John Upton, Longtime O.C. Photographer and Educator, DiesVoice of OC

John Upton, a revered photographer, influential educator and co-author of a seminal textbook on photography, died Dec. 7 in Petaluma. He was 88.

Upton was a key developer of the photography program at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. He started as a faculty member there in 1960, taught photography as a full-time professor from 1965-99, served as chair of the department from 1965 to 1975, and instructed at OCC for more than 40 years. He retired in 1999, but continued to teach at OCC part time until a few years ago.

“He was a great spokesman and promoter of the photography program in general,” said Blade Gillissen, the current chair of OCC’s photography department. “He took it from being an everyday community college photography program into the School of Photography at Orange Coast College. Without John Upton, the program wouldn’t have been what it became. There is no one who has brought us as much recognition as John Upton did.”

Image courtesy of Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College

Cover of the textbook, “Photography,” which John Upton co-authored with Barbara London, first published in 1976. It’s now in its 12th edition with 1.5 million copies in print.

In addition to teaching and influencing generations of photographers, Upton co-authored the book “Photography” with then-wife Barbara London. The book was originally published in 1976 and is now in its 12th edition, with more than 1.5 million copies in print.

“Photography” covers all the technical aspects of photography, such as aperture, depth of field, shutter speed and film speed. But it also examines the history of photography, the use of light, the “zone system,” color, developing, printing and mounting. Later editions cover the various aspects of digital photography, photo editing and computer printing.

The Uptons collaborated with the Time Life publishing company and had full access to the Time Life library of images.

“It was an all-encompassing, very well done book,” Gillissen said. “As chair of the department, I go to a lot of people’s houses, photographers and people who are interested in photography. I’ve seen it on every single book shelf of every photographer I’ve ever known.”

Image courtesy of Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College

An installation view of John Upton’s “Jungle Road” series, 2005-14, as it looked in Orange Coast College’s survey of the photographer’s work earlier this year.

Tyler Stallings, director of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College, curated the first survey of Upton’s fine art photography, which was on view at OCC from January until the pandemic shut the campus down in mid-March.

“As a photo educator, he’s very important, producing the book that’s still being used throughout the country,” Stallings said. “As a photographer, he’s always been making work. He just hadn’t had the time, as much as he would like, to show it.”

The exhibition “Right Place, Right Time: A Survey of John Upton’s Photographs” presented selections from four main bodies of work: early photographs; “Japanalia,” documenting trips to and cultures within Japan; “Jungle Road,” capturing jungle and volcanic landscapes; and “Petaluma,” where he lived on the same property as his daughter Sean through his dying days. He passed away from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or emphysema, Sean Upton said.

“Part of my motivation was to organize something he could experience when he was alive, so he could see all his friends and colleagues and share his work, which I think has been overlooked,” Stallings said.

Rubbing Shoulders with Legends

Upton was born in 1932 in Iowa. He moved with his family to the San Fernando Valley when he was 5, and was raised in North Hollywood.