Working behind the counter of a Greenwich Village camera store just after college, John Pearson Wright (Col ’76) greeted an elderly gentleman ordering copies. “Your name, please?” Wright asked.
Wright perked up. André Kertész’s intimate, light-infused style earned him distinction as a pioneer of photojournalism. Wright eagerly asked, “What camera do you use? Lenses? Filters?”
Kertész slowly replied in his thick Hungarian accent, “My dear boy, it is not in zee equipment, it is in zee eye.”
In a medium revolutionized by digital equipment, Kertész’s message still resonates with Wright. From the Polaroid used in his youth to his present-day 35mm Nikon, he has lived by the “keep it simple” aphorism.
“Probably the pivotal learning experience I had was not to get caught up in all the equipment, but to find my vision to document precise moments, those magical moments,” says Wright.
Whether photographing Jessica Lange, Christopher Walken, Paul Newman or Al Pacino for Inside the Actors Studio or capturing Ella Fitzgerald performing at the Lincoln Center, Wright faces the challenge of reaching beyond a celebrity’s image and conveying a human being.
As well as being noted for his portraiture and concert performance photography, Wright, who currently lives in the Tidewater, Va., area, studied film and is currently directing and editing a feature-length documentary. Titled A Sea of Madness and set in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, “It is a father-son road trip about our emotional adventures while on vacation at the Outer Banks from the death of JFK to the present,” Wright says.
Between his time at the University and earning a master’s degree at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, Wright spent nine months backpacking through Europe. The tour included a “watershed experience” in his growth as an artist. One day in Monte Carlo, just as the Grand Prix auto racing crowds were dispersing, Wright saw Ringo Starr and George Harrison, the latter by a wharf, sitting for a charcoal portrait. Wright, who had his camera handy, refrained from taking photos.
“Here’s a man who spiritually shared so much with the world through his music. Harrison was on holiday, and it was a private moment for him.” While position and access are paramount to photography, so are boundaries, Wright says.
During Wright’s 30-year career, paparazzi surfaced only once, as a throng of British tabloid photographers blocked his shot of the Duchess of York entering a Harlem orphanage. On assignment for Time-Life, Wright was pulled from the crowd and given an exclusive photo session with the Duchess. “As I entered the room, she smiled up from the floor where she was playing with two toddlers. I sat down by the trio and calmly clicked her close-up, then stood, bowed and quietly left.
“See, the greatest joy for me as a photographer is it often gives one permission to literally walk into another person’s life,” Wright says. “I believe the ticket ‘in,’ though, is respect.”