Conceptual artist and acclaimed photographer John Messinger ’02 will return to Ross School this week to address the Class of 2017 as the alumni commencement speaker. John, a member of the school’s second graduating class, values the deep friendships and connections he made and continues to sustain as a member of the Ross community. Since graduation, he has stayed involved with Ross, not only as the first alumnus to return as a faculty member, but as an occasional mentor and collaborator with faculty and students.
John’s career path began with taking photos as a child, his interest piqued by his godmother, who was a professional photographer. She moved into their family home when he was eight years old, and ultimately converted a spare bedroom into her studio and built a darkroom in the basement. John had all the tools he needed to become an avid and accomplished photographer, and when he began attending Ross School in the 10th grade, it was with the hope that the program would afford him opportunities to hone his craft.
Fortuitously, media studies teacher Alexis Martino began at Ross the same year, and he credits her with building the school’s photography program quite literally from the ground up, even establishing the school’s first darkroom in a science lab closet. His experiences on Ross School Field Academy (then called J-Term) trips to Cuba and the U.S. Virgin Islands helped John to flourish as a photographer.
“It was a wonderful gift to have such a motivated and a passionate young teacher,” John recalls. “It was truly inspiring to work with and learn from someone as unique and motivated as Alexis, and I'm lucky to still call her my friend.” John also praises late English instructor Richard Dunn with fostering his love of the written word. John says that literature has been more helpful in guiding his thinking than any other medium.
Following his graduation from Ross, John completed hisundergraduate and graduate studies, ultimately earning a Bachelor of Arts in photojournalism and a Master of Fine Arts. He says his large-scale tapestries comprising hundreds of instant images express his interest in photography’s evolution in the face of the digital age and how it has changed the way we experience the world. “Photography is, in a sense, the most ubiquitous and commonly ‘spoken’ language in the world,” he says.
“I began making objects because something in my mind and collection of life experiences found making them interesting,” John says. “After much tinkering, I held those objects up to the light to try to understand if it was something that could be of value or interest to others.” Since his first solo exhibition, We Dream Alone, opened in 2014 at New York’s UNIX Gallery, John’s work has been featured in W Magazine, Tripoli Gallery, and the Firestone Gallery; it can also be found in the permanent collections of the Watermill Center, KPMG Collection, and the FujiFilm Company. He says that one particular highlight of his career thus far was having his work featured alongside that of Andy Warhol, Sally Mann, and William Eggleston in an exhibit on instant photography titled Self-Processing—Instant Photography at New Orleans’s Ogden Museum of Southern Art. John has also stepped into the world of education, becoming the first Ross School alumnus to serve on its faculty and also acting as a visiting artist and professor at the University of Tennessee’s School of Art.
As he continues to explore the boundaries of his role as a creator, John has also made time to try art forms beyond photography. “It's important for all people—not just artists—to stay curious, to keep pursuing, investigating, and asking questions,” John says. “For me, it's necessary to explore different media for the simple benefit of pursuing things that make me smile. . . . Wood carving, gardening, and reading are things that I do simply because there is something within me that says [it’s worth exploring].”
Some of the results of what he defines as “curious tinkering” are recent endeavors in quilt-making using various found fabrics and the renovation of a 21-foot Winnebago recreation vehicle that he’s restoring with the enthusiasm that he typically reserves for his work. “I'm not sure where it will take me or where it will go,” John says. “But it's captured my attention for the moment.”