Photographer Walter Choroszewski has shot gorgeous color images of New Jersey, from High Point to Cape May, but he is not originally from the Garden State — he was born in northeastern Pennsylvania. Asked if he thought, growing up, that our state was all highways, refineries, and strip malls, he responds by saying, “You’re joking, right? I’ve made a career defying that cliche for more than 33 years.”
“Of course I didn’t think that was the case,” he explains. “I was born in Pennsylvania, but we had family in New Jersey, and I visited and vacationed here since my early childhood. In the mid-1970s I moved to New York and again traversed this beautiful state many times before shooting my first book in 1980.”
Since New Jersey is center stage for this year’s “Focus on Sculpture” exhibit, Choroszewski was a perfect fit to judge the annual juried show of and for amateur photographers, held — and now on view through Saturday, April 13 — at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton. An additional layer of meaning was added to this year’s “Focus on Sculpture,” which is on display during the 350th anniversary of our state. In honor of this milestone, all entries were required to be photographs of sculpture or sculptural elements taken in New Jersey.
Viewers can enjoy an array of works, in color and black and white, still lifes, abstracts, indoor and outdoor scenes, from all around the Garden State. The Best of Show award went to “Coastal Rollers, 2013” by Skillman-based Maia Reim, who captured in black and white the textures and whorls of sand dunes in Wildwood.
“I loved the graphic appeal of the sand dunes and buried beach fence, which were echoed in the distant boardwalk roller coasters,” Choroszewski says. “Of the final images selected for the show, over half were part of my first impression edit. Although I am primarily a color shooter, most of my winners were quite monochromatic.”
Merit awards went to Jean Christopher of Philadelphia for “Footprints in the Sand, 2013,” taken in Avon-by-the-Sea, and Samuel Vovsi of Princeton for “Beasts,” which richly captured the bronze Chinese Zodiac sculptures by Ai Weiwei (“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads”), in front of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Robertson Hall.
Honorable Mentions went to Princeton resident Daniel Goldberg for “Burden,” Trevor Hodson of Fredon for “Zantedeschia Aethiopica — Calla Lily,” and Sheldon Kralstein of Manalapan for “Bread Line Portraits,” his personal vision of George Segal’s “Depression Breadline” at Grounds For Sculpture.
Choroszewski reflects on the editing process in his juror’s statement, where he writes, “The quality of submissions was impressive, and I found it a challenge to select only 29. The artistry of sculpture is highly appealing to me, but I was not interested in images that simply documented the creativity of the sculptor; rather, I was seeking the vision of photographers who found something more — capturing a special essence or using lighting to enhance the original, and thus creating a new derivative artwork.”
He was invited last February to be the judge for this year’s show by Cassandra Demski, curator of education at Grounds For Sculpture. She prepared the digital entries, hiding the names of the photographers, for Choroszewski to review from his home computer and office in Hillsborough. A veteran juror, Choroszewski’s process is to go with emotional appeal first and follow up with technical merit and theme.
“I’ve judged a number of photo shows, and often the winner is obvious to me at first view,” he says. “After my initial scan it was apparent the quality of submissions was high, and it was not going to be easy. I did a rapid edit for personal favorites, which totaled 28. I could have stopped then, but continued to review them several more times and added about 35 more to a folder of ‘finalists’ before giving it up for that evening. Insomnia started around 2:30 a.m., and I finally gave in and returned to my computer to continue the judging process through the night.”
“As the sole judge, I realized that I wasn’t just presiding over a photo contest, I was also curating a photo exhibition that had a theme,” he continues. “I was looking for great images of sculpture with the sub-theme of New Jersey, in honor of the 350th anniversary. After my preview I went back and read all the captions and subsequently added a few more ‘finalists’ based on their Jersey appeal. The following day the winnowing process continued from the bottom up, as I removed all marginal images and eventually narrowed it down to my final 29 images, the maximum number for the space.”
Each year a different professional in the field of photography is invited to select the works for the exhibition, and choosing Choroszewski to adjudicate was ideal, since his New Jersey photographs were the inspiration for creating the iconic “New Jersey & You: Perfect Together” tourism campaign, for which he was the primary photographer through the 1980s and ’90s.
His first major photo assignment came in 1980 when he was commissioned by a publisher to do a photo essay on New Jersey. “New Jersey, A Scenic Discovery,” published in 1981, established his lifelong link to the Garden State. In 1985 the Choroszewski family moved to New Jersey and launched Aesthetic Press Inc., initially to publish regional books and calendars, but which now serves as an umbrella for all of their creative endeavors, including presentations. Choroszewski lectures extensively on New Jersey at schools and libraries.
