M. Richard Kirstel

[Age 71] The art photographer and teacher later turned to acting and portrayed characters from the city's past.

Mr. Kirstel was the subject of a celebrated 1970 censorship case at what was then Towson State University.

March 10, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Richard Kirstel, an art photographer and teacher who later portrayed characters from Baltimore's history, died Wednesday of a heart attack at his home in Granada, Spain. The former Charles Village resident was 71.

Mr. Kirstel was the subject of a celebrated 1970 local censorship case when the president of what was then Towson State University ordered his pictures to be removed from a campus exhibition because of sexual content.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., he joined the Navy and became a ship's photographer during the Korean War. Later settling in Chicago, he did work for Playboy magazine and made portraits.

"He soon rejected commercial photography to purse a career in photographic imagery," said his stepson, Andrew Sachs of Los Angeles.

Mr. Kirstel earned a degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology and studied with photographers Minor White and Ralph Hattersley, who began by advising him to read works by the 19th-century acting master Constantin Stanislavsky.

In 1970 he moved to Baltimore for a teaching job at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"He had a charismatic presence about him," said Jack Wilgus, a colleague from the Maryland Institute. "He was good in critiques and discussions. I just enjoyed hearing him talk."

He found himself embroiled in a dispute when a show derived from his best-known book, Pas de Deux, which had been published by Grove Press, was ordered removed from a Towson State University art gallery.

According to Sun accounts, a security guard, acting on orders from the school's administration, told him to remove his pictures. When Mr. Kirstel refused, he was charged with trespassing.

A Baltimore County jury found him guilty, and he was fined $200 and given a suspended sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Writing in a 1989 Evening Sun op-ed page piece, Mr. Kirstel recalled the incident and wrote that "over 7,000 persons attended the New York show without incident" when his pictures appeared at the FOTO Gallery in Manhattan.

"Although his photographs were considered controversial at the time, by today's standards, what remains apparent is the power and artistry of his imagery," said his stepson.

Mr. Kirstel published essays on photographic imagery and education and gave talks and workshops. He also taught courses at Antioch College, the School for Visual Arts in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Johns Hopkins University.

During the past 15 years, Mr. Kirstel turned to acting and took classes at the Studio Repertory Conservatory in Washington and in workshops with the actress Trezana Beverly.

He appeared at the Arena Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Center Stage, Shakespeare on Wheels and the Renaissance Festival.

"He had one of those actor's voices that was trained and clear," said Cameron Kane, his sister-in-law. "It was a wonderful baritone."

He frequently appeared as William Fell and a character known as the "anonymous immigrant" in Fells Point during historical tours.

Mr. Kirstel moved from Baltimore to Granada in in 2004, where he told friends, "I want to be the Hemingway of Granada."

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his stepson, survivors include two stepdaughters, Jo Carol Snyder of Baltimore and Jacklyn Yale of New York, N.Y.; a brother, Harvey Kirstel of Baltimore; and five grandchildren. His wife, the former Barbara Mayer, manager of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, died in 1996.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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