Yoors’s interest in photography blossomed around 1957 when a friend gave him a camera. Yoors first began using a camera and taking photographs while living with the the Roma before the Second World War, although it was not until moving to New York that he became keenly aware of changes in photography as a visual art, and the strides being made by his contemporaries in modern photography by Winogrand, Edward Steichen, Bill Brandt and others. Yoors was exceptionally thrilled to meet Henri Cartier Bresson on two occasions—the first at the reception of an exhibition of religious tapestries at he Dallas University Museum, and the second when Cartier-Bresson visited the Yoors Studio during a stopover in New York. In a letter to his parents in 1958, Yoors wrote that, “so many things have happened during and since my trip to Texas that I don’t know where to begin. There I met tons of very interesting people among others Henri Cartier-Bresson who is perhaps the greatest photographer in the world and is from Paris.”
Yoors regularly exhibited his photography in New York and built a reputation as a photographer. These images largely comprise street photography in which Yoors focused on a wide range of subjects from architecture, abstract details to various religious communities and cultural enclaves. Yoors made his own prints at the studio. In the case of his abstract photographs, he would at times print cropped sections of the negatives, which would go on to be reproduced in the form of tapestry.
L. Parker Stephenson writes about Yoors in her introduction to the current exhibition of his abstract photographs and gouaches,
In photographic terminology, Yoors was a humanist and a street photographer, in addition to being a practitioner of abstract imagery. He was acutely attuned to people from different cultures and to those outside of the mainstream. His interest can likely be attributed to his being raised by liberal, artistic parents and to living among the gypsies as a child in Europe. As he wandered New York’s many neighborhoods in the 1960s, he watched for small moments of joy, introspection, wonder, and inspiration to imprint on film. Unlike many who documented New Yorkers—members of the Photo League in prior decades and documentary photographers of the gritty 1970s—Yoors did not practice in the name of social justice, but rather as a means to celebrate individual triumphs within the world at large. These often intimate moments were complemented by his natural sense for composition and light.Yoors also explored graphic elements of urban decay: scratched walls, layers of torn posters, broken glass, and dripping paint. Although at first glance his photographs may resemble the work of Aaron Siskind and others who made surface abstractions, Yoors was not focused on a single medium. His images of found patterns often became the foundation for work in other media. With gouache paint, he reduced the subtle gradations of silver gelatin to bold shapes in vibrant colors and velvety blacks. In certain cases, he dramatically altered the scale and surface further by producing woven tapestries based on the gouaches.
These bits of urban decay were not just present in Yoors’s New York photographs, but his keen eye for abstraction followed him on his world travels both to reconnect with his Roma family in Spain and also while photographing postwar religious architecture in 1967 under the instruction of Edward Sovik, the Minnesota-based Lutheran architect, who is best known for his philosophy of the “non-church”. The aim of the photography commission was to represent the unity and modernity of current trends in religious architecture worldwide for a photo essay titled “Metaphors,” in an attempt to bring to the fore questions of what makes a space sacred, as well as to showcase the diversity and commonalities between these spaces.
Although Jan had little experience with formal photographic commissions, he was well suited for the job, being an experienced traveler, linguist, and photographer. Yoors traveled to Asia, South America, the Indian subcontinent, Russia and Europe to photograph interiors and exteriors from a carefully edited list of “cultic and non-cultic” structures by big-name architects including the Saarinens, Tadao Ando, Le Corbusier, and Alvar Alto. Sovik, a fellow of the American Institute of Architecture, was on the editorial board for the First International Congress on Architecture, Religion and the Visual Arts, which took place jointly in New York and Montreal in the summer of 1967.
Moreover, this commission was profoundly influential for Yoors’s own work as he had freedom to document and collect images and ideas, which found their way not only into his personal photographic oeuvre, but, through photography, into his designs for tapestries. Wherever he went on this trip Yoors visited not only the structures on Sovik’s list, but traversed the towns, cities, monuments, and cultural sites nearby. It was helpful that Sovik encouraged Yoors to do this also for the benefit of having a vernacular contrast to the architectural icons represented in the photo essay. Although these photographs were intended to comprise a catalogue and travel as an exhibition, a lack of funds prevented this from being achieved.
These photographs tie into Yoors’s profound interest in the world’s cultural diversity, as is evident in his travels with the Roma and his fascination with New York as a microcosm of the world’s cultures, as can be seen in his book Only One New York (1961) and the film of the same title. Thus, Yoors’s photography also creates a filter through which to connect the multifaceted nature of his life and work.