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Stephen DiRado: Life through the lens.

Byline: Frank Magiera

You would sooner expect to see Stephen DiRado without his right arm than without his camera. And it's not one of those ultra-compact, modern digital jobs. Rather, it's an old-fashioned view camera, a hulking wooden crate, replete with cloth hood and tripod that painstakingly captures images on 8-by-10-inch negatives.

Whether DiRado is strolling the beaches of Martha's Vineyard, serving up a festive dinner or caring for his aged father in the nursing home, the camera is always there. And like his right arm, this behemoth has served him well over the last three decades, establishing him as one of the area's premiere photographers.

DiRado, 49, gained fame as a 25-year-old upstart when the Worcester Art Museum purchased the penetrating series of portraits he made of people at Worcester's Bell Pond. A few years later he became one of the first photographers to recognize a new phenomenon - the uneasy aesthetic of life within the American shopping mall - with a series on the Worcester Center Galleria. Once again the museum proffered its imprimatur, this time with an exhibition. Another acclaimed series, "Jacob's House," captured the eccentric atmosphere at the North Brookfield home of his friend, the late folk artist Jacob Knight.

Three of DiRado's most popular series have been ongoing for decades: his dinner photographs taken during frequent gatherings with his extensive family and numerous friends; a chronicle of his father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease; and his most controversial portfolio, "Martha's Vineyard Beach People," celebrating the clothes-optional beaches of Aquinnah, where DiRado spends summers. The

beach series drew protests when it was exhibited at Clark University in the 1980s. Recently, DiRado unveiled the latest of his photographic series, "JUMP," which is being shown through April 22 at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln. The 20 large, black-and-white photographs capture one of the more unusual rituals of life on Martha's Vineyard in which throngs of people regularly jump off the American Legion Memorial Bridge on Beach Road near the border of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.

DiRado's more squeamish critics can breathe easy. Everyone in these photographs has his or her swimsuit on.

His subjects range from screaming 3-year-olds, dropped 18 feet into the tidal inlet below by their parents as a traditional rite of passage, to septuagenarians caught at the beginning of an Olympian half-gainer. Most of the jumpers, however, are lithe, vibrant young men and women exuding varying degrees of exhilaration and fear.

"I love that millisecond when they just start to levitate," DiRado said. "When they just start to flip, twist, dive. I never know what I'm going to get."

DiRado began photographing on the bridge in 2001. "For years I'd been driving by," he said. "I would drive by and see people standing on these railings, leap out into the sky and disappear. On hot summer days, hundreds of people would be lined up, jumping and jumping and jumping. I always wondered what that was all about."

At first, he took the photographs as a way to limber up before afternoons at Aquinnah.

"As an artist, I thought this would be a great way to sketch before I go out to make the more, quote-unquote, serious photos, very much like a pitcher in the bullpen before he goes out to pitch. I didn't even know it was going to be a project." The next year he switched to a smaller, hand-held camera, which gave him more mobility. (He dislikes using small cameras because subjects might presume him to be a reporter, police officer or, even worse, a voyeur.) To help explain that he was an artist, not a pervert, DiRado carried with him a booklet of earlier images taken from the bridge. Before long he became an innocuous fixture on the bridge, shooting at will and making friends with jumpers and spectators alike.

When he's not on the Vineyard, DiRado lives and works in an unpretentious three-decker at 52 Gage St., just off Shrewsbury Street in Worcester. And when he's not actually making pictures, he works at Clark University as director of the photography program and a studio lecturer.

DiRado's father, a graphic artist, taught him to draw as a child growing up in Marlboro. In grammar school, he drew portraits of classmates for $5 each. He got hooked on photography when his father taught him to use his old Rolliflex camera. He was still riding around on his bicycle when his hometown newspaper hired him to take pictures. Later, he studied at the Worcester Art Museum School and earned a bachelor's degree at Massachusetts College of Art.

DiRado's father still figures prominently in his photography. Pictures taken decades ago for the dinner series show his father presiding over family gatherings. Over subsequent years, however, the images show a man yielding gradually to illness and then to incapacity in the nursing home. Likewise, DiRado's dinner series documents aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and friends through health, illness and transitions between boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses.

"That's my heritage," DiRado said. "A large Italian family. My entire life has always been about that, about the table, about the camaraderie. As an artist and as a professor at a university, my family has extended beyond blood. I have a life where I'm constantly surrounding myself with loving people." He plans to continue adding to his photographic series indefinitely.

"When I stop eating, I guess the dinners will stop."

`JUMP'

by Stephen DiRado

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park

51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln

Phone: (781) 259-8355

Web site: www.decordova.org

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adults, $9; seniors,

students, and children ages 6-12, $6; children 5 and younger, free

Stephen DiRado will give an artist talk at 3 p.m. March 31, free with admission

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1, 2, 3, 4) Part of the "JUMP" series by Stephen DiRado.

PHOTOG: PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM RETTIG
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 28, 2007
Words:980
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