John Clarke — a founder of the architectural firm of Clarke Canton Hintz — is one of then area’s foremost designers and renovators of residential and business properties. For more than 30 years he has put his personal style on numerous buildings and structures around the county and throughout the state.
Lately, however, he has turned his creative eye and energy toward another art form: photography. And while scaling back the work he does for the firm that bears his name, Clarke is starting something new and displaying his photographs for the first time in the exhibition “Portraits of Cuba,” opening Friday, January 9, at Gallery 14 in Hopewell.
“Portraits of Cuba” comprises 21 images (19 in color) created from a recent trip Clarke took with a photography tour group led by freelance photographer Rich Pomerantz. The tour consisted of about 10 photographers from “some very involved amateur photographers to those just along for the ride.” The itinerary was closely controlled and traveled mostly around Havana, but Clarke did have the opportunity to meet artists and view their work. With President Barack Obama’s recent efforts to restore relationships with Cuba, the show benefits from an unplanned timeliness.
Clarke, originally from Connecticut, says his earliest recollection about becoming an architect was when the owner of the estate where his father was a gardener began building an addition to his home and hired prominent architect, designer, and Museum of Modern Art industrial design curator Elliot Noyes. Clarke, who had watched with great interest as Noyes visited the site and directed the building construction, thought that it was a “pretty cool thing to do.”
A graduate of the Cooper Union in New York City and recipient of a master’s degree from Columbia University, Clarke looks at the reality and perception of what it takes to be an architect. “I think it’s an interest in building, in making something. Some people think, well you have to be mathematically gifted or something, but I think that’s not the case. Cooper Union is a little different. When I went there the first year was spent in a joint program with the artists. So you got exposed to a lot of very basic drawing and three-dimensional design.”
When he finished college Clarke began teaching at the University of Virginia as well as providing small addition and renovation projects for architectural firms. He eventually made his way to Trenton, where he became then-Trenton mayor Arthur Holland’s director of planning and development. After nearly seven years with the city he left to found his own firm. That original three-person firm has grown into one that has more than 30 employees.
Initially on West State Street in Trenton, the company has moved to Ewing, where Clarke and company renovated the West Trenton Railroad Station and had offices there for several years. Then about five years ago Clarke moved the firm back to Trenton and its current Barrack Street location: the third floor of the 1929 Masonic Temple, a Greek revival building with a mixture of Greek and Egyptian symbols throughout its ceremonial rooms.
The Masons thought that in time the organization’s numbers would increase and created the upstairs space to accommodate expansion. But estimates were inaccurate, and the space sat vacant for 85 years. When it came to Clarke’s attention, he realized that it would make a great architectural office.
It was an important decision. “Our firm has a long-standing commitment to the revitalization of urban areas. Trenton needs firms like ours if it is going to be economically viable. Our being in Trenton puts us close to many of the state agencies and departments we do business with, so it’s a good business fit. Having our operation in the historic Masonic building gives us a quality of office space we could not find in a suburban location.”
Clarke Canton Hintz has put its name on a number of projects, such as the Mercer County Waterfront Park, the company’s first stadium. The company has now built ballparks in Central Jersey, Camden, and Virginia. It also does planning work for number of municipalities, as well as residential and commercial architectural projects. Incidentally, they were also behind the renovation of the Cracker Factory on South Broad Street in Trenton, where this writer’s studio is located.
Clarke’s current interest in photography was an outgrowth of his architectural practice. “I’ve always taken photos mostly related to architecture, either our own things, or the work of other people I’ve liked, or photographs of places that I thought were interesting or had some message. But I had never dealt with it as an art form unto itself. It always had more of a purpose behind it other than the artistic quality of the image.” Since retiring he says he has “time to devote to trying to make photos which have more of a visual message.”
What he likes about photography is that “it gives you a chance to capture the quality of the place and the act of making this two-dimensional image out of a place, dealing with the light and character of the situation. Now the technology is so different in photography than when I first got into this practice. I started with film and the development of film. We’ve been through the transition from film to slides now to digital reproduction. The digital allows for a great deal of innovation, which was not possible before, at least to someone like me.”
Only recently did he become aware of Gallery 14, a members’ organization devoted to photography and located in Hopewell, where Clarke lives. He found the group’s exhibition and review program helpful and received assistance in editing his images and getting feedback from review sessions with other photographers.
Clarke says he found the Cubans to be a very friendly people who did not mind being photographed. Noting that many people have said that Cuba is a time capsule caught in the 1950s, he adds, “What I found interesting about it is how receptive people are to Americans, not withstanding whatever problems the two governments have with each other. The people really don’t have that. The people are not as shy about being photographed as in many other cultures. You go out in many places and either for cultural or religious reasons taking photos is an issue. That’s not the case in Cuba. They’re very relaxed about being photographed.”
As an architect he also found the color of the buildings and the light very attractive, especially the “high quality, traditional architecture that has been allowed to decay. There’s a sort of patina to the place, which, when capitalism reasserts itself there, probably will go away. What we see now will transition into something else.”
On President Obama’s effort to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba Clarke says, “The president’s move to normalize relations with Cuba will generate much needed economic opportunity for the Cubans and the United States. As the Cuban private sector expands, the government will be forced to provide more freedom to their citizens.”
The work he did in Cuba is different from the photographs he has done before. He found himself doing more portrait work on the streets. As a result he has developed an deeper interest in that aspect of photography. He also enjoys doing photo essays of a place and spent this past summer exploring an organic farm, the process, and the people.
Clarke, who lives with his wife, Susan, on a property developed with a partner, admires the work of photographers Cartier-Bresson as a street photographer and Robert Mapplethorpe for his precision and beauty of an image. He shoots with a full-frame Nikon but has also begun shooting with a Leica. He likes the Leica as an historic camera and for being smaller and lighter.
“Unlike architecture which takes the involvement of a lot of people, clients and budgets, and engineers and other staff, you just don’t do it alone,” he says. Photography “is interesting because you are really in control and do all of the parts of it yourself. That’s very different.”
Portraits of Cuba, Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Friday, January 9, to Sunday, February 8, open Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Opening reception Friday, January 9, 6 to 8 p.m.
Also on view: “Twos” by Samuel Vovsi in the Jay Goodkind Gallery. Meet the photographers, Sunday January 11, 1 to 3 p.m. 609-333-8511 or www.Gallery 14.com.