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.
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His grounded perspective on the creative life has resonated with curators, editors and collectors alike. Prints of his work are part of the permanent collections of the Crocker, SFMOMA, the International Center of Photography in New York and the Denver Art Museum, and his images have graced hundreds of art books, catalogs and magazines. His book Art in Residence: West Coast Artists in Their Space, a compilation of 73 portraits published in 2000, was financed in part by Russ Solomon, the Tower Records impresario, who belongs to the long list of private collectors worldwide with prints of his photos.
Shooting his subjects in their studios or homes provides a glimpse of what Natalie Nelson, the Pence’s curator and director, describes as “the ordinariness of their lives,” closing the space between them and the viewer. “Kurt’s images create a kind of intimacy that helps you understand more about an artist,” she says.
“It’s almost like he’s helping you have a conversation with them, giving you a sense of them as real people.”
In a 1981 portrait, the Sacramento painter Joan Moment, who had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1974, greets the lens with a warm gaze and a Mona Lisa smile. Buckets, rolled-up canvases and a pair of rubber gloves lie a few feet away in her sunlit studio; the viewer feels invited to hang around for her next project. The famously self-referential Arneson, whose pieces appear in The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., posed for Fishback a second time in 1985 in his Benicia studio. The sculptor, who died in 1992, sits with his back to a Roman-style pedestal that rises above his head, crowned by an enormous bust of his likeness. The size and position of the ceramic head imply that, though its creator may perish, the art will persist. Another former UC Davis faculty member, William T. Wiley, is the calm eye of a storm of his own making in a 1980 portrait. The disarray in his Mill Valley studio resembles that of a crack house, the floor littered with scraps of wood and plastic, a couple of jars, a cooking pan, half a mannequin leg. The subject of a retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2009 that surveyed his drawings, paintings and sculptures, Wiley appraises the camera with hangdog eyes that sag toward his push-broom mustache. Welcome to my brain, his laid-back expression says. Don’t mind the clutter.
“It’s about sharing,” Fishback says, explaining the ethos of his series. “All too often, people know artists only for their work. They don’t know what artists look like or what kind of space they work in.”
Yet some of his subjects reveal themselves by receding. He shot the camera-shy Thiebaud in his Land Park home in 1997. The longtime Sacramento resident, whose vibrant, Pop Art-tinged paintings of cakes, pies and candy have drawn international acclaim since the early 1960s and seven-figure auction prices more recently, felt uneasy posing in his studio and peering into the lens. In the photograph, he sits in his parlor room beneath paintings by other artists, a hand on his cheek as he stares off to the side. The image mirrors Fishback’s earlier portrait of him, from 1980, in which Thiebaud, seated beside an easel that holds his unfinished painting of four cake halves, rests a hand on his chin, eyes averted to his left. He is at once present and distant in both photos, a man who prefers his art to speak for him.
Fishback’s awareness of the anxiety provoked by the business end of a camera reaches back to childhood. “I’ve been on that side, and it isn’t easy,” he says. “I have a sense of empathy.” Growing up in Sacramento in the 1940s and ’50s, he and his younger sister, Judy, served as models in their father’s photo shoots. Glen Fishback, who in the late ’30s had worked as a staff photographer for The Sacramento Bee, owned a commercial and portrait studio at 9th and J streets with his wife, Altha, who managed the business. His national clients included the camera companies Eastman Kodak and Ansco, and he shot images for ads that ran in Look, Life and The Saturday Evening Post. If a job called for children, the couple sometimes employed their two kids. “And when I had too many zits on my face,” Fishback says, laughing, “I schlepped equipment.”
His father, a “tough taskmaster” in matters of photography, explicated the nuances of lighting, exposure times and, long before the digital era, developing negatives. Fishback recalls watching Edward Weston make prints using an ordinary light bulb in the darkroom of his Carmel Highlands studio. Celebrated for his stirring black-and-white photos of nearby Point Lobos, Weston, along with Adams, his friend and eventual neighbor, reigned as a titan of fine art photography in the 20th century. Glen and Altha, who first met Weston during a trip to Carmel a few years before their son’s birth in 1942, gave Kurt the middle name Edward in their friend’s honor.
