A Life in Black and White

He grew up knowing some of America’s greatest photographers, from Edward Weston (his namesake) to Ansel Adams. A new exhibit focuses on Kurt Edward Fishback’s black-and-white portraits of some equally famous and very colorful artists.

(page 1 of 3)

Kurt Edward Fishback (Portrait by Marc Thomas Kallweit)

The chance to shoot a portrait of Ansel Adams in 1980 would have induced in most photographers the kind of feverish unease that precedes bursting into flames. By then, Adams had planted his tripod atop fame’s summit, his black-and-white images of natural wonders across California and the West perhaps more familiar to Americans than the landscape itself. 

Yet there was Kurt Edward Fishback, standing in Adams’ home studio in Carmel Highlands, chatting with the photo laureate of Yosemite National Park as if he were an old family friend. That’s because he was: Adams had known and respected Fishback’s late father, Glen, a Sacramento photographer who gained notice for his commercial art, shooting ads that appeared in dozens of national magazines like Life. Growing up in South Land Park and visiting Carmel with his father in the 1940s and ’50s, Kurt had met Adams, Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock. The art world regarded the trio as lords of the lens. He thought of them as dad’s pals.

His black-and-white portrait presents Adams not as a god on a golden throne but a man on a wooden sofa. Seated below three of his California landscape photos mounted on the wall behind him, Adams (black-framed glasses hanging on his chest) wears a flannel shirt, dark trousers and ankle-high walking shoes, still backwoods dapper at age 78. Almost as bald as the moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico, in one of his best-known pictures, he gazes to his right, a smile burning through his cumulus cloud of a beard. The jagged contour of his nose evokes Yosemite’s Half Dome in miniature.Kurt Edward Fishback’s 1980 portrait of Ansel Adams (Photo Courtesy of Kurt Edward Fishback)

Adams, who died in 1984, broke his nose as a boy during an aftershock of the 1906 earthquake in his native San Francisco. “I thought when I grew up, I’d fix it,” he told Fishback. “But since I never grew up, I didn’t fix it.” Says Fishback, who was then 38 and early in his belated photography career, “He was so down-to-earth, so real, so not full of himself.”

The same description befits Fishback, now 71, even as the Sacramento native has earned coast-to-coast recognition for his radiant portraits of many of the brightest lights in contemporary American art. Since 1979, he has shot more than 250 artists and photographers in Sacramento, Los Angeles, New York and points in between, capturing “the creative heart of our nation,” in the words of the late Henry T. Hopkins. The former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gave Fishback an exhibition in 1983, two years after he received his first one-man show at the Crocker Art Museum.

Fishback’s ability to put his shutter finger on the country’s art pulse comes into fresh focus from June 25 to Aug. 18, when the Pence Gallery in Davis stages a retrospective of his portraits. In addition to the Adams photo, the exhibition consists of 29 black-and-white prints, leaning toward artists with deep ties to the Sacramento region, among them Wayne Thiebaud, Gregory Kondos and Robert Arneson. Luminaries such as Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Nathan Oliveira and Clayton Bailey represent the Bay Area, while New York’s influence resonates in images of Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe. (Jerry Brown, photographed during his previous stay in the governor’s office, may or may not count as the lone non-artist in the lineup, depending on one’s view of politics as performance art.)

The emphasis on Sacramento-area painters and sculptors, if a natural outgrowth of Fishback’s roots, reflects the cultural zeitgeist that inspired his series more than 30 years ago and remains in perpetual bloom. As a student at Sacramento City College and Sacramento State in the early ’60s, and later at UC Davis, he encountered professors like Thiebaud, Kondos, Arneson, William T. Wiley and Roy De Forest. They and others in the region had emerged as bold-faced names in the national art press, lifting Sacramento’s profile from anonymous to prominent, a magnified visibility that has benefited artists of newer generations that he has photographed, including Annie Murphy-Robinson, Jian Wang, Chris Daubert and Dave Lane.

Painter Wayne Thiebaud is captured sitting in the parlor room of his Land Park home in 1997. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Edward Fishback)“There was this great creative ferment in Sacramento, in Davis, and I wanted to show that,” says Fishback, who lives in Antelope with his wife, Cassandra Reeves, a collage artist and landscape painter. “It was a magical time. To have all these people here, it was like everything had aligned.”

From the outset of his series—he started with Arneson, a renowned sculptor and his mentor at UC Davis—Fishback has countered the perception of artists as avatars, portraying them as something akin to manual laborers toiling in factories of the imagination. He has shot most of them in their studios, taking us inside their inner sanctum, where it turns out that inspiration looks an awful lot like work. “I’m trying to demystify and get rid of the sense of awe that people have about artists,” he says. “Respect, yes. But awe? We’re like anyone else. We’re not special in any way other than the fact that we’ve chosen to make art.”

One of his other early subjects was Kondos, whose shimmering landscape paintings were the subject of an expansive solo exhibition at the Crocker that ended in May. In the portrait, taken in his Cameron Park studio in 1979, Kondos sits in a faux leather chair parallel to a nearly completed beach scene, head twisted toward the camera. The canvas, clamped in a wall easel, hovers above him like a rectangular thought bubble. The photograph’s composition suggests that the painting drifted unbidden from the artist’s mind. But study his eyes. He appears fatigued, pensive, possibly a little frustrated: a worker on break. “I think the image is perfect,” the now 90-year-old Kondos says. “Some photographers try to overexaggerate what makes a painter. Kurt shows you as you are.”