Photographer and Gallery 14 photography co-op member Kenneth Kaplowitz — a juror for the gallery’s annual national juried photographic exhibit, opening Friday, July 10 — says his life in art started when he was three years old. That was when his first drawing of a horse made his mother so proud that she showed it to everyone in the apartment building where their family lived above his father’s cabinet store on Springfield Avenue in Newark, New Jersey. It then earned a proud place on the family refrigerator.

Kaplowitz, the oldest of three boys, is Newark born and raised — attending several schools in Newark before graduating from Arts High, which was the first high school in the nation to be devoted to arts and music.

During a recent interview at his home in Pennington, the 74-year-old recalls the four years of studying art four hours each day at Arts High led to him being a “seasoned painter,” by the time he graduated. In fact, one of his high school paintings was selected to be in the first New Jersey Bi-Annual Exhibition at the Montclair Museum.

“I was very shy,” says Kaplowtiz, “So going outside to play with children was not my favorite thing to do. I was a recluse in a sense. I stayed in the house and I got very bored doing that, so my mother gave me crayons and paper, and I kept drawing.”

After the school years of developing skills, drawing covers for the elementary school yearbook, winning competitions for his drawings, creating cartoons for a weekly school magazine with a fellow classmate and having it featured in the Newark Star Ledger, he received a BA in art education from Montclair State University and began his teaching career. He started at an elementary school in Irvington, New Jersey, and — after receiving a MA in film and television production from NYU and an MFA in sculpture from Rutgers University — eventually joining what is now the College of New Jersey in 1970 as the college’s TV coordinator and then teaching photography, multi-media and TV production, and filmmaking.

In 1980 Kaplowitz moved to the art department where he taught drawing, figure drawing, photography, served as photography coordinator for 14 years, and starts his 45th year of teaching at TCNJ this fall.

Kaplowitz — who was also involved with theater and playwriting as a student — shrugs off the renaissance-man label by saying, “I like all the arts basically. I can’t dance.”

After moving through different mediums and styles, he found that photography was the form that best suited him and for practical reasons. “It was difficult to store sculpture, ceramics, and paintings. You just had to have more space, and I wound up with less and less space over the years. Then the digital revolution came along in photography,” he says, adding that he can store thousands of prints in less space than one piece of sculpture.

A long-time exhibitor dealing with a lot of styles — he once filled a gallery with hanging rubber inflatable sculptures — Kaplowitz says his interest in the abstract and surreal have served him well with the evolution of his work.

Take for example, his current work: a parody of the human condition using robots doing ordinary things that one might associate with humans. He describes the series as “kind of Norman Rockwell-ish using robots instead of people.”

His process is to use layers of different photographic elements to create a single work, using digital information to compose an image or construct a scene like a painter would on a canvas. The canvas in this case is the computer screen.

Some images can have 50 different layers or more. Kaplowitz says it can take weeks or even months to complete each one. He takes hundreds and sometimes thousands of pictures each month and then takes a portion or an element from each image to create a story. “It’s much like taking puzzle pieces and putting them together in a different arrangement.”

Kaplowitz’s main tool is a Canon G15, a pocket-size camera carried in a pouch on his hip. “I find it very convenient because wherever I am my camera is with me. I can take a picture of the grill of a car and use it for a face, a light in my room and use it as lighting in one of my pictures. I literally take pictures of everything. I never know what I’m going to need.”

Everything he sees and photographs is fair game, and any significant change is saved, resulting sometimes in 60 versions of the same photograph and an artistic advantage. “If I have 60 versions of one photograph or digital image, I might go back and find that the last one, which I thought was the best one, might not be the best. It might have been one in the middle or the 20th.”

The work pushes the boundaries of the definition of photography. It doesn’t reflect the idea of what most people think of as traditional photography. Digital manipulation has changed the reality of what is and isn’t real. But reality is not a rectangle, or two-dimensional.

He tends to work in series that sometimes last for three years or three months. His ideas keep him motivated to teach. “I keep jumping around because I have new ideas. I’m also teaching students in a similar way because their assignments change weekly. When I’m moving from one style or genre to another, it’s useful for me because then I can use that in class. So they’re continually exploring and creating because of my teaching and I’m keeping them stimulated because of the things I’ve discovered when I’m working.”

In turn, Kaplowitz credits his students for being part of that process and says that he thinks his best year as a teacher was the past one. “I’ve been teaching there so long I think I finally know how to teach, and that’s why I’m not giving up yet. I’m not going to go silently away to retirement land. I’m having too much fun.”

An artist represented in collections throughout the region — with the College of New Jersey holding more than 100 of his works — Kaplowitz’s association with Gallery 14 goes back several years, first through friendships with many of the photographers and finally joining as a member two years ago. Currently he is involved in selecting new members, exhibits by non-members, and monthly meetings of the photo discussion group. The monthly critiques are open to the public. He was also one of the three jurors for Gallery 14’s new juried photographic exhibit, selecting 46 works from a pool of 135 artists.

Although critiquing others and creating art can be serious and intense work, Kaplowitz says it has a playful side. “I’m having my second childhood. Because at this time in my life, I’m 74, I might as well have a little fun. When I do this it’s like going to another place. It’s like going to another reality, and so I’m participating in that, creating the reality where I can visit. I don’t have to travel physically to be in another place. I can take pictures, create another background, a new location, and then I’m there and it’s real for me. It’s almost as real as going somewhere.”

Sixth National Juried Photographic Exhibit, Gallery 14 Fine Art Photography, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Opens Friday, July 10, with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m., and continues through Sunday, August 9, open weekends from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment.

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