Samuel Vovsi’s interest in photography grew from a hobby to a full-grown passion — one that combines a love for the art form with a love of travel. Often showing his works in exhibitions throughout the region, he opens his latest installment in the main gallery at Gallery 14 in Hopewell on Friday, January 8.
Vovsi is a member of Gallery 14, a nonprofit photography co-op, where he will be joined by fellow Gallery 14 member Larry Parsons exhibiting in the Goodkind Gallery.
Although Vovsi was born in the Soviet city of Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg, and spent most of his life in Latvia, he, his wife, and their two children immigrated to the United States in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Speaking with a Russian accent Vovsi describes his early days. “Life in the Soviet Union was challenging, was difficult in general because it was after the war. I was a baby boomer, born in 1946, and the country was destroyed. It was real war, not a war which the United States cares about. The United States also has wars. (But) it’s difficult to imagine what it is to lose 20 million people in the war.”
To make the point, the trained mathematician makes calculations and draws the comparison to September 11, 2001. “Try to imagine not one 9-11, but five 9-11s that happen on the same day. Now try to imagine five 9-11s every day for four years, then you get 20 million. Try to imagine what was there in terms of the life. So my first 5, 10, 15 years, the remnants of war was still felt. “ The fact his family was Jewish only compounded their hardship because of the country’s attitude toward Jews and the weight of discrimination.
Vovsi says his father worked in a paper mill in Riga, Latvia; his mother a schoolteacher until poor health eventually led her to become a homemaker. Their son had shown a natural affinity for math and went to college and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1972. He worked as a professor of mathematics at Riga Technical University.
In the United States he continued his academic career with teaching stints at Rutgers University, the College of New Jersey, and UCLA, and published more than 50 research works and several books on abstract algebra and group theory. In the mid 1990s he became a computer programmer and software developer working for various financial institutions including Chubb, TD Ameritrade, and Merrill Lynch.
It was during his early career days in Latvia that Vovsi developed an interest in photography, purely as a recreational pursuit and an important part of travel. When he settled in the Princeton area he began attending meetings, joined the Princeton Photography Club, and gradually began to take photography more seriously. The hobby soon evolved into a real passion and a perfect complement to his love of travel and exploration. Traveling extensively around the globe, Vovsi photographs nature, landscapes, urban environments, sculptures, and people in their everyday life.
Unsurprisingly, his computer background helped him make a natural transition from film to digital photography. And over the last several years, with retirement from his full-time job, he has been able to devote a lot of time and effort in post-processing his images with advanced photo-editing tools. “I usually spend more time. It’s becoming a disease, in a sense. You are sitting at the computer, and it’s 10:30 p.m. You open one picture and look, (and think) probably this corner should be made a little bit improved, maybe a little bit darker. So you make a change to this part, and you look at your watch. It is 1 a.m.! You have spent two-and-a-half hours creating another version of the same picture, which is worse than the one before. But such things happen.”
Asked if he plans his travel around his photography or vice-versa he says: “I went on the trips, and one of the goals is to make photographs there. So probably what is called travel photography still occupies the main part in my photography interest.” But, he adds, it was more than the city or landscape that attracted him. “I (became) more interested basically in people, I would say more and more. (Even with) landscapes, sometimes I think I need to put a human being inside, not (always) necessarily but sometimes.”
He also expresses interest in shooting sculptures, pointing out a sculpture park in Oslo where he has done a series of photographs. He says more than half of his pictures have been done during travel because “when you travel, it is what you are doing — what you are doing is looking around.”
A typical trip may involve 2,000 photos, which he is constantly editing, down to several hundred until he has maybe 20 to 30 images that he will work on and finish.
Vovsi lives in Princeton with his retired wife, Marina, who graduated from Riga Conservatory with a degree in musicology and taught music theory and music history at Riga Special Music School. In Princeton she became a self-taught accountant and later a comptroller in a small company.
His son, Mark, and daughter, Dina, were respectively 11 and 2 years old in 1989 when they came to the United States. Mark graduated from NYU in computer science and later got an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. He works for a financial company in New York City and lives in West Windsor with his wife and two young daughters. Dina graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in theater arts. She directs off-off Broadway plays
Asked what he gets out of photography, what has it done for him, Vovsi re-frames the question. “What has music done for Mozart? Can you ask somebody, any artist good or bad? I am not Mozart, but (it) doesn’t matter. It is your hobby, it is your passion, you like doing it. I don’t do it to make money, but I enjoy doing it. I enjoy working on an image, and when I see something, which in my opinion is interesting, I endeavor to make it better, more interesting, sometimes manipulate it.”
His exhibit at Gallery 14, “The People and Colors of Latin America,” is the result of the brilliant color photographs capturing the people and landscapes during trips he took to that region. The color of the cityscapes was a major attraction for him and greatly influenced what he photographed. His travels to Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and other countries in Latin America were done during the last several years beginning in 2010. Not seeing this as a series in the beginning, it developed out of the time he spent there.
“When you come to one of those countries the first thing that draws your attention is color. After your eyes eventually to get used to these colors you start noticing life in these countries. First of all (are) people, and people as everywhere are different — young and old children, men, women, rich, poor — mostly poor. You try to capture the combination of people and colors” — a celebration of life.
People and Colors of Latin America, Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Photographs by Samuel Vovsi. Opening reception Friday, January 8, 6 to 8 p.m., meet the photographers Sunday, January 10, 1 to 3 p.m. Through Sunday, February 7. 609-333-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org