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Art People: John Riley | photographer

  • John Riley.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • John Riley.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • John Riley.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • John Riley.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

He is not among the earliest arrivals — the diehards arrive with their flashlights before dawn — but John Riley is usually scoping out the Olde Hadley Flea Market on Sunday mornings by 6 a.m.

He’s gone for years, looking for used books to sell at his shop, Gabriel Books on Market Street in Northampton. But these days he also shows up with his digital camera, on the lookout for scenes that combine fun with a little weirdness. He’s found many. A bust of Elvis next to a stack of 1930s National Geographic magazines. The lower torso of a long-stemmed mannequin standing in the grass next to an old lawn chair. Some 35-cent Sunbeam bread wrappers — “there’s a customer for everything,” he says — set out for sale in front of a picture of a World War II soldier. A woman sitting next to a stuffed peacock she was selling.

He doesn’t move anything, preferring to let the flea market’s odd, unplanned juxtapositions speak for themselves. “It’s a free-form museum of weird stuff,” he says.

If he comes home with images he likes, he has them made into prints that he sells for $2 apiece. He keeps them in a cardboard box at his bookstore, with a sign that reads ALL MUST GO. The letters were made using strips of duct tape and the sign, fittingly, is a picture he took at the flea market.

Having spent his working life as a bookseller, Riley, who lives in Florence, isn’t especially interested in rebranding himself as a bona fide artist. At 63, he says, semi-retirement has given him room to discover and indulge his artistic interests. “And if I enjoy doing it, then I’m happy.”

Besides photography, he creates collages, some of which were recently on view at the Woodstar Cafe in Northampton. One was a streetscape of Northampton, inspired by Frank Gehry, the contemporary architect known for his wildly dramatic, innovative shapes. To make his collage, Riley took a batch of photos of downtown buildings, cut them up and re-arranged them into his own fantastical jumble of brick structures and jutting spires.

Another Riley creation began when Riley spotted an old poster of the famed cover of the Beatles’ album “Abbey Road” in a Goodwill store.

“I knew what it was going to be as soon as I saw it,” he said the other day during an interview over coffee at the Woodstar. “It was an immediate flash,” in which he decided to have some fun with the rivalry between the two biggest bands of their day. To the poster of the Fab Four blithely crossing the road, Riley added a picture of a mammoth truck bearing down toward them, with a pasted-on head shot of Mick Jagger at the wheel.

As it happened, a customer at Woodstar stopped before the framed collage. Smiling, he took it all in and then lingered to point it out and talk about it with the young boy at his side.

“That’s satisfaction enough for me,” Riley said.

— Suzanne Wilson

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