When Tony Decaneas was eight years old, he received a camera as a gift from his mostly-absent godfather. He put it aside, not knowing what to do with it. When Hurricane Carol hit Boston that year, he ran out to see the damage from the storm, and saw a use for the camera. He sprinted to his room to get it and took his first photograph: a man rowing a boat down Storrow Drive.
Decaneas didn’t see the photograph he had taken until 1988, when the negative was included in a file of old papers his father gave him. By then he had become an established photographer and founder of a high-quality custom photo lab, Decaneas Archive
“I think it’s one of my best photographs,” he told students in a 2D art class as he walked them through an exhibition of his work, A Retrospective: Looking from Past to Present, on view in the Lehman Art Center through March 10. “It shows what photography does when there’s no concern for composition.”
While that first photo had been taken at an angle from a bridge overlooking his subject, Decaneas’ photos in the exhibition are highly composed. They feature strong lines and multiple layers of depth. Included are photos from selected projects over periods of time including Photographs of Greece, Ten Days in Eastern Europe - 1990, Photographs on Mount Athos, Greece, and Portraits of America from a Moving Train.
“The exhibition shows the evolution of a photographer,” said English teacher Mark Shovan. “How did he start out, and now that he’s 60-something, what does he see now?”
Some of the more personal photos in the exhibition are those Decaneas took in Pavlia, Greece, where his father grew up. They are the result of a project Decaneas undertook to document each of the 80 people who lived in the village.
“My photography teacher told me, ‘photograph what you know or what you want to know,’ so I went to Greece,” he told the students.
Portraits of America from a Moving Train is the result of a cross-country train journey in which Decaneas took photos from the open window of a moving train.
“In the Great Plains you can go miles and miles and the landscape doesn’t change,” he said. “You could see anything that was different from the landscape at least three miles before you came to it.”
One such photograph captures a train-crossing sign with a nondescript farmhouse in the distance. The content is mundane, and yet it communicates something to the viewer. Steven Ives ’15 said the photograph perfectly captured his sense of the Midwest, where he grew up.
“It’s a complete accident in terms of content,” Decaneas explained. “I just knew something had to be happening at that moment in time.”
It is his ability to find such moments that makes Decaneas’ photos interesting.
“It’s that quality of a moment that comes and goes, and if you can capture it, it’s special,” he said.
The Brooks students did not necessarily have any background in photography, so throughout the class Decaneas focused on composition, place and story – all of which are relevant to the artwork they produce in class.
“Thirty years ago I would have said that everything within the four corners of the image is important,” Decaneas explained. “But now, in the world of photography, the concept rules and the subject fits as it may. Some would say right now that photography has melded its way into the art world.”
Art teacher and director of the Lehman Art Center Amy Graham asked the students to take photos of Decaneas’ work with their iPhones; she planned to use those images for a class exercise the following week.
“I want them to write stories,” she said. “The more professional artists I’ve seen come through, the more I see it’s important to be able to articulate art.”
In addition to his work with the 2D art class, Decaneas is also working with the art history class. He plans to show them slides of the work of photographers Ernest C. Withers, who confronted race relations, and Bradford Washburn, who captured images of mountains. He represented both artists through his gallery.
But the Lehman exhibition focuses exclusively on Decaneas’ own photographs, all in black and white.
“When I introduced color it got in the way of looking at the subject matter I was interested in looking at,” he said.
The subjects do pop out of Decaneas’ photos, from Midwestern landscapes to monasteries on Mt. Athos, to a rustic Greek village.
“My photographs are observations of humanity,” he said.
A Retrospective: Looking from Past to Present, featuring the work of Tony Decaneas
February 13 through March 10, 2014
Lehman Gallery Hours: Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 9 to noon (closed during school vacations). Free admission.