Roger Mertin, professor of art and art history at the University of Rochester who found images for his photographs in the backyards and main streets of America, died at his home in Rochester on May 6. A resident of Rochester and St. Paul, Minn., Mertin was 58.
Works by Mertin, a member of the Rochester faculty since 1972, are in the collections of national and international museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and the National Gallery of Canada, which owns more than 400 pieces.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., Mertin became fascinated with taking pictures when he got a camera at age 13. He began formal study of photography in 1961 at Rochester Institute of Technology and graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1965. He earned a master of fine arts degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo through the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester in 1972.
Mertin, who was considered a master darkroom technician, gained notice for the emotional nature of his 35-mm photographs in the late 1960s and the 70s, but shifted to the larger 8-by-10-inch format for its clearer, photographic quality. His photos then took on a more reserved and understated character, some critics said. The change also coincided with new projects that had historical significance.
During Rochester's 150th birthday celebration in 1984, Mertin used this method for a series of black-and-white portraits of people in 19th-century costumes and contemporary dress. Then in the last 12 years, he traveled extensively to photograph libraries funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie from 1886 to 1917. Most every subject-from interior Christmas decorations to roadside views in small towns-held possibilities for Mertin.
"He was interested in local environments wherever they happened to be," said close friend and photographer Carl Chiarenza. "He wasn't looking for the exotic or the different; he was always looking for the American vernacular. Those were the kind of things that drew him."
In the early 1990s, longtime photographic curator James Borcoman called Mertin's work "a gift of discovery" because his photographs enlightened viewers about the act of looking. "For Mertin has shown us that the things of this world hold magic and mystery in greater abundance than we have imagined," he wrote.
Mertin was an introspective, quiet person who was a dedicated and patient teacher, colleagues remember. "The students we shared praised his availability, his willing response to them as individuals," said Chiarenza, Fanny Knapp Allen Professor Emeritus at the University. "He taught as a practicing artist-by example, revealing what a commitment to making art is all about."
Over the years, Mertin's photographs were displayed at the University's Harnett Gallery in Wilson Commons. He was a curator of exhibits there as well as a member of Harnett's advisory committee. A large color photograph by Mertin, "East Face, Wilson Commons, University of Rochester, April 30, 1991," now hangs at the entrance to the Commons as a symbol of student activism. It shows a section of an exterior wall of the Commons where students used white chalk to tally thousands of Iraqi deaths during the Persian Gulf conflict. It was published in Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, a special bicentennial volume and CD-ROM by the Library of Congress.
"Roger was a first-rate artist, supportive colleague, and good friend," said George Morrison, assistant director of student activity programs. "We in Student Activities take very seriously the passionate involvement of our distinguished faculty members in the lives of our students. Roger Mertin was a wonderful contributor to the artistic climate of the University."
During his career, Mertin was awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts, among others. Recent honors included his selection for a 1999 McKnight Artist Fellowship to Minnesota photographers. That award supported his work on the Carnegie library project. He also was recognized with a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship for Photography in 1998.
A memorial service will be held at the Interfaith Chapel on the University's River Campus at 2 p.m. May 16.
Mertin is survived by his life partner Elizabeth Ihrig, with whom he shared a home in St. Paul, Minn.; his mother Margaret Mertin; his sister Ruth Meyer; and two nieces, Kim Meyer and Kerry Carafano, all of Stratford, Conn.