16, 2001.
Roger participated in more programs at Light Work than any other artist. He was one of our first visiting artists and an exhibition of his work opened our Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery in October 1985. Roger received several grants from the New York State Council on the Arts through Light Work and his work has been published in numerous issues of Contact Sheet. Roger was a dedicated correspondent and our files are thick with post cards and letters that he steadily sent us over the years. Always scripted carefully with a fountain pen, Roger's correspondence conveyed the impression of a task taken seriously. He respected the art of letter writing and with every piece of mail we received from him, not matter how trivial the message, we felt some of that respect reflected back on us simply by receiving his attention.
Rogers reputation as an important photographer was firmly in place at Light Work when I was hired in 1980. The one and only poster we made to advertise our Artist-in-Residence program features a picture Roger made while participating in the program in 1977. The picture is from his series of basketball hoops, and this particular image was made at the outskirts of a suburban neighborhood north of Syracuse. The basketball hoop in the center of the picture is the only thing that looks alive, sporting three large arrows on the backboard pointing towards the center of the basket and the object of the game. Roger was most comfortable when working on a series whether it was basketball hoops, Christmas trees, or public libraries. Phil Block and Tom Bryan, Light Work's founders, were strong supporters of Roger's work and they often explained that Roger worked in series because it was a good excuse to stop the car and make a picture. Roger was always in the car and he was always making pictures. Every time that we met for lunch or dinner in Syracuse Roger always connected it to making a picture along the way--a stop at the Solvay Public Library, a visit to a restaurant owner to convince her to pose for a picture as the Statue of Liberty, or maybe one more look at the apple trees in bloom just south of Syracuse.
Although Roger worked primarily with an 8x10 view camera and photographed things out in the world the way that he found them--he wasn't a documentary photographer in the tradition that his tools and techniques suggest. Most of Roger's work had a strong conceptual base but his sense of humor and the importance he placed on small details prevented his work from being caught in a static theoretical framework. Roger used a large format camera because it could emphasize small details that he wanted to make sure we noticed. When someone missed an important detail Roger could become incredulous to the point of exhaustion. He once showed me a review of one of his exhibitions where the critic had talked about his pictures in relationship to blues music. As Roger was explaining this to me his voice got higher and higher as he said 'blues music, blues music, I said the blues, the color blue--that's what I was looking at.'
Rogers pictures, more than any other artist, got me to pay attention, to really understand how to look at a picture and understand what I was seeing. I had the pleasure of working with Roger on several exhibitions, publications, and commissioned projects over the past twenty-one years and I join many others who will miss the optimism and grace of his pictures and his company.
Jeffrey Hoone 2002