ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - Clem Fiori of Blawenburg
Barbara A. Preston, Editor | DECEMBER 14, 2020
Clem Fiori, 77, has pedaled some 130,000 road miles on his bike. As he journeyed along the rural roads of central New Jersey, he says he got the idea to memorialize the fields, woods, rocks, and streams through photography.
“Sprawling expanses of residential and commercial developments” were emerging everywhere, which he has likened to a new kind of agriculture: “A kind of one-time cash-crop where the yield is bushels of dollars, often harvested primarily by those who don’t even reside or operate their development businesses with the region.”
Fiori’s photographs reveal an intimate knowledge and appreciation of the sacred land of the region. He has images of the Devil’s Half Acre and the Roaring Rocks in the Sourland Mountains; the grist mill and the stately trees around Dead Tree Run; the Rock Brook off Hollow Road. Carefully arranged throughout his Blawenburg home are framed prints, mostly landscapes that he encountered while riding his bike.
Often, the images trigger memories — for example, a small bridge may remind him of the childhood fishing trips he took down the road from his Warren Township home with his mother when he was a boy.
“We fished with coarse string, which we tied to sticks or tree branches, and opened safety pins were our hooks, which were baited with worms saved from the garden or dug with a knife right there along the bank. “We caught small sunfish, and then fried them in the skillet back home,” he wrote in the book of black and white photographs he ultimately published, titled The Vanishing New Jersey Landscape.
A New Jersey Native Clement L. Fiori, known as “Clem,” comes from a large Sicilian family who had been living in New York City during World War II when they collectively purchased a small, Civil War era farmhouse on a stone rubble foundation. Clem was born in 1943 to Grace and Lou Fiori and raised in this farm house, located in Warren Township. Lou was a fireman, and worked in a printing factory that was converted to making guns during the war. He later had a long career with Sears.
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Clem’s first published photo was of a barn fire. “I was 13,” he says. “A nearby farm was on fire. I grabbed my Duaflex camera. There were cows running all over the barn yard.” He developed his film in a dark room and ran the print over to the Plainfield Courier. The editor put Clem’s image on the front page. “I figured that was cool,” he recalled.
In high school, Clem photographed weddings, then went on to Rutgers College, where he earned an English Literature degree in 1965. At Rutgers, he studied under Professor Richard Poirier, who was a well-known literary critic and co-founder of the Library of America.
“It was a great time to be at Rutgers,” Clem said, noting that a group of highly talented people happened to be in the English department at that time. Ralph Ellison and Susan Sontag were on the staff. Robert Pinsky, who went on to serve as the US Poet Laureate, was Clem’s classmate. One of Clem’s best friends from Rutgers was Henry Dumas, an African-American poet who has been called “an absolute genius” by Toni Morrison.
Dumas was Clem’s house guest in May 1968, when, during a visit to New York City, the transit police shot Dumas three times on a subway platform, killing him at age 32.
“It was a case of mistaken identity,” Clem said. “I had to go into the city to identify his body.”
Clem’s living room has several of Dumas’ poetry books, published posthumously. Toni Morrison, who was a Princeton University professor as well as a commissioning editor at Random House, published collections Duma’s poetry, Play Ebony, Play Ivory, and his short stories, Ark of Bones.
For many years, Clem worked as the principal photographer for the Princeton University Art Museum, the Woodrow Wilson School, and various other departments of the university. He knew Morrison, and had actually introduced her to Dumas’ work.
Clem says he was originally interested in Fine Art photography, but, “I wasn’t selling much of it.” He figured he could specialize in photographing commercial products for advertising. “I had a breakthrough when the Princeton University Art Museum invited me to take photographs of pre-Columbian sculptures for an art catalogue,” he says. “I ended up being the art museum photographer for 20 years. I figured, why photograph products when I could photograph real art!”
Clem did other assignments for the university. He recalls one time when he had to photograph McCormick Hall and the CEO of Sears Roebuck, who had given a large gift for the lecture hall.
“When I met the CEO, I told him my father was the head of the paint department for the Sears store in Watchung,” Clem recalls. The CEO responded, “Are you Lou Fiori’s son?” Clem smiles. “How many CEOs know their employees like that?”
While working at Princeton, Clem also photographed President- Elect Joe Biden.
“He spoke at the Woodrow Wilson School in the early 1970s,” he said. Then there was George Schultz, when he was Secretary of State, who posed for Clem. And, President George H. W. Bush.
“Well, President Bush actually traveled with his own personal photographer,” Clem recalls. “He was also surrounded by the Secret Service.” Clem did not have security clearance because of a university SNAFU. He thinks he got too close to President Bush. “I was suddenly airborne,” he says.
A Secret Service guy lifted him up and ejected him from the room where President Bush was speaking.
Clem is now retired from his job as a Princeton University photographer. He spends a large chunk of his time volunteering for various environmental organizations and serving on Montgomery Township municipal commissions. He has served as chairman of the Montgomery Open Space Committee, advisor to the board of trustees of the Montgomery Friends of Open Space, and a trustee of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. He is also a Princeton Artists Alliance member, and exhibits his work at least once a year.
His home is adjacent to the 50-acre Hobler Park in Blawenburg, which he helped to wrestle free from a housing developer. He often is seen at Skillman Park, planting native trees and stewarding the land he has helped to preserve.
“I am dedicated to doing what I can to revise the sense of priorities of those around me regarding what is happening right here,” he says.
Visit Fiori’s website at fioriworks.com.