by Sarah Schmerler
If you drive through scenic New England in search of contemporary photography, chances are you’ll end up at a 1912 grey, clapboard former farmhouse with a wraparound porch in the small hamlet of Washington Depot, Connecticut. You wouldn’t expect to find a contemporary photography gallery here, but then again, Kathryn McCarver Root didn’t expect to land here when she began her career in magazine and book publishing more than 25 years ago. But in 2006 she situated herself squarely in the middle of exurban Connecticut and opened KMR Arts a year later. Contemporary, mid-career artists (most of them women, though that wasn’t intentional, either) are McCarver mainstays: 34-year-old Lisa Elmaleh, who photographs the Florida Everglades with a wet-collodion process and makes tintype portraits in her pickup truck’s portable studio, or the late, renowned Harper’s Bazaar photographer Lillian Bassman.
When McCarver isn’t in the gallery, she is probably working at her business’s other incarnation, KM Installations, hanging clients’ art and ephemera in their homes. McCarver favors canny, check-by-jowl clusters, chosen with a sense of intuition. “I learned in publishing how pictures worked alongside words, about the storytelling aspects of the medium,” she says. “Now, as a dealer and a collector I know that the story may not be literally there all at once. You need to follow what you’re drawn to, and over time a theme will show itself.”
McCarver, a tall and youthful 52, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised there – mostly. Her father, Tim McCarver (now a sports broadcaster), played for the St. Louis Cardinals and later for the Philadelphia Phillies, so she and her younger sister and mother were often on the road. McCarver was a happy, athletic kid who excelled at languages, and by high school, at Merion Mercy Academy outside of Philadelphia, she devoted herself to studying French. She attended the University of Virginia, where she majored in French, but fell in love with art history. Upon graduation in 1987, her dad wangled her an internship at Esquire that blossomed into a career. From the late 1980s until 2006, she was an art department manager at Esquire, a junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, a packager of monographs for small book publishers, and then a photo editor at US Weekly and InStyle.
McCarver went to galleries and auctions and began collecting, with the advice of trusted contacts like dealer Tom Gitterman. Then a friend gave her the final push: “He asked me to help him build a collection, and I told him I’d never done this before. ‘I trust you,’ he said. ‘I know you’ll do a good job.’” Soon after, she opened the gallery and cut her teeth on thematic group shows, eventually settling on a diverse stable of artists including Catherine Erb, who makes color photographs covered with layers of pigment and encaustic; and Christopher Colville, who makes photograms out of shooting-practice targets he finds in the desert. “I’m drawn to techniques that are grounded in the past but that take it in a new direction,” says McCarver. “Work that makes you stop and scratch your head and say, ‘How did they do that? How did they get here?’”