John Scarlata—A Case Study

In July of 2007, John Scarlata was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was told he had anywhere from 6 months to 10 years to live. At the time of diagnosis, he was 57 years old. Now what?

John taught photography for 30 years. He also amassed a personal body of work with camera formats from the ubiquitous 35mm up to 7” x 17” view cameras. His collection of photographs was made using a wide variety of alternative processes as well as traditional silver and digital prints. He also did his own color printing. Like many photographers who do personal work and also have a career to make ends meet, he never found enough time to keep everything organized. He had thousands of negatives and hundreds of prints in assorted boxes scattered about his darkroom in his studio at home and his office at the University.

From 1999 until 2010 John taught at Appalachian State University (ASU) where he was the chairman of the Department of Technical Photography. Prior to that, he taught at Virginia Intermont College (VI) from 1979 until 1999. In May of 2010, he was the recipient of the “Outstanding Scholarship and Creative Activities Award” by ASU and in October 2010, the Southeast Region of the Society for Photographic Education (SPE), an organization he formerly chaired for 5 years, posthumously presented to him the “Honored Educator Award”. With his wife Rebecca Keeter, a dance instructor at ASU, they raised their two boys, Wyatt and Silas, in the mountains above Boone, North Carolina.

I met John in 1975 at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) where we were both enrolled in the Masters program. We remained close friends, occasionally traveling and shooting together. When my wife Amy and I learned of his disease in the summer of 2007, we were stunned but we were also committed to making sure that his work would live on after he passed and just as importantly, that it would not be a burden to his family. It was our objective, with John’s blessing, that his work would be shown, promoted and sold to help provide income to his family. How to assist in this process from 3,000 miles away would be a challenge for us.

John spent the first few months after learning of the disease, dealing with doctors and undergoing a never ending series of procedures. While recuperating from a major surgery, his first of many, he was able to start talking about his work. These discussions gave us a window into the situation he faced. He needed to get organized and to find a repository for his work. A by-product of this realization would be to have a retrospective show of his life’s work. Many months and conversations later we were going over the same things, not getting very far. But this was only natural when working with a person whose already full schedule of family and career was now impacted by the demands of cancer – tests, chemo treatments and surgical procedures; all time-consuming and expensive.

We made plans in the spring of 2008 to visit in July. In the interim, we continued to talk about how to do what needed to be done. It was apparent to us that the financial burden of John’s medical care would never allow this to happen. I tried to learn how to conduct online fundraiser events where people could buy art at internet auction sites to benefit John. I talked with my CPA to see if there were provisions in the tax code that might encourage people to donate art to this cause only to learn that you would need to create a charitable organization to accept the proceeds, and it only got more complicated from there. I contacted non-profit organizations that conduct online auctions only to learn that they don’t do it for individuals. I also spoke with administrators at CalArts to see if they had any programs for helping former students in need or could otherwise assist in a process to raise funds. I got nowhere with this. Finally I ran into the biggest obstacle, my own time constraints. I gave up on all of these wonderful ideas. The easiest way to raise funds was to simply write a check.

When we got together in July, it was an emotional roller coaster ride. While discussing his illness and all of the issues around it, we managed to have productive conversations about his personal work. He informed us that he was in contact with Eastern Carolina University (ECU) about having a show. We also learned that no progress had been made with his negatives and prints. The funds we provided during this visit would go a long way to allow him to hire a graduate student to scan thousands of large format negatives, buy archival boxes for organizing his prints, make prints from new work, buy frames for his retrospective show and set up a temperature controlled space for his archive by re-purposing his darkroom. We never asked for an accounting. We don’t know if what we provided covered all of these important steps. We had effectively jump-started the process and got John focused. It offered financial relief so John and Rebecca could get these things done and still dedicate their limited resources to life’s necessities, including sending their eldest son off to college and dealing with the ever-changing cancer situation.

When John’s health took a dramatic turn for the worse in the spring of 2010, we headed east for a last visit. While there we took on the task of cleaning out his office and darkroom. He instructed us to donate to the school those items he felt would be useful to the students. This primarily consisted of his enlarger and accessories and his library of technical photography books. A good friend who is a carpenter followed our work and converted the wet darkroom into a space to store his work.

John had a show of 115 prints at ECU in January 2010 entitled “Living in the Light”. This same exhibit with some additional work was shown at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at ASU from September 2011 through January 2012. Most of his negatives are catalogued and scanned; his film and prints are organized in archival boxes. And, despite his resistance to signing his work, he signed hundreds of them before he became too weak. The body of work is stored under controlled environmental conditions where Rebecca can access and manage any requests that may come her way. The next step is to create a website to promote John’s work and hopefully generate income for the family. Dependent on the wishes of the family, a future plan may include approaching one of the aforementioned universities regarding accepting his work as part of their permanent collection.

John died on June 17th 2010, six months after his show. An overflow crowd filled the church in Boone where his memorial service was attended by friends, family and former students. Some of his students participated in making an on-demand book of their own work honoring John called, “Continuing the Light”. For now, John’s light and his work shine upon all who knew him. Hopefully, our efforts and those of his many friends who continue to help Rebecca at this critical time will enable his legacy to endure for years to come.

Link to the blurb website for the book by his students: