Artist of the Year

Fairfield Arts Council names
Thomas Mezzanotte as 'Artist of the Year' – Saturday October 23rd, 2010 event

Published: Wednesday, August 11, 2010  Minute Man article

Fairfield Arts Coucil's Artist of the Year, Thomas Mezzanotte, sits in his studio. (Photo by Ulla Surland)  View and purchase photos

Photographer Thomas Mezzanotte, this year’s winner of the Fairfield Arts Council Artist of the Year, as well as many other grants and awards, wrote about a stay as a Visiting Artist at Weir Farm in Wilton, a landscape familiar from his childhood. "For over twenty years, I have worked exclusively in the studio," Mezzanotte wrote in 2001, "Because it was there that I could control the process and let my imagination direct the journey. The results have been wonderful."

At Weir Farm, an open air studio, "The landscape was not to be had on my terms and so eventually, I accepted its terms and went where it demanded." All his technical experience and expertise would not work immediately outdoors, so he let the environment guide him to something new: soft-focused pinhole images, jarred by the wind, which called up memories of a New England childhood spent with nature.

Ulla Surland, co-chair of the Fairfield Arts Council Artist of the Year event and a member of the Board of Directors of the Fairfield Arts Council, suggested photographer Thomas Mezzanotte as a candidate for this year’s award, because she "wanted someone who lived the life of the artist and made the sacrifice that entails."

"We educate kids in consumerism and don’t value and support artists enough," she said. "I also didn’t choose an artist on the basis of how much money he made," she noted, but for the "respect I had for him as an artist, his integrity, talent, and lifetime of work."

A visit to Mezzanotte’s loft studio in a 1906 building housing 25 artists in a working class neighborhood resulted in an education in photographic technique and history — a peek behind the veil of how he achieves some of his innovative and compelling images.

After visiting his darkroom, I sit down for a picture taken with an 8x10 Century View camera, vintage 1906, much like the one used for Civil War photographer Mathew Brady’s battlefield scenes. The glass is prepared with a light-sensitive emulsion and inserted in the large slot. I sit unsmiling for a minute or two just as turn of the century subjects did. After the photo is taken, the glass is removed to the darkroom, treated with a fixer and then, as it’s washed, my face appears, not glamorous, but as Mezzanotte reassures me, having "gravitas and character," which is what he likes about this old technique. It startlingly ages its subjects, reproducing the formality, even severity, we associate with photographs of that time. Glass positives of a fourteen-year-old girl, a local juggler, a Starbucks barista, Marcella, a favorite model, neighborhood friends and Mezzanotte himself pop up everywhere in his studio, and every portrait is distinct and revealing.

Mezzanotte has been working as a photographer and teacher, both in public schools and colleges, for 40 years. When asked if he ever wanted to become a commercial photographer, he said that he initially did some catalog work but with the advent of digital cameras and Photoshop, catalog work disappeared, and the expensive photo shoot, while lucrative, did not interest him. "I’ve been lucky," he said, "Not having a lot of money forces me to be creative and create a new aesthetic."

His enthusiasm for creativity in the classroom is equally notable, as he describes "demystifying the camera" quickly and incisively by creating a camera obscura, a Renaissance invention underpinning the art and science of photography, out of a fifth grade classroom. The students learn photographic history and the optical principles behind photography, then make their own cameras out of shoe boxes, shoot and develop their pictures.

His introduction to photography began serendipitously in high school when the Photography Club’s darkroom became a "hideaway for smoking, drinking coffee, and goofing off," Mezzanotte recalled. To keep teachers at bay, Mezzanotte and a friend had to learn how to develop negatives to justify their occupation of the room. But he quickly became interested in photography as an art form and took a B.A. in Fine Arts/Photography at the University of Bridgeport. His association with that school included managing the school’s Carlson Gallery in the late eighties, when it was "a creative, exciting place" visited by famous artists like Buckminster Fuller.

His studio includes many old cameras and equipment, which were either given to him or which he made. Mezzanotte, an articulate expounder of his own work, said that he has had "a love affair with the medium. Photography is about the medium of photography, and my whole career has been about the medium. I’ve taken it in every direction from straight photography to very abstract work. One of photography’s greatest strengths is its verisimilitude. It captures a moment in time and space. My work is on the edge between photography and painting, and I’m not sure which it is."

His upcoming exhibit on October 23 at the Fairfield Arts Council Gallery will include a series of photographs shot with the Century View camera that immortalized me; a large homemade camera made out of a dishwasher box, a magnifying glass, and a light fixture from Home Depot; and his own camera obscura. The 30th annual celebration will begin with a documentary film describing Mezzanotte’s life and work, the award-winning Mezzanotte Obscura, followed by a reception and exhibit at the FTC gallery at 70 Sanford Street in Fairfield.


Photographer selected Fairfield Artist of the Year

Published: 11:32 a.m., Friday, July 16, 2010  Read the article.
Photographic artist Thomas Mezzanotte has been selected as the 30th Artist of the Year by the Fairfield Arts Council.

Mezzanotte is described as an "old school" photographer, who uses what a profile in the Greenwich Time newspaper calls "an intuitive sense of how light interacts with chemicals," which produce "images seemingly born from the mystical convergence of science and art."

He is a student of the history of photography, using shoe boxes to teach young students the basics, as if it were a hundred years ago. He also teaches with the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and has won many grants and awards. His work is featured in solo and group shows all across the country.

Mezzanotte will be honored by the arts council at an Oct. 23 reception. The event will include a showing of an award-winning firm about the artist's life and work, "Mezzanotte Obscura," which has been shown at several important film festivals. An exhibit of Mezzanotte's work will also be on display at the FAC gallery.

Previous Artists of the Year honorees include actor Keir Dullea, Grammy Award-winning jazz musician Dave Samuels, author Nicholas Rinaldi, rock musicians Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz of the Talking Heads, and last year's honoree, dancer Elizabeth Gayner.

The Fairfield Arts Council's Artist of the Year Award, established in 1976, is presented to an artist in the visual, performing or literary arts who has made a significant contribution to his or her field and has demonstrated artistic excellence to the highest level.