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Obituary: Photographer Peter B. Kaplan, 79

March 22, 2019

By David Walker

Peter B. Kaplan photographed atop the Empire State Building in 1985 by his then-assistant Aziz Rahman. ©Peter B. Kaplan, courtesy of Sharon R. Kaplan.

Photographer Peter B. Kaplan, best known for the vertiginous photographs he shot from atop New York City buildings, bridges and the Statue of Liberty, died March 19 in Wilmington, Delaware. The cause of death was interstitial lung disease, resulting from exposure to airborne debris after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, according to Mary Engel, director of the Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive, and a long-time family friend. Kaplan was 79.

Known to friends and colleagues as “Peter B.,” Kaplan overcame his fear of heights to photograph from atop the World Trade Center in the 1970s. Starting in 1982, he documented the restoration of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. Given unprecedented access, Kaplan amassed an archive of 125,000 images of the statue over 10 years. He also photographed from atop the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and other landmarks.

Kaplan mounted cameras on extension poles and used fisheye lenses to get harrowing perspectives from high places, long before camera drones were available. “He was Mr. Selfie before the selfie,” Engel says, adding, “He was larger than life and so passionate about everything he did.”

“He had an incredible body of work on the World Trade Center,” notes Jeffrey D. Smith of Contact Press Images, which syndicated some of Kaplan’s World Trade Center work after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Pre-9/11, when [security] was easier in New York, he knew how to get places and scale things.”

Kaplan’s photographs appeared in major magazines, in ad campaigns, on commemorative postage stamps, and in several books, including High on New York (1985) and Liberty for All (2002). His work has also appeared in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, International Center of Photography and numerous other venues.

“Peter B was a madman, he was just on fire every day,” says photographer Ed Keating, who briefly assisted Kaplan at Ellis Island in the mid 1980s. “He did things nobody else was doing, he reveled in it, and loved what he did.”

Kaplan was also known as a staunch defender of his copyrights. “He believed passionately in that,” Smith says. “He would get in fights [over copyrights] with editors and sue them, without fear or favor, and that made him often unpopular.”

But Kaplan also had a reputation as a difficult personality. “He could be very severe, very critical. He was a slave master, a hard driving guy,” says Keating, noting that Kaplan once fired him and reduced him to tears. “I still liked him. He was a pussycat underneath it all. But he had a very aggressive, hard charging demeanor.”

In 1990, Kaplan helped establish the Marty Forscher Fellowship Fund, named for the master camera repairperson who had worked with Diane Arbus and many other photographers. A collaboration with PDN and Parsons School of Design, the Fund awards annual fellowships to one student and one professional photographer to support humanistic photography.

Kaplan was born in New York City and raised in Great Neck, Long Island, according to his website. Since 1995, he had resided in Hockessin, Delaware. He is survived by his wife, Sharon Kaplan, whom he married on the 96th story ledge of the Empire State Building in 1985. He is also survived by a daughter and a son.

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