Bard College at Simon's Rock: the Early College

Finding Beauty in the Neglected Frontier

Jan Staller ’70

Award-winning Photographer

Over Jan Staller’s 40-year career, his photographs of urban landscapes have been exhibited at MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, the High Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

About Jan’s photographs, Margarett Loke observed in the New York Times, “Again and again he shows that the trappings of 20th-century life can be as mysterious as the glyphs of giant creatures and geometric patterns left on the desert floor…”

Best known for ethereal imagery of oft overlooked subjects he finds at the sides of highways, unfinished construction sites and landfills, Jan’s work may be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, SFMOMA, the International Center of Photography, and several other public and private institutions. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Hasselblad Corporation. Two monographs of his work have been published: Frontier New York and On Planet Earth.

Jan completed his AA at Simon’s Rock, where he studied art history, drawing, and silkscreen, while developing his interest in photography.

Jan received his BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Jan finds adventure and otherworldliness in the neglected frontier outside the New York City metropolis.

It is to these areas that I have long been drawn, lingering there to meditate on a quality of light, space, and weather. In the decay and desertion of these run-down places, there is much for me to explore, and I find the atmosphere to be rich in mystery, reminiscent of a lost city.

Jan has worked on assignment for the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, Atlantic Records, Boston Globe, Conde Nast Traveler Magazine, Time, Life, People, and more than 50 other publications worldwide. Jan shares his artist’s view of human-altered land through lectures at museums and educational institutions around the world.

Jan has had a long-standing involvement with architecture and industrial design. Over the years, he has built and lived in two distinctly different Manhattan homes of his own design. With largely self-taught machinist techniques, Jan has conceived and fabricated a range of objects including unique lighting, furniture, and jewelry.

In 1995, fellow Simon’s Rock alums and independent filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen hired Jan to shoot stark winter landscape stills for the quirky and critically acclaimed film Fargo. Jan has also created his own abstract short films, Saved and Cycle, on exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

Developing a Focus at Simon’s Rock

At Simon’s Rock, Jan honed his photography skills by taking photos of fellow students, the campus, and Great Barrington. “I was doing a fair bit of photography at the time.”

Jan’s interest in construction imagery began early. After receiving his associate’s degree, he returned to campus to help a local contractor build the Mods, a unique apartment-style residence. Here, he conceived his earliest notions of photographing architecture and industrial design. Jan’s later photographs of wood framing were influenced by the materials he used while helping build the Mods. “So much of my work is about the ephemeral. It’s just some operation that has a function to a particular end.”

Screenwriter, director, and actor Terry Gilliam wrote, “Whether Jan Staller’s camera has transformed these landscapes or transformed the viewer I’m not certain. But I do know that he gives us a chance to travel to the outskirts of our own world…as aliens.”

Before heading to the Maryland Institute College of Art, Jan taught a photography class at Simon’s Rock. He returned to campus to participate in the alumni speaker series Uncommon Journeys. He shared photographs that spanned his entire career, and spoke of the significance of his time at Simon’s Rock and the Berkshires.

Watch: Uncommon Journeys

View the evolution of Jan Staller's photography in his slideshow presentation and artist's talk. 

My appreciation for being outdoors was certainly a part of my life here, and being outdoors is a meditative experience, at best. That was something that I sought out in the urban landscape.

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