With able assistance from Susan, his wife and business partner, Choroszewski has photographed and published numerous wall calendars and 18 photographic books, including his newest book, “Hunterdon In My Heart,” celebrating the 300th anniversary of Hunterdon County, coincidentally another 2014 milestone.
Choroszewski’s current artistic success seems worlds away from his childhood in Pennsylvania. His grandparents came to the United States from Eastern Europe (Poland and Slovakia) and made their way to Jeddo, Pennsylvania, in the early 20th century, seeking work in the coal region.
Choroszewski’s father was forced to quit school at age 12 to help support his family during the Depression, beginning his life’s work as a coal miner, but losing that vocation when the U.S. transitioned from coal to oil-based energy in the late 1950s.
“The mines were shutting and my father could not find work,” Choroszewski says. “To survive, my mother had to accept a low-paying job as a seamstress in a textile factory, many miles from our home, causing my father to begin his new, unconventional-for-the-times role as a ‘Mr. Mom.’”
Choroszewski enjoyed this time with his father and suggests it may be the reason for his love of gardening, grocery shopping, and creative cooking. Still, there were artistic gifts within the family in a variety of ways.
“My mother was artistic through her sewing,” he says. “My maternal grandfather was a talented wood carver, but it was my mother’s younger brother, Uncle Joe, who seemed to show the most talent in drawing and photography. He was clearly my creative inspiration.”
Like many teens in the 1960s, Choroszewski tinkered with a Kodak Instamatic, but sometime during his college years at Penn State, he was rummaging through drawers at home, discovered his Uncle Joe’s vintage Voigtlander camera, and began experimenting with it as a tool for artistic expression.
“Besides art, I also loved the sciences,” he says. “I majored in biology with a goal of becoming a medical doctor, for the simple reason that doctors made more money than artists and that would be the way out of our poverty. After several rejection letters from medical schools, I accepted my fate and enjoyed my last semesters at Penn State, taking some art electives, including one in sculpture. I was proud to get the only ‘A’ as a non-art major.”
He graduated in 1975, bought his first camera with graduation gift money — a used Nikon F for $250 — and moved to New York to build a career in the arts.
Choroszewski says his early artistic influences were the works of M.C. Escher, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dali, as well as works by the French Impressionists.
“Photographically, my heroes were not necessarily household names and include Eliot Porter, David Muenc, as well as my mentors Dennis Hallinan — possibly the most widely published, yet least known photographers of the 1960s and 1970s — and New England-based nature photographer Clyde H. Smith, whose personal recommendation helped seal-the-deal for my first book contract.”
The Choroszewkis have a grown son, Joe, who was exposed to artistic expression and creativity from an early age.
“Possibly too much,” Choroszewski says. “We dragged him to numerous art shows as a toddler.” In one of his sketch book journals he expressed his frustration in a piece called “Art Gallery on Fire.” Joe Choroszewski pursued a career in music, graduating from the University of North Texas, and is currently the drummer for the Tony Award-winning musical comedy “Avenue Q,” as well as subbing on several other Broadway shows.
So, location-wise, Choroszewski has been from A-to-Z in the Garden State to make pictures, but does he still have some obscure place on his wish-list-to-shoot? Perhaps he’s overlooked a forgotten corner of Salem County or a blip-on-the-map like Ong’s Hat (a real place in Burlington County)?
“Not really,” he says. “I’ve been to most every location I ever wanted to shoot. Sadly, some of the places that were easily photographed in the 1980s and 1990s now have restricted access, thanks to the terror attacks of 9/11.”
“I can’t say there is an absolute favorite place (in New Jersey), rather I have numerous locales in every part of the state where I regularly visit and find visually stimulating,” Choroszewski says. “In this most populous of states, I am drawn to its natural areas — of which New Jersey has many. I also enjoy shooting the state’s historical landmarks as well as its great architecture. Interestingly, that would place Princeton near the top of my list of favorites, for the reasons I just listed.”
Focus on Sculpture, Education Gallery, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. a photography exhibit juried by Walter Choroszewski on view through Sunday, April 13. For hours and admission fees call 609-586-0616. www.groundsforsculpture.org. For more information on Walter Choroszewski, visit www.walterc.com.