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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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, 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.
“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.”
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.”