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Robert John Doherty Jr.

1924 - 2019 Obituary Condolences
Robert John Doherty Jr. Obituary
Robert John Doherty, Jr.

Cambridge, MA - 1924-2019

Robert John Doherty, Jr., born January 16, 1924, died in Cambridge Massachusetts (MA) January 6, 2019. He was 94.

He was born in Everett MA, son of Robert John Doherty and Elizabeth Nugent Doherty, who each immigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s. He grew up largely in Medford near Boston and with his brother William, developed a life-long fondness for practical jokes. From this start he traveled, lived and taught widely.

He served in the Army of the United States from 1943 to 1945, carrying out reconnaissance missions largely ahead of Allied lines from Normandy at D-Day to the Czech Republic at the end of the war. Afterwards, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Priest Lake, Idaho during the summers of 1948-1949 while attending the Rhode Island School of Design where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1951. He received a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Art in 1954. That same year he moved to Louisville Kentucky as Director of Design at Reynolds Metals Company, beginning a long affiliation with the City of Louisville.

Volunteering for Neighborhood House, Kentucky's first settlement house serving poor families, he met Esther Fiske, a fellow transplant from New England. They married in 1955 and began exploring Kentucky and the world.

After a return to the Rhode Island School of Design as Development Director, he was recruited in 1959 to join the University of Louisville faculty to teach graphic design. He became full professor in 1965 and served as chair of the University's Fine Arts Department and the Allen R. Hite Art Institute from 1967 to 1972. He taught and inspired students who would go on to influence graphic design for generations to come. Known for what some called his "design boot camp" method, he challenged students, often with colorful language, to continually think and solve problems, even with simple sheets of paper. He founded the University of Louisville Photographic Archives in 1962. He convinced Roy Emerson Stryker, director of the Farm Security Administration's depression era photo-documentation project to donate his personal collection and papers to the Archives. This led to his acquisition for the Archives of the entire Standard Oil of New Jersey Collection of tens of thousands of original negatives and prints by documentary photographers Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Esther Bubley and others. Today the internationally recognized Photographic Archives houses nearly 2 million images.

In 1972, he became fourth Director of the George Eastman House & International Museum of Photography, Rochester New York (NY). During his tenure, he acquired the 3M, Edward Steichen and Nicholas Murray collections, and others during the largest period of acquisitions for the museum. He lectured, taught and wrote on social-documentary photography. From 1981 to 1984 he served as Director of the Salt Lake Art Center, Salt Lake City Utah. In 1984 he joined the faculty of Alfred University, Alfred NY, as Chairman of Graphic Design, teaching a new generation of designers. Upon retirement in 1992 he became Printer in Residence at Wells College, Aurora NY, where he founded the Wells College Book Arts Center in 1993 and reactivated the Wells College Press, originally established by Victor Hammer. Throughout his time at Alfred and Wells, he and Esther were long-time residents of Ithaca NY.

He was a prolific photographer, designer and printer on his own. His 1960s photographs documenting Louisville, coupled with his acquisition for the Photographic Archives of the collections from the City's early photo studios, supported a significant historic preservation movement. His images of the 1964 March on Frankfort produced the most well-known photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Kentucky. His Louisville images all now reside in the Photographic Archives. He designed the Dora Rice house, a Bauhaus style residence sitting on stilts over the Ohio River. Having learned to print at a young age and later studied typography, he was a life-long printer and teacher of printing. In the 1960s in Louisville he started the Clandestine Press, a small art book press, and continued it out of his home for decades until 2012, designing and printing hundreds of pieces. He served on planning commissions and historic preservation boards in Louisville and Ithaca.

In 2010, the University of Louisville awarded him a Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa in recognition of a lifetime of contributions to photography, design, typography and letter press, historic preservation, and teaching.

While exploring the world throughout life—every continent except Australia and Antarctica—he returned to two places regularly. His time in Europe during World War II led to a year-long sabbatical in Munich Germany in 1965-1966. He and his family returned to Germany many times in the following decades, inspired by his love of the architecture, art, music, and rebirth of a nation he had once witnessed at its most devastated. And each year for seven decades, he returned to Wolfeboro New Hampshire, Esther's summer home, where his ashes and hers will be spread and marked with a stone cut by Nicholas Benson of the John Stevens Shop, grandson of John Howard Benson, one of his most influential teachers at Rhode Island School of Design in the 1950s.

His wife Esther preceded him in death in 2017 after 62 years of marriage. His brother William Doherty was killed in World War II. He is survived by three children, Jonathan Locke Doherty (Dorothy Holcomb Doherty), Anne Doherty, and Timothy Scott Doherty (Leslie Eckel) and grandchildren Ruth Holcomb Doherty, Helen Elizabeth Doherty and William Arends Doherty. In lieu of flowers, please consider gifts to the University of Louisville Photographic Archives (contact: [email protected]) or the Rhode Island School of Design Fund (
Published in The Courier-Journal on Jan. 11, 2019
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