Joe began by explaining how the camera can be an extension of the mind’s eye, the key to a new adventure in seeing. A print of Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images‘ hung on the wall behind him, a simple illustration of a pipe with the caption, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe). Oddly enough, the pipe in the painting looked just like the one in Joe’s hand. The adventure had begun before I even picked up a camera.
Joe Alper was one in a cluster of big names who joined the faculty at SUNY Albany back in the mid-Sixties, as then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller completed his sweeping upgrade of the state university system, a string of jewels spread out across the state with the new Albany campus as its centerpiece. A dubious distinction, in my view, as the muddled modernist buildings (rumored to have been designed for the pop-up city of Brasilia in the Amazon jungle) didn’t sit too well in the frozen tundras of upstate New York. But hey, it was the capitol, and he was the governor.
Be that as it may, it landed me in a classroom with one of the greatest jazz photographers in the world, one whose images graced the covers of some of the finest jazz albums of the era. Sharing a mutual love of art and jazz, we soon became good friends. Being an exceedingly generous soul, he not only invited me to join him on several photo shoots in Manhattan during that first year, but made arrangements for me to shoot a portrait of John Coltrane for the cover of Coda magazine in the fall of ’67. Tragically, Trane would die of liver cancer that summer, and Joe would pass away exactly one year later, of renal failure. I was crushed.
I went on to apply my photographic skills to the process of painting, and would soon be painting large scale, mechanically-altered, photo-based paintings, one of which – a Hells Angel blazing across the canvas on a silver chopper – would propel me down the New York State Thruway to the Big City in search of fame. Known simply as the Motorcycle Painting, it reemerged many years later as the centerpiece of my first novel, Runtime Zero. More on that later.
In the meanwhile, you can take in some more of Joe Alper’s work at the Morrison Hotel Gallery.