Michener Art Museum remembers collection artist John Weiss

Michener Art Museum remembers collection artist John Weiss

John Weiss, Self Portrait at 50, 1991, James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase funded by the Bette and G. Nelson Pfundt Photography Endowment and an Anonymous Donor.

It is with a heavy heart that the Michener Art Museum curatorial staff announces the news of the death of collection artist John (“JJ”) Weiss as shared with us by former curator Brian Peterson.

John Joseph Weiss (1941-2017) was a photographer and celebrated educator who was the focus of a 1994 Michener Art Museum solo exhibition entitled The Face of Baseball. In 2013, the museum acquired over two hundred of his photographs with support from an anonymous donor. Weiss was inspired to assemble his own darkroom and teach himself photography after seeing the 1968 photography exhibition Light 7 at the Hayden Gallery at MIT curated by the photographer and writer Minor White and accompanied by an issue of Aperture magazine. Over a year later, Weiss contacted White and eventually became his lab assistant at MIT in 1969 until White’s passing in 1976. The Aperture co-founder and editor had become a mentor to Weiss, who then went on to pursue his MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design where he studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Weiss became a celebrated and award-winning educator in his own right, teaching photography for over 30 years at the University of Delaware and becoming the coordinator of the photography program. He was also an instructor for over two decades at the renowned Sante Fe Photographic Workshops, and a workshop instructor at UCLA and the Los Angeles Center of Photography. An avid photographer of global cultures, Weiss was known to lead photo safaris and tours abroad where he simultaneously developed bodies of work celebrating both the unique facets of each place and the underlying humanity between global peoples.  The photographs of Weiss can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the James A. Michener Art Museum.

John Weiss, from the Kenya series, n.d., James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase funded by the Bette and G. Nelson Pfundt Photography Endowment and an Anonymous Donor.

The Michener Art Museum’s former Gerry & Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator, Brian Peterson, shared this personal reflection on the photographer’s influence and legacy upon his passing:

Remembering John Weiss

When I met John Weiss in 1982, I was a year shy of thirty, and the only formal instruction I’d had in photography was a couple of non-credit evening classes and an occasional weekend workshop. He was in charge of the graduate photo program at the University of Delaware, and was a formidable figure in the photography world.

There was a minor issue with my plan to enter grad school in photography: my bachelor’s degree was in music, not visual art. Many teachers  would have shown me the door. But a musician who wanted an MFA in photography was intriguing to John. He liked a person with a story, who’d lived a little.

His own path was anything but conventional, but the result was a gifted artist and master teacher who ran the grad program at Delaware for more than three decades.

John Weiss, George ‘Sparky’ Anderson, 1994, James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase.

While our personalities and habits were different, our experience of creativity—the daily discipline, the small successes and failures, the seriousness of the commitment—was intensely and surprisingly connected. 

I was often awestruck by John’s simple ability to see: from corner to corner and side to side, absorbing  every tiny detail of a visual event as it darted before his eye. Even more miraculous was his ability to quickly turn perfect strangers into friends and partners, who helped him make images filled with love and generosity.

John Weiss devoted his life to finding and sharing that deep generosity of the soul. To him the artist’s calling eventually landed on sacred ground, where creativity and the interior life, the life of the spirit, are mysteriously woven together.  

“It’s like the lightning bolt pierced my heart,” he said, “and I was all in. All the chips I had left, all the chips I could imagine ever collecting, I put in, and I knew it was right. I couldn’t have explained it.  But there’s never been a day since that I haven’t loved photography with all my heart and honored it with all my humanity.”