Joseph Bartscherer, Rigorously Conceptual Photographer, Dies at 65

Joseph Bartscherer, Rigorously Conceptual Photographer, Dies at 65

Joseph Bartscherer, a fine-art photographer who created rigorously conceptual work about the constructed world, the natural world and the intersection of the two, was found dead on Aug. 13 at his home in Brooklyn Heights. He was 65.

His brother Thomas said the cause was hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

Mr. Bartscherer’s four-decade career as an artist was defined by long-term observation and doggedness of focus. His works included “Canal,” for which he traveled along a 19th-century canal between Liverpool and Leeds, in England; “Nevada,” a deep dive into that state’s geology; and “Forest,” for which he returned again and again over a decade to a section of New England woods to capture, in rich color, the changes to an eternal landscape.

For “Pioneering Mattawa,” he spent nine years photographing a government irrigation project in Washington State that turned a desert into a fertile fruit-growing region. Through black-and-white photos, Mr. Bartscherer subtly revealed the way humans shaped the land; one image shows a row of newly planted trees being bent back by the wind.

What largely set Mr. Bartscherer’s work apart from documentary photography was the way he presented his images in carefully constructed grids and the intellectual underpinnings of each photograph.

“Joseph was trying to make sense of the world through the things that excited his eye and his intellect,” James Welling, a photographer who in the 1990s shared a studio in SoHo with Mr. Bartscherer, said in a phone interview.

Mr. Bartscherer’s longest-running work, “Obituary,” involved the obituary section of The New York Times. Beginning in 1990, he collected every issue of The Times in which an obituary and accompanying photograph ran on the front page

The work was first shown in 2001 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, filling the entire gallery. Arthur C. Danto, writing about “Obituary” in The Nation, called it “a remarkable installation.”

“The work,” he wrote, “is in the form of a kind of cemetery,” with newspapers “arrayed, like gravestones, in orderly rows.”

Joseph Bartscherer was born on Aug. 30, 1954, in Queens, and grew up there and in Mineola, on Long Island. His mother, Rita (Dorgler) Bartscherer, was a homemaker who raised nine children. His father, Joseph Bernard Bartscherer, was a bricklayer who rose to become a foreman and ultimately a co-owner of the Kelly Masonry Corporation.

While attending Harvard in the early 1970s, Mr. Bartscherer was encouraged to pursue photography by Ben Lifson, a teacher there and a photography critic for The Village Voice. He went on to receive an M.F.A. from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he was Robert Frank’s teaching assistant.

Mr. Bartscherer worked on construction sites for his father during and after college, and his early photos were of such prosaic structures as building sites, farms and canals. “He was enamored with beauty,” Thomas Bartscherer said in a phone interview. “He just found it where many others didn’t.”

Mr. Bartscherer’s work was shown at galleries including Marian Goodman and Peter Freeman in New York and Galerie Philip Nelson in Paris. In 1995, the Museum of Modern Art included him in its influential continuing New Photography exhibition. His work was acquired by MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among other institutions.

In addition to his brother Thomas, Mr. Bartscherer is survived by a son, Max Joseph Bartscherer; four other brothers, John, James, Michael and Peter; and three sisters, Karen Israel, Susan Tepper and Anne Bartscherer.

Mr. Bartscherer collected Times obituaries for three decades. At first he was interested in the visual rhymes between one photograph and another. But the project developed other meanings and resonances as the years rolled on, including as an obituary for the 20th century, and for the print newspaper itself as it shrank in the digital era.

During the course of “Obituary,” Mr. Bartscherer faced personal losses, including the deaths of his parents and his wife, Diane Shamash, an art curator. Finally, the project’s base theme was made real.

“It became a story of his mortality,” Thomas Bartscherer said. “It was ongoing when he died.”

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