The way Joan Weiss sees it, there’s always more than meets the eye.
Her images really reside in the mind. Whether she’s honing in on details others might easily overlook, or capturing layers of meaning hidden in plain sight in a landscape vista, this acclaimed Long Island photographer brings an artistic aesthetic to her work that makes a lasting impression.
Not bad for someone who could neither draw nor paint as a kid growing up in Brooklyn—and never saw her artwork stuck on the refrigerator door by her parents. But she did borrow her family’s trusty old Brownie, and that passion for photography—though it took some significant detours over the years as she pursued a high-pressure career as a medical writer and editor—stayed with her.
After she retired a couple of years ago, this Jericho resident devoted herself to becoming a full-time art photographer. What she’s accomplished since 2015 is impressive: She’s been elected to the Board of Directors of the Art League of Long Island and had four solo shows on Long Island, with more to come.
This Sunday marks another milestone in her photographic odyssey that has taken Weiss from Coney Island to Vietnam, when her exhibit, “Illusions & Impressions,” opens at the Shelter Rock Art Gallery in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset. On display from March 25 through April 24, it’s fitting that the largest show yet of her work takes place at a gallery considered by many professional photographers as the best venue on Long Island aside from museums.
“I will be showing 40 photographs, a few of them on the ‘gigantic’ side,” Weiss told the Press, adding that some are five-feet wide. “That will be new for that gallery, but I think it shows those particular photographs to their best advantage.”
Admittedly, her work is edgy, impressionistic and even surreal—and at their best breathtakingly beautiful.
In her photography, she says, “I see textures, and layers, and the way objects interact in geometric patterns to form other creations. I see shadows and reflections, and the blur of human motion, and sometimes an incongruous fusion of these elements.”
Her formal training began at Cornell University when she amazed her friends by signing up for early Saturday morning photography classes. After graduating with a B.S., she went to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she would often be the one wielding the camera instead of the reporter’s notepad. The year was 1968.
“It was a turning point in my life,” recalled Weiss, who was known as Joan Solomon back in those days. “I had become sort of the unofficial class photographer,” she said. In April that year, Columbia students protesting the Vietnam War began a nonviolent occupation of campus buildings and subsequently classes were suspended.
“So we just wandered around the campus during the day looking for where the action was,” Weiss said. “We would often hear in the middle of the night that there were riots on campus and the police were going after students. So we, of course, got up to join the action. We were all in our 20s then and had no fear. If the police caught you, they either crushed your skull with their batons or arrested you. One night my shoe fell off and I fell down. I was terrified. A couple of my friends got me up and dragged me off campus.”
Interestingly, her next big solo exhibit, “Vietnam Now,” will be shown at the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills from May 3 to May 31, featuring about 30 photographs she took during her trip through that war-torn south Asian country last January.
But it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that her work is overtly, or even covertly, political. It’s more profound than that, and harder to categorize.
“I sometimes feel like I’m in a dream, where things are not what they seem but serve as clues to a deeper, more elusive truth,” Weiss explained. “That truth is revealed to me more vividly through the camera lens than through the naked eye.”
As Weiss gained confidence in her art, she began to realize that she doesn’t see the world as others do—and she has grown to appreciate the difference.
“When I travel and members of my group look in one direction to snap a photo, I invariably aim my camera in the other,” she said. “I find interest and beauty where others might see the mundane. I see glitz where others might see grandeur.”
To create a compelling image, she says she takes “a practical approach” that she’s willing to share:
“Go out in atrocious weather. Get into impossible positions. Ruin your clothes.”
And so she does—willingly. But what she brings back with her camera makes it all so worthwhile.