The elder Fishback, unable to pursue his ambitions as a fine art photographer while balancing the demands of family and business, won respect for his commercial work, technical innovations and articles in industry magazines. (His archives are housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.) He and Weston bonded over their common interest and remained close until the latter’s death from Parkinson’s disease in 1958. “The man had such a gentle sweetness,” says Fishback, who with his father visited the ailing artist in Carmel a week before he died at age 71. Robbed of his voice, perpetual spasms rattling a body turned gaunt, Weston clutched and squeezed Kurt’s hand for an hour. “I didn’t really understand it, but he was trying to communicate with me,” says Fishback, who was then 16. “My dad walked outside and cried. Weston was his idol. He wanted to be Weston.”
Photography had yet to find purchase in college curriculums when Fishback graduated from McClatchy High School in 1960. He instead diverted his artistic impulse toward the rapidly evolving discipline of ceramic sculpture. By the time he earned a master’s in fine arts from UC Davis in 1970—after a tour in the Air Force Reserve and academic detours to the Bay Area and East Coast—he had taken part in a group show at New York’s American Craft Museum and his work was accepted into an international ceramics exhibition that traveled across Europe. (The Pence Gallery will display eight of his sculptures as part of its retrospective.)
Fishback might have spent his career sculpting rather than shooting if not for an unkind circumstance that, at first, his father hid from him. Glen and Altha had established the Glen Fishback School of Photography in Oak Park in 1968, some years after shuttering their commercial studio. In 1973, Glen asked his son to help out at the school, which offered a 10-month course to aspiring career photographers. Kurt was teaching art and art history at College of the Siskiyous near Mount Shasta, struggling to support his then wife, Joan—they married in 1968 after his brief first marriage collapsed—and her two teenage children. The family moved to Sacramento and Kurt went to work for his father, unaware that Glen Fishback was ill, suffering from what would be diagnosed later as Parkinson’s, a melancholy echo of Weston’s fate. He died three years later burdened by a sense of obligation and regret.
“He wanted to be an artist,” Fishback says, “but he was stuck being a commercial photographer and a portrait photographer all his life. One of the last things he told me was, ‘I’ll never be able to retire.’ ”
Mindful of his father’s thwarted desire, he left the school in 1979. (His mother carried on the business until 1991, five years before her death.) He opened a commercial studio in his garage in Arden-Arcade and began his portrait series, an idea that flowered as he considered the bounty of creative talent in the Sacramento region. Armed with mounted photographs of Arneson, Kondos, Thiebaud and two or three others, he met with Roger D. Clisby, then the Crocker’s curator, whose verdict was swift and magnanimous. He provided Fishback with a list of 128 artists in California and told him to pick 35 to photograph for a solo exhibition at the museum.
Glen Fishback instilled in his son a clear-eyed sensibility toward portraiture. “When I started doing photography, my dad told me, ‘Remember this: You are no better than anyone else and no one else is better than you.’ He taught me not to be afraid of anyone or so enamored of them that I was in awe of them.” The technical prowess he learned at his father’s side further aided him when he approached artists about posing. Three decades ago, when shooting public figures, portrait photographers were apt to haul in heavy lights and cables and chew through dozens of rolls of film for a single session lasting several hours. “I knew that would be a turnoff. Artists are busy and they don’t want someone messing up their space,” Fishback says. “So I said, ‘I won’t take more than an hour, I probably won’t expose more than 10 frames of film, I won’t bring any lights or cords.’ Because that’s how my dad taught me.”
His photos capture artists in moods puckish and meditative. Manuel Neri, a painter and sculptor who taught at UC Davis for more than 20 years, sits before a wall in his home that he has adorned with mounted animal heads. He atones for his lack of antlers with a cigar that dangles from his mouth, a show of inverted solidarity with his horned menagerie. (Neri purchased the heads from a taxidermist who had gone out of business, a fact he insisted that Fishback share whenever the portrait is exhibited.) Sacramento painter Fred Dalkey has rolled back from his easel and slumps in a chair in one corner of his studio, stare fixed on a work in progress that stands with its back to us. The windows behind him frame a palm tree bathed in luminous sunshine. He cares only about the storm within.