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Peter Urban, commercial photographer had artistic touch

Peter Urban stood at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury with his large format camera. (Peter Urban) Peter Urban stood at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury with his large format camera.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 18, 2009

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His eyes on buildings that define Boston’s skyline, Peter Urban walked the streets and sidewalks near the John Hancock Tower, waiting for his creative vision to slip into focus. At the intersection of Berkeley and Newbury streets, he found precisely the right vantage point and set up a 4-inch-by-5-inch view camera.

Standing just off the sidewalk, next to the fire hydrant on the northeast corner, he composed a frame in which four buildings seem to move in a Martha Graham dance of bricks, mortar, steel, and glass. Louis Boston curtsies in the foreground; John Hancock leans perilously in back.

“I was stunned the way these four buildings came together,’’ he told the Globe in 2004. “It didn’t look Boston. It looked like a German-Expressionist take on the city. It’s a real timeline of all the architecture of Boston in one picture.’’

Mr. Urban, a commercial photographer who freelanced for the Globe and exhibited his artistic work in galleries, died Sunday in the Tippett Home hospice in Needham of complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 61 and lived in Boston.

“He was a commercial photographer, but he always wanted to be accepted as an artist, as well, so he tried very hard to create work that was saying something to people,’’ said Steven McCarthy of Boston, Mr. Urban’s life partner. “His work was also meant to be lighthearted and fun. It wasn’t dark.’’

Brightness and energy invade photographs that, in other hands, might be static. In “Citgo 2,’’ a closeup detail of the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, the narrow neon lights are a cacophony of lines and angles.

A portrait of Thomas M. Menino for an advertising assignment shows Boston’s mayor with arms and hands partly raised, as if he is about to signal a touchdown. “An ad is a call for attention and so is art,’’ Mr. Urban wrote in a caption for the photo, which like much of his work can be seen at www.peterurban.com. “The only difference is attention and point of view.’’

Photographed in 2004 for the Globe’s Sunday Magazine, Menino’s wife, Angela, points toward the camera, her smile so engaging that only at a second look does a viewer notice that Mr. Urban’s camera angle shows a portrait of her husband on the wall behind her, as though he were keeping tabs on the proceedings.

About six years ago, Mr. Urban had an opportunity to photograph Fay Wray, the actress best known for playing Ann Darrow, the damsel plucked away by King Kong in the 1933 movie. Adding place and context, New York unfolds in the window behind Wray, and a man next to her holds a “King Kong’’ poster.

“It was a thrill, and at 96, I knew it’d be one of her last great portraits,’’ he told the Globe in 2004. “I like it because you can see the Helmsley Palace through the window. You get the clear sense of being in New York.’’

An only child, Mr. Urban was born in Jersey City, N.J., and moved with his family to Rochelle Park, N.J. He graduated from Hoboken High School and he studied biology and psychology at Boston University.

“Like people of his age, he left school after the third year and headed out west, and then he went to Hawaii,’’ McCarthy said.

Mr. Urban worked in market research in Hawaii, said his mother, Mildred Urban of Sandwich, and he began to show friends the photographs he was shooting.

“It was in Hawaii that he decided to take photography seriously and try that as a profession,’’ McCarthy said. “I think people in Hawaii told him: ‘These are beautiful pictures. Why don’t you do this for a living?’ A little bit of encouragement goes a long way, and I think that did it for him.’’

On his website, however, Mr. Urban suggested that he was quite young when he first thought of viewing the world through a lens and measuring his life by the staccato click of shutters.

“A man hands me his camera and asks me to take a picture of him with his family in front of the White House,’’ he wrote. “It’s my sixth grade class trip. This is fun. I start taking my own pictures of these families. When we get the film back, mom asks, ‘Who are these people?’ ‘I don’t know. I just like doing this.’ Now I call these pictures ‘portraits,’ and I direct them.’’

When Mr. Urban moved back to Boston, he began shooting photos professionally. His subjects ranged from writers such as Susan Orlean and Robert B. Parker to Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, whom Mr. Urban posed in a sleigh with Santa for an album cover.

Along with commercial work for clients such as CVS and American Express, he donated his time to the American Cancer Society and the AIDS Action Committee.

Two decades ago, Mr. Urban tested HIV positive. As he watched many friends die of AIDS through the years, he participated in fund-raisers such as bicycling in the Boston to New York AIDS Ride.

“I want to prove to myself that I am still alive,’’ Mr. Urban told the Globe in 1995 during the fund-raiser. “My life is not done even though I have AIDS. My life continues, and that means I do new things in my life. I don’t just have to sit here in my house and wait.’’

Bicycle riding was a pastime he shared with McCarthy, exploring Boston’s neighborhoods when Mr. Urban was not shooting photos for clients or preparing exhibitions such as his first, “Advertising My Friends’’ in 2006, or “Still in Motion,’’ which opened at Gallery Kayafas on Harrison Avenue earlier this year.

The gallery’s owner, Arlette Kayafas, said that while some photographers find it difficult to move from advertising to artistic endeavors, “Peter was the exception, because his commercial work was like his fine arts work. When he worked with clients, he saw them as the human beings they were. Peter’s work was always about people.’’

Mr. Urban, she said, enjoyed people immensely and “had an immediate intimate connection when he was photographing them.’’

“He saw people on the inside and saw them so fully,’’ she said.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today in First Parish in Brookline, a Unitarian Universalist church.