Transcending the Superficial

Photography, as it is traditionally exercised, is expected to deliver what we see in front of our eyes, with its raw, truthful reality. The abstracting of photography is one of the later and less common practices of the medium. Ion Zupcu, however, is committed to making photographs that walk the knife’s edge between abstraction and figuration. His approach to the medium transcends the superficial, and explores the possibilities of light, form, and shape within the school of minimalism. Zupcu’s introduction to photography came early on in his life through his family around the age of 13. He would often conduct experiments on light with his brother, and it was through these experiments that he first saw how an image could translate itself onto paper.

A Turning Point

Having studied photography in Bucharest in the early 1980s, Zupcu developed a heightened awareness of photography being perceived as an art form. At the time, the medium was recognized more for its commercial elements, and was just beginning to be accepted within the world of fine arts. 1991, the year he moved to New York was a turning point for Ion Zupcu. He began working for a printing lab shortly after, and admired the works of American photographers such as Ansel Adams. Zupcu immersed himself into the world of photography, with frequent visits to the International Center for Photography (ICP) and other serious venues for photography, where he could fully experience the work of those he drew inspiration from, and further educate his eye. He decided to dedicate himself to developing his skills as a fine art photographer, as well as a master printer from then onwards.

Ion Zupcu, April 30, 2019, Études on Glass, 2019, Archival Pigment Photograph
Ion Zupcu, April 30, 2019, Études on Glass, 2019, Archival Pigment Photograph

Shifting to Still Life Photography

Having focused on various other genres in photography such as landscape, still life photography became the sole focus of the artistic portfolio of Ion Zupcu towards the late 1990s. When asked to comment on his shift to still life photography, Ion Zupcu said,

“I remember wishing that I could remove rocks, branches and trees from the landscape. That’s when I realized that I needed to stage my images.”

A Quest to Strip Down Objects to Their Sole Essence

With the precision of an architect, he wanted to take complete control of how every single detail was orchestrated within the final frame. Already influenced and inspired by modernist names such as Jan Groover and Josef Sudek, his aesthetic began taking on a minimalist form, reflecting a quest to strip down objects to their sole essence. Besides the aforementioned photographers, another one of his greatest inspirations became the very city that he lived in, New York. The rigid grid structure that formed its streets, the tall, industrial-feeling skyscrapers, very different than his native Romania, all influenced Zupcu’s purist eye. Reduction took center stage, and Zupcu focused the very elements, the essentials that created his still lives; from light to form, shape to color, composition to geometry.

Ion Zupcu, October 20, 2019, Études on Glass, 2019, Archival Pigment Photograph
Ion Zupcu, October 20, 2019, Études on Glass, 2019, Archival Pigment Photograph

Études on Glass

One of the latest series Ion Zupcu has worked on, titled Études on Glass, is rather an elevated study that brings multiple mediums together in one single picture frame. The series reconciles Zupcu’s long-help obsession with the minimalist piano music of Philip Glass. The miniature, hand made blocks are treated as sculptures where Zupcu imagines how the ethereal music of Philip Glass would look like as if it were to be translated onto the picture frame. His play on solid and ephemeral geometries, with an exquisite command of light and shadow results in a rather delicious interpretation of minimalism, according to the artist. The main concern for Zupcu in creating this series is as follows;

‘Just how can the structure and emotion of Philip Glass’ music jump artistic disciplines and be translated into a photographic composition?’

Although the overall question is abstract, the framework and process that goes into creating a single shot is very much structured. He first makes a small sketch of what the miniature sculpture will look like, which is followed by the actual making of the form.

Ion Zupcu, May 29, 2019, Études on Glass, 2019
Ion Zupcu, May 29, 2019, Études on Glass, 2019, Archival Pigment Photograph

A European Influence on Color

“Determining the appropriate color directions to mirror the sounds of the Études, or how to construct visual analogues to his satisfying note strikes / attacks, was as engaging a process as listening to the music itself.” says Zupcu when describing the next steps.

Although heavily influenced by the rigidity and coldness of the city that he lives in, Zupcu’s decision making in terms of color still holds glimpses of his European background. The sculptures in Études on Glass are depicted as vibrant colors that stand out even more when contrasted with the rather muted blue background, a strategic decision he made when composing the series. The blue background reminds the viewer of the twilight zone, the ethereal color the sky turns into just moments before sunrise. It is also the kind of blue, which is muted, silent even, which allows his miniature sculptures to pop much like the strikes and attacks in Glass’ compositions.

A Perfectionist Approach

When it comes to the final steps of taking the actual photograph, in his own, small and pristine studio in upstate New York, Zupcu keeps his perfectionist approach. He first photographs the composition with a polaroid camera to check if there are any details he needs to adjust. He continues the check-and-adjust process with the polaroid camera until the shot is perfect which then, he photographs with his actual camera. It is only then, when there is nothing to change in the composition, that the frame is final.

Ion Zupcu, Etude, April 2, 2019
Ion Zupcu, Études on Glass, April 2, 2019, Archival Pigment Photograph

Journal Entries

The multi-layered, minimalist explorations of Ion Zupcu through still life photography are, in his own words, ‘journal entries’, they speak of who he was and what he was doing at the time he was taking the photographs. Inspired by pictoralism and the modernist school of photography, Zupcu continues to work and reside in New York. His work can be seen as an attempt to unify his interests in music, composition, architecture, and painting all through the conduit of photography. The resultant various images all have a painterly depth, dynamic mood, and reflect the 3-dimensional world of sculpture. His work is featured in various significant public and private collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Detroit Institute of Art, and the University of Michigan Institute of Art.