Portrait of the Artist as a Woman

Raised in the northern California arts community of the 1940s and 50s, Kurt Fishback observed many now-legendary figures up close — friends of the family included Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston. After working as a sculptor for a time, he spent the 80s taking photographs of prominent male artists in their studios.

After becoming aware of the persistent gender achievement disparity in the arts world — and concluding that he was part of the problem — Kurt began a series of portraits to celebrate and empower women artists in their work spaces. He plans to create 70 more portraits this year. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Kurt about his work.


Emily von Hoffmann: How did you become interested in taking portraits of artists? Who are some of the better-known male artists you photographed during your early career?

Kurt Fishback: In the 60’s I was a sculptor using clay mostly. I was also a street photographer. I studied and exhibited actively with Robert Arneson, William Wiley, David Gilhooly, Peter Vandenberge and the like until 1973 when my Dad, Glen Fishback, asked me to teach at his photography school.

Glen Fishback. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

In 1979 I opened a commercial photography studio and decided to begin making portraits of my friends and other artists of note. It began with Robert Arneson and many followed until the present day. Others include William Wiley, Viola Frey, Roy Deforest, Judy Chicago, Ansel Adams, Judy Dater, Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe. The total number now is just under 300.

Robert Arneson. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

EvH: You wrote that your early work, taking portraits of (mostly male) accomplished artists who might be role models for others, was “following the level of gender acceptance and appreciation in a world that left women begging for equal time and eye for their work.” Can you explain how you came to personally understand the gender disparity in the field?

KF: Beginning in 1979 almost everything in art was run by men and most of the high profile artists were men. But, when a woman angrily asked me several years ago at a gallery talk I was giving why there were not more portraits of women artists in my show, instead of only hearing her anger I saw her as a messenger.

Kim Scott. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

Then I began looking at my 35-year project differently, and in October of 2014 received a Leff/Davis grant through the Sacramento Region Community Foundation.

Nancy Becker. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

That began the project of photographing new women artists with 30 new portraits exhibited twice in 2015, first at Archival Gallery in Sacramento and second at Transmission Gallery in Oakland. I created a catalog for the second show that include the 1st 30 portraits and 21 vintage portraits of women artists dating back to 1979 when the project began.

Wynn Bullock. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

EvH: Your upcoming series will combine a new emphasis on women with a familiar format from your previous work — how did you go about finding and selecting artists for the new series?

KF: Pretty much in the same manner as before, by talking to those I had already photographed, or through direct contact with women artists I already wanted to photograph.

Brooke Walker-Knoblich. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

For instance, I connected with the painter Squeak Carnwath when the Artists’ Legacy Foundation contacted me about using my portrait of Viola Frey. She provides space in her large Oakland, CA studio building for their offices. Making portraits is all about creating rapport with my subjects.

Burt Glinn. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

The process is one of partnership. So, knowing my subjects in advance helps a great deal. Of course there is no way I could make portraits of every woman artist, even in 3 lifetimes. So I am no longer following my original path of choosing only the most famous. Key to the decision making process is following the passion and dedication that is unmistakable in certain people.

Pam Dixon. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

EvH: Why is the studio such a potent space for portraiture? What about photographing an artist in her workspace is so powerful?

KF: The artist studio is that place where we lock the door, release most of our personal boundaries and invite the ancestors and creative spirits to inspire and guide us to make the art that we make. These spaces become charged with the artist’s energy.

Ianna Nova Frisby. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

The trappings and work in progress share that energy with me and my camera. My portraits hopefully share the part that will be valuable both for the artists and the public that will see them. They tell a story. I don’t always shoot in the studio though — when discussing where to work together, I ask the artist for suggestions and sometimes — as with Eve Sonneman in New York — we wind up in front of the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge because her studio was torn up by plumbers.

Eve Sonneman. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

EvH: What are some creative or logistical challenges that arise in portraiture?

KF: The total comfort of my subjects and acceptance of the experience as positive limits potential challenges. And, not anticipating that challenges will exist helps as well. Let me explain. If I look for problems, guess what, they will be there. And, if my path is one of respect for the portrait moment and portraying my subjects with compassion and honesty, challenges just don’t present themselves.

Chuck Close. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

They don’t become real. None of this is to suggest that a flat tire never happens, or a reschedule due to unforeseen circumstances doesn’t occur. With all of this in mind, no portrait session has ever been ended early due to non-compatibility.

EvH: Can you describe one or two of your favorite portraits, and anything about the process of making them that stood out to you?

Beno Friedman & Ziggy. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

KF: Julia Couzens is a very strong and direct workman. Her work reflects that as well. Though it is enigmatic and even cryptic at times, its ability to capture attention comes through immediately.

The day I photographed her the portraits I made were commissioned by Sacramento Magazine, a commercial client that I had done a great deal of work for through the years. Julia first sat upstairs in her two story house/studio on her couch with her dogs.

Julia Couzens. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

Then she led me downstairs to her studio. There were two spaces to work in, with work in progress in both. I couldn’t decide which to pose her in so asked her to stand against the wall that divided them. She without fanfare went into the yoga pose I captured. All I had to do is trip the shutter.

Ruth Bernhard also had a profound effect on me. I tried for six months to get Ruth to let me make her portrait. When she finally agreed she explained that she was a sixteen-year-old girl trapped in a seventy-six-year-old body. After she saw the results of our first session, she invited me back to do it again. This time we worked in the studio where she did all of her own work. What followed was a wonderful collaboration and lesson for me in the use of available light.

Ruth Bernard. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

I retouched the print a great deal as Ruth preferred soft, flattering portraits. When she saw it she exclaimed, “When I go to the plastic surgeon, I will take this portrait with me.” I felt the first visit was magical. While I was making the portrait, Ruth looked at me and said, with a twinkle’ in her eye, “I love looking at your eyes over the top of the camera.”

On the next visit I showed Ruth the portrait and she said, “ Well! it’s what I look like, I keep hoping to look different, but I always look the same. My inner self is not in tune with my outer countenance. There is a sixteen-year-old girl trapped in here.”

Bella Feldman. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

Ruth sees things others do not see, things most people either take for granted, or overlook as unimportant. For example, Ruth dug around in a small dish full of miniature shells and found a pink speck and handed me a magnifying glass. Under magnification I could see a beautiful, perfectly formed shell.

Viola Frey. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

“I found this shell with my naked eye on a beach where people told me there were no shells. Well, there were millions of shells, only they were so small, people were walking on them and couldn’t distinguish them from particles of sand. I guess my eye sight is still pretty good.” I pay much closer attention to details thanks to her.

Joan Brown. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

EvH: How much time do you usually spend while getting to know your subjects?

KF: While making the last 30 portraits of women artists, I spent sometimes 2 or 3 hours just talking and sharing ideas. This is where I have gained my fullest understanding of women artists’ experience as both women and artists in our culture. This is why I am working so hard to do my part to find a place at the table for women artists.

Joy Bertinuson. Image courtesy of Kurt Fishback.

EvH: Can you share with us any other plans for future work, related to this series or otherwise?

KF: When I find support to continue the project I will make 70 new portraits of women artists. That will bring my archive into gender parity, a condition I hope will one day exist for women artists’ experiences everywhere. With this in mind I am using Kickstarter as a tool to do this at present. There is a possibility also of a new exhibition of the new portraits and a catalog for that show in the Fall of 2017.

Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow Polarr on Twitter and try our products.