PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITS OF L.A. ARTISTS by WAYNE SHIMABUKURO
curated by JAN TURNER COLBURN
at the COLBURN SCHOOL
December 2010 – May 2011
The exhibition & catalogue were supported by a generous grant from the RIORDAN FOUNDATION with a special thanks to MARY BETH RIORDAN.
Essay by LEAH OLLMAN
Why should it matter what an artist looks like? What do we hope to discover in the face behind the work? As much as we might talk ourselves out of drawing a link between appearance and attributes, the lure of the photographic portrait is irresistible. We seize upon such images as promises of new insight or greater access into the artist’s process and sensibility. We remember those that have delivered: Hans Namuth’s series of Jackson Pollock bent over and stepping onto his outstretched canvas, bucket in hand; Henri Cartier-Bresson’s glimpse of the elder Matisse sketching a white pigeon cupped in his hand, while a small flock of others perches atop one of the studio’s many cages; Alfred Stieglitz’s extended portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, as bold and intimate as her own paintings. Knowing an artist’s work, we hunger to know more about its source, to trace the flow back to its origin. But what’s in a face, any more than in a name? Can we expect to find answers in such portraits, or simply more questions?
Wayne Shimabukuro has been photographing the artists of Los Angeles for more than 30 years. He started when he was an art student himself in the early ‘70s, taking pictures of his friends and teachers. As subjects, they were both available and amenable. In 1980, he photographed David Hockney at work, and soon after, a collection of his portraits was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Momentum kept building,” Shimabukuro says, as did his intentions. Making artists’ portraits had been a casual endeavor; it gradually became a committed project.
He has now made hundreds of photographs of artists in the L.A. area—stalwarts and emerging talents, painters, sculptors, photographers, makers of installations, videos, ceramics, collages, prints. When asked what he’s after, he stays general: insight, a sense of place, a bit of narrative. He shoots almost exclusively in the artist’s studio equipped with knowledge of his subject’s work but unburdened by preconceived notions of how the sitting should proceed. His approach remains fluid, and depends on what he finds when he arrives: how much or how little the artist wants to collaborate; how much time the artist can give; the nature of the space, the quality of the light. Each session amounts to a negotiation between the improvisational and the deliberate. Even if the photographer and his subject have not met before, Shimabukuro finds that they slip naturally into a common language: “They’re visual people.” That ease in communicating comes across in the work, which records a transaction shaped by sensitivity and respect. Neither artist wrestles down the other through force of ego. Whatever dynamism and friction these pictures possess are not generated by the tension of confrontation, but rather through graphic vitality and psychological immediacy.
Shimabukuro favors clarity, composing the space within his pictures so that our attention fixes upon the artist’s face. He often restricts his view to a subject’s head and shoulders (the classic portrait bust, updated), positioning him or her at the charged juncture of light and shadow, or aligning the artist’s eyes with a horizon of some sort, whether formed by solid meeting void or darkness separating from light.
Each image is a clear statement, a declaration of complex presence. Internal rhymes and echoes animate the portraits. An artist consorts with his own shadow, or as in Alison Saar’s case, the half of the artist’s face printed in positive melds with the half printed in negative. John Sonsini sits alone in his portrait, but he’s also in the company of a syncopation of other faces in the painted work that surrounds him. An empty frame hanging on the wall issues an open invitation for yet another personality to join the assembly.
Shimabukuro is always thinking in terms of resonance between his portrait and the feel or look of the subject’s own work but resists obvious correspondences. Often he will shoot an artist so that his or her work comprises the entire background. In a series with Lita Albuquerque, she stands in front of a painting so that her head enacts a partial eclipse of the canvas’s luminous orb. With Gajin Fujita, splices of paintings intersperse with images of the artist in a jaunty push-pull rhythm. Somehow, Shimabukuro says, the final image absorbs all that has led to its making: the artist’s own sensibility and process, the photographer’s, and their conversation during the sitting.
In truth, often there is no single final image. “I think in terms of multiple images,” Shimabukuro notes, affirming the similarity of his work to film stills. Using Photoshop to alter and combine pictures, he choreographs progressions through time and space. Don Bachardy’s portrait is comprised of three parts: one shows the artist’s hand, painting; another his subject and partner, Christopher Isherwood; and another the artist standing back from his work, pausing to assess. Shimabukuro uses fragments of Ed Moses’ work as glue to marry two portraits of the artist, taken decades apart. Frank Gehry is shown standing before one completed building and framed on either side by fragments of another (Disney Hall) still under construction. Personal and artistic identities are never fixed, and even the photographer’s most stable subject is a moving target. The multiplicity in Shimabukuro’s portraits imbues temporal and spatial dimensionality to the still image; just as important, it’s true to experience.
When Shimabukuro started his series of artists’ portraits 30+ years ago, the art community of L.A. was small, he recalls, and there were few galleries. Now, he says, it’s impossible to keep up. The city continues to evolve as a generative site for art’s creation, exhibition, dissemination and scholarship. Its contours and contents keep changing, expanding. Shimabukuro proceeds, he persists, chronicling the L.A. art world’s ever-shifting face—the one we recognize around us today, but which will prove newly revelatory tomorrow. The archive he