John Brook

A brilliant Boston commercial and fine arts photographer has passed away at 92.

I spent many hours with my friends Jason Landry and Thom Adams reviewing the life’s work of Boston photographer John Brook. I was unaware of either him or his work until Thom brought it to my attention. Sadly, John recently passed. He was yet another undiscovered brilliant photographer, and I can only hope that Boston (and maybe the world) will get a chance to see how wonderful his images are. Below are a few of his photos and his obituary written by his friend, Thom Adams.

John Brook, a Boston Portrait Photographer, and Known for his Expressive Images is Dead at 92
John Brook, a renowned Boston photographer during the mid-20th Century, died in obscurity on July 29, in a Boston area elder care home.  After an accident in the early 1990’s he became permanently disabled. His career ended.  He sold his photographic equipment, and destroyed all of his negatives telling friends that he could no longer preserve them. He gave scores of his remaining prints to the Boston Public Library, which has the largest holdings, and the remainder of his prints is held in private and museum collections.

Brook was born in 1924 in Woonsocket Rhode Island to parents who emigrated from England. He was a self-taught photographer, who at an early age, was encouraged by his father to experiment with photography.

When he was 12 years old one of his photographs received first prize in a national competition.  “ When I was 12, I began taking available light candid shots of my school teachers and classmates, he wrote. “The teachers did not like the pictures (although one was published in the magazine, Mademoiselle).”  For most of his years since then he tried to “preserve in photography the human face.” Like Nietzsche, he believed that every “ profound man wears a mask.”  In 1960, Brook quoted James Agee, in a biographical sketch for the Eastman House, “The simplest and the strongest of (us) has been designed upon his experience that he has a wound and a nakedness to conceal, and guards and disguises by which he conceals it.” Brook attempted to establish a rapport with his subjects to create unguarded moments during which those being photographed would unmask themselves. “I believe that the relationships between people – the giving or withholding of love, the effort to share or resist sharing with some other human being that solitude, which is so inescapably a condition of humanity – these relationships are more important and endlessly varied a subject for photography as the unguarded moments of expressiveness in a single face.”

In 1952, his first European one-man show was held in Milan, where in 1960, he won a gold medal in Milan’s Third Biennial photography festival.   He was one of 20 of the world’s major photographers whose images were chosen for The Power of Seeing portfolio featured in the 30th Anniversary Edition of Life magazine. His photos were also exhibited at the 1965 World’s Fair in NYC at Expo 67 in Montreal and in the Kodak pavilion at the 1970 World Fair in Osaka.

In his senior year at Harvard University he began to photograph graduates for the yearbook, and after gradation in 1947, he opened a portrait studio on Newbury Street in Boston.  His reputation as a portraitist increased his stature as a photographer bringing commissions from world-renowned celebrities: including symphonic conductors Sir Thomas Beecham, Colin Davis, Boston’s own Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch; composers Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith; jazz musicians Duke Ellington, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk; and Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina; and Eleanor Roosevelt, among many other notables. This led him to become the staff photographer of the Boston Symphony.

When the father of a family commented to Brook that he liked the effects of lens flare in a portrait of his family, Brook began exploring this effect in his photographs.  He built a lens from the optical glass found in other lenses to create this effect consistently in some of his photographs.  His books Along the River Run, 1970, and Hold me, 1977 best illustrate his use of optical aberration to enhance the otherworldliness, and dreamscapes – like images of people experiencing solitude with another.  In the preface to Along the River Run he wrote, “It is in loving and making love that we come close as we ever can to joining one being with another.”  He used available light to shoot these images for he eschewed technical lighting.  His final images were not manipulated in a darkroom to enhance them. They were printed as captured on a medium format reflex camera.

Brook was a Boston Expressionist, a group that was influenced by European Symbolism and German Expressionism. These Boston painters and photographers, including Jules Aaron, and other artists’ works are evocative of people in their search for meaning in life.  They used black and white and color, and stretched the boundaries of reality in their paintings, sculptures, and photographs using bright colors, distorted lines, abstractions, and symbolism to evoke emotion from the viewer.  Brook using light aberrations and distortion as expressive devices to evoke emotion from the viewer.

Brook’s extensive photographs of landscapes, people, events and visual effects were also published in major periodicals including, Life, Time, New York Times, Newsweek, Christian Science Monitor, Aperture, Downbeat, High Fidelity, Jazz Review, Vogue, Camera Art, Popular Photography, Realities, and many more.

The Boston Public Library archive has the largest holdings of Brook’s photographic prints, followed by the private collection of Robert W. Rogers, a Brook’s patron.  Other area museums that have his images in their permanent collection are the Danforth Museum and the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH, the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Worcester Museum, The Thom Adams Archive of Photography at the New Hampshire of Art, Manchester, NH.  The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City, the National Historical Museum in DC, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Eastman House in Rochester, NY, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ, and the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, many private collections.

In 2015, Jason Landry, owner of the Panopticon Gallery, Jim Fitts, a fine art photography and curator, and Thom Adams, founder of the photographic archive at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, reviewed a vast number of Brook’s original prints. Adams commented afterwards, “Brook’s work has come out of the miasma – the dust bin of history.” Landry noted, “His use of scale and light is impeccable.”  Upon learning of his death, Fitts wrote, “The time I spent as a team reviewing John’s work at the Boston Public Library has convinced me that he is an important part of Boston’s photographic history and a very underappreciated master of the craft.”

Thomas Adams

The facts:
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A self portrait