Tuesday, August 3, 2010

John Menapace, Southern Photographer, Is Dead

John Menapace, master fine art photographer and teacher of photographers in North Carolina, died last week. He was 82 years old. 

Menapace was deeply influential on generations of North Carolina photographers, including Elizabeth Matheson and Caroline Vaughan.

Menapace was not a native Southerner. He was born in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, attended Yale University, and worked as a graphic designer for the Oxford University Press.  He later moved to Durham, NC to become Director of Design and Production at Duke University Press.

Menapace was largely self-taught as a photographer, though he studied deeply the work of Eugene Atget, Ansel Adams, and Minor White. He began to earn recognition for his photographs in the early 1970's, when he also began to teach photography at Duke University, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and also at the Penland School of Crafts in western North Carolina.

In 1984, the North Carolina Museum of Art recognized the importance of Menapace's work by giving him their first show devoted solely to photography. That same year, the Jargon Press published Letter in a Klein Bottle, a portfolio of Menapace's early work.

In 2006, Huston Paschal curated a one-man show at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at North Carolina State University. The work in this show was published in a book, With Hidden Noise, with the title referring to Marcel Duchamp, an artist from whose wit, as well as his understanding of the nature of art, Menapace drew inspiration. 

Also in 2006,  the NCMA included Menapace on the list of 10 distinguished NC photographers whose work it decided to purchase in depth. 

Paschal said of Menapace that his "impact on the practice and acceptance of photography in North Carolina has been incalculable. The high standard to which he rigorously adhered supplied crucial reinforcement to developing artists and to those he taught in--and out of--the classroom."

A local writer, reflecting on the enduring qualities of John's work speaks of the "cerebral, formally elegant, witty, lyrical, and tender qualities in John's photographs.

Gene Thornton, reviewing a show of John's work in the New York Times, describes John's "impeccable taste and a faultless sense of design," transforming "perfectly ordinary bits of landscape - the curved border of a garden pond, a cyclone fence silhouetted against a hazy sea - into elegant semi-abstractions in black and white." 

For more about Menapace, see this long profile from 2006 in Durham's Independent,entitled "Solitaire with pictures: John Menapace reflects on his life as a photographer," or this one from the website of the Penland School.

Contributions honoring the life and work of John Menapace may be made to the John Menapace Photography Endowment at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, Campus Box 7306, NC State University, Raleigh, NC 27695.


  1. Sorry to hear of John's passing. Though I never met him, I found a copy of Letter in a Klein Bottle in a used book store in Durham when I was an undergraduate many years ago. The beautiful clarity of his images made a lasting impact on me.

  2. I was just thinking about John Menapace, so I googled his name, and found this announcement of his death. I grew up in Durham, and during my first semester as a freshman at Duke, I was lucky to get to take his first class on photography. Having myself been a photographer since the age of 12, this class defined me, which is why I was just thinking about him almost 40 years later. At that age of 18, I didn't know what I would do with this photography thing, but John taught me how to see with my own eyes. I moved away, lost touch, only saw him on a few occasions since. Unfortunately this can happen. Thank you for posting this obituary.

  3. I wouldn't classify him as an art photographer, but a journalistic photographer. Any photographer can reproduce the "places" in most of his images: ex. Beauty Salon. Museum quality? Not really. But his work is a reference of southern...places.

  4. Well, at least in NC, John is regarded as the founder of a fine art photography tradition in the region. His work was among the first photographs to be collected and exhibited by the NC Museum of Art. So we think he made art by the way he photographed the places he chose to photograph. But you may have a different understanding of what makes a specific photograph a work of art. . . . .

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