John Gleason, Jr.

“I have photographed under the pseudonym, Probus for almost forty years. My influences have included Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Duane Michals. I am self-taught, which explains the unorthodox nature of my imagery. My photography relies on movement and the surreal effect that is captured on film. Initially, I shot interiors of abandoned houses with haunting intent. I advanced to large format, but was unable to recreate the same results or emotional connection. I started my journey with pinhole photography back in 2009 when I purchased a Finney Pinhole Camera. I hadn’t taken it seriously as a form of expression until I took a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2015. My criteria for that trip was a quick light weight setup, as I was traveling with my family (whose patience and attention span does not measure my own). There I was able to reconnect with same passion of years past. I started mining from the same moody place as before. My new subject matter has been ancient trees in various forms of decay. I am disturbed by the amount of dying trees not only in my city but everywhere I travel. The long exposures and blurred movement captures the pain and suffering of these old sages. Their death portends a serious message for us all to heed. My work is still captured on film but exists in digital scans of my Instagram and Flickr accounts. I plan to slow down and get back in the darkroom to print by next year.”

Who are you? 

My name is John Gleason, Jr. I have been using the pseudonym Probus for over forty years. I chose this as a way to separate my work from my private life. I am a physician by trade, but have enjoyed photography as my expressive outlet. I am 58 years old. I live in Louisville, KY. 

In your own words, what do you do? 

I am a fine art photographer. I have never pursued commercial success, as this has been a personal and private endeavor. I photograph in black and white because it is a process that I am most comfortable and familiar with. 

Why do you do what you do? 

Photography has been my avenue of self expression. I am always observing people and manifestations of disease in my professional life. It is difficult to remain objective and detached from the people you care for. You must be empathetic to the plight of your patients so that you can establish a relationship with your patients. Photography allows me the ability to express my feelings that would otherwise stay dormant during work hours. 

What is integral to your practice? 

Strong lines, subtle patterns and tonality are most important for my imagery. Coming from a background of large format photography, I feel that tonality is lacking in pinhole photography. Most pinhole images appear flat, lacking emotion. I choose to overdevelop my negatives in order to gain better contrast. The pinhole camera’s depth of field dictates the need for dramatic tones and contrast. This may seen counterintuitive for pinhole photography, but it is what makes my work unique. 

Why pinhole? 

When I seriously pursued pinhole photography, I wanted a lightweight view camera which would provide me with the optimal depth of field without getting bogged down in the details of tilt, focal length and composition. I found the technical process of composition distracting with large format photography. On trips (and also important for family harmony), I take less time setting up my camera and shot. Also, pinhole cameras have less moving parts, which makes it a practical decision. There is little to break down and repair. Photographic tape (or the equivalent of duct tape) is all I need for most repairs. 

Are there any particular themes you pursue with your practice? 

When I first began photography, I chose long exposures to capture blurred movement within abandoned houses. I desired to capture the apparition within the house in order to tell the story of the former inhabitants. With pinhole, I am able to capture the movement or spirit of decaying trees. This has become a personal exploration for me as I am concerned about the tree loss in my city parks. 

Has your practice change over time? If so, how? 

I continue to use trees as my main subject. As I have acquired more pinhole cameras (which seems to be a common thread amongst pinhole photographers), I am choosing subject matter differently depending on the individual camera’s focal length and angle of view. Traveling outside of my home town allows me to explore new themes. I am experimenting different films and developers to capture a different tonality and sharpness. Lastly, I am concerned about the affect darkroom chemicals have on the environment. I have been using chemicals that can be safely disposed of. 

Is there a specific piece you’re especially proud of? And why? 

It’s an early self-portrait entitled “Probus Pears In”. It’s a pivotal piece that started me on my journey with abandoned houses and ghost-like figures. I feel this set my style and themes for the next 4 decades. 

From whom do you draw the most inspiration? 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard has always been my inspiration. He was a Kentucky artist who photographed blurred movement and abandoned houses. I think the lush darkness of Kentucky lends itself to this spiritually moody imagery. Also, reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky provided me with an interest drama and attention to details. 

What is your dream project? 

Photographing trees is my current dream project. Eventually I want to read more in depth about tree classification and environmental effects on trees. This will add an additional dimension to my work. Since I have a 8x10 pinhole camera, I would like to create some portraits with natural light. These images would be great for contact printing using the cyanotype method. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? 

Two things: 

1. A good piece of art work deserves a good title. 

2. “I believe that when we think very fast we pass over the verbs and emphasize the adjectives. In my opinion, that’s the way people with cold dispositions think. Myself, I see things.”—Berthe Morriset. I came across this quote recently, but it has stuck with me for its emphasis on careful observation.

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