Painterly Color Photography and Table Top Constructions

Jan Groover is best remembered as one of the first proponents of both painterly color photography and table top constructions. She was born in 1943 in Plainsfield, New Jersey and died in 2012 in Montpon-Menesterol, France. Initially having trained in painting in the 1960’s, Jan Groover turned to photography in the 70’s and, although she experimented with different subject matters, she is best remembered for her formal still-lifes. Her experience as a painter seemed to influence and permeate throughout her still-life photography as she referenced some of the French and Italian painters such as Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste Chardin, and Giorgio Morandi. Morandi is perhaps the most relevant comparison with his continued use of basic shapes and forms that were repeated through variations.

Capturing Nuances

Groover successfully applied for an NEA Grant in 1978 which gave her the funds to purchase a large scale camera. She was able to use sheet film and work with a large negative that could become saturated with color and capture the nuances of the surfaces of her objects. She started her staged, carefully controlled counter – or table top photography with lowly elements such as kitchen utensils.

Addressing Feminism

Her use of such everyday tools subtly address feminism, a subject many artists from Groover’s generation also studied in depth. The Kitchen Still Life series, for example, could be read as the kitchen utensils of a housewife piling up in the sink, displaying the banalities of her everyday life. Groover’s genius as an artist came into play as she found a way to transform these ordinary items into objects of beauty, referencing works of great feminist artists such as The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago. Textures, colors and forms became her medium of expression and these, along with her early use of color, were seen as departures from the endorsed schools of photojournalism, street photography, or portrait photography. She was able to make larger prints that were lush in color, masterful in their composition and lighting and had their own quiet elegance.

Jan Groover, Untitled (FS 41.2)
Jan Groover, Untitled (FS 41.2), 1987-88, Chromogenic color photograph

Untitled (FS 41.2)

In the photograph pictured, Untitled (FS 41.2) dated 1987-88, Groover uses bottles, a sphere, a flower, and a toy horse and carefully arranges them on flat surface that is tipped toward the viewer. This surface rests on a Greek period pedestal. The background is a monochromatic mottled soft fabric surface. Deep shadows emanate from the shapes cast through soft gentle side lighting and flat bluish purple surface that the objects rest on. If any other artist would have photographed the composition the resultant image would be more precise and in tighter focus and more evenly lit – in sum, more predictable.

Jan Groover Set Apart

What sets Jan Groover apart are decisions she consistently makes about her technique in setting up a photographic work. She used a ‘Banquet’ camera with a narrow aspect ratio that deliberately distorted the space. The resulting image has a dream like quality. Her painterly influence draws on her use of the seductive rich colors that deepen in the shadows. Her organization of objects is generally off kilter resulting in areas of various densities creating a weighty, languid surface. She relied on depth cues through receding planes and spatial relations to create incidences of depth of field and shallow space within the same picture. The picture plane struggles to contain all the objects held within it. It seems as if the table’s oblique angle will allow the objects to slide off. Similar to Morandi, in almost all of the table top constructions there is a repetition of cylinders, blocks, and obelisks. Their placement is for effect rather than for meaning. She concentrates on the physical and visual characteristic of the objects. The familiar objects in their all-over organization become dreamscapes that are somehow nostalgic and set a mood – but have no implicit meaning.

Groover at the Museum of Modern Art

In 1987, Jan Groover was given a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her work was placed in this half–world where photographers paid homage to painters and painters to photographers. The curator and critic Susan Kismaric commented:

“By using photography instead of painting, Groover complicates the notion of representation, and emphasizes the capacity of photography to make works of the imagination. The drama in Groover’s pictures arise from the tension between the form of the picture and things we know to exist in the world.”

Creating Depth and Drama

She created space through the use of compositional depth, but simultaneously exploited the two dimensionality of photography by figuring a way to manipulate surfaces and create a certain depth of field within the photograph. Her unconventional use of equipment allowed her to bring a breath of fresh air to the world of photography as Groover managed to manually create dramatic sceneries through light and shadow much more technologies such as Photoshop came into play. Groover built a reality of surface spaces and forms that created their own dialogues. With her emphasis on the objects that she used to construct her images and the dramatic side lighting she created a specific kind of space that was at once illusory through shadows and oblique framing and real in the weight and definition of the desperate elements.

Timeless Works of Art

In the end, after our understanding of the thought process that goes into making a body of work we are left with the photographs themselves as the lasting evidence of a photographer’s life. In her retrospective, the great John Szarkowski paid a compliment to Jan Groover when he wrote in her exhibition catalogue:

“her pictures were good to think about because they were first good to look at.”

He traced her lineage back to the still lifes of Edward Weston – who stressed the compositional values of a photograph. Her pictures held together as strikingly original and powerful images, that are not frozen within the era that they were produced, but instead are timeless works of art that will always stay relevant for the years to come. Her legacy is not only in her photographs but also she had the power of furthering the development of color photography and paving the way for later practitioners like Thomas Demand, Gregory Crewdson, and Jeff Wall to create staged complex photographs.

25 Years of Postmodern Color Photography

Holden Luntz Gallery, as a devotee of the medium of photography, does not only believe in Groover’s artistic and intellectual value, but has also stood by the artist, exhibiting her work for over 25 years. Without a doubt, Groover is the ultimate postmodern color photographer who’s dreamy, elegant, thought-provoking work is immortalized in photographic history.