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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Judy Chicago counts as one of the few artists to complain about her portrait. She leans against a wall in a shaft of sunlight in her Benicia home, her fingertips forming a heart-like vagina symbol that refers to feminist strength. A year earlier, she had attracted widespread praise and derision for her massive installation The Dinner Party, an homage to 1,038 women from history and mythology that debuted in 1979 and flaunted her provocative “butterfly vagina” imagery. Defiant toward and dismissive of the male-dominated art world, she told Fishback, “You didn’t show me as the vulnerable person I really am.” He held his tongue. “I thought, ‘Vulnerable person? You’re a barracuda!’ ”Fishback’s portraits of Jerry Brown inside the governor’s office in the State Capitol in 1980 (Photo courtesy of Kurt Edward Fishback)

Fishback, with Joan as his assistant, finished the 35 portraits in three months. His 1981 exhibition at the Crocker included his photo of Kondos, his erstwhile teacher at Sacramento City College, who lauds him for sustaining the region’s cultural legacy. “Kurt’s made sure that Sacramento is accounted for as far as its contributions to art and photography,” says Kondos, who was elected in 1995 to the National Academy, an honorary association of the country’s leading artists. (Thiebaud is a fellow member.) “He’s photographed the characters who got people to pay attention to the art being made in this part of the country.”
Following the Crocker exhibition, Joan, his wife of 37 years before her death in 2005, coaxed him to cast his eye on artists in New York. “Truthfully, most of the best things happened because she had a big boot that she kicked me in the butt with,” Fishback says. They traveled east with 10 photo shoots scheduled. Relying on word of mouth and that bound anachronism known as the phone book, they arranged appointments with 34 more artists, and Fishback shot the lot of them in 21 days. The one person who proved to be unreachable was Andy Warhol. No one at The Factory, his studio and den of bacchanalia, answered the phone.

Chuck Close, famed for his large-scale photo-realistic paintings, posed in his studio in its natural state. Cigarette butts speck the floor, a beer bottle stands at attention, a small TV nestles amid jars and cups on a workbench. “He liked to watch soap operas when he worked,” Fishback says of Close, who continues to paint despite suffering a seizure in 1988 that left him mostly paralyzed from the shoulders down. Then as now, the artist seldom smiles in photographs, even for the self-portraits that he has used in numerous recent paintings. “He has a tendency to look like a Neanderthal in portraits, kind of downtrodden,” Fishback says.

Robert Arneson in the sculptor’s Benicia studio in 1985 (Photo courtesy of Kurt Edward Fishback)“But I was able to get a little warmth in his face.” When he saw a print, Close offered thanks in his typical self-deprecating manner, telling Fishback, “I don’t look all that much like an idiot.”

Fishback found a gracious host in Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs of men ignited a national debate over public funding of the arts in the late ’80s. He showed Fishback portraits of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, the subject of a book Mapplethorpe would publish the following year. Occupying one corner of the studio was a double bed perched on black two-by-fours and ringed by chicken wire. The eccentric décor aside, Fishback says, “He was the consummate gentleman. I’ve really not run across a more sensitive, gentle person in my life.”

The addition of New York artists to his collection of portraits spawned his exhibition at SFMOMA in 1983. He since has dedicated much of his time to nurturing aspiring photographers—he spent 21 years on staff at American River College before departing in 2011—while exploring themes within nature and spirituality through his photography and sculpture. When opportunity arises, he adds to the portrait series, and on occasion, he wonders if he should have sought to exploit its potential beyond the confines of museums and galleries. He mentions Richard Avedon, who cultivated a dual brand with his fashion and art photography while shooting for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and other national magazines. “But I was afraid it would get sullied and not be as authentic or as pure if it was seen as something promotional or commercial.”Gregory Kondos in the painter’s Cameron Park home studio in 1979 (Photo courtesy of Kurt Edward Fishback)

In the view of Natalie Nelson at the Pence Gallery, Fishback erred on the side of history. “He has photographed so many important artists and preserved the time and place in which they were creating their work,” she says. “These are portraits that will stand up to time.”

The oldest picture in the exhibit dates to 1963, before the concept of the series had occurred to him. He was 21 when he shot his father, who stands outside Mira Loma High School waiting for its architect to arrive for a photo shoot. He leans against the brick building, one foot propped against it, sunlight throwing his shadow across the wall. A camera hangs around his neck. Fishback took the portrait five years after the death of Edward Weston, the person more than any other he yearns to have photographed. In its way, his series honors the two men: one who forged a lasting legacy in the annals of American photography, the other who died wishing he had. Kurt Edward Fishback bears a name from each and the influence of both.

“I think,” he says, “I was meant to do this.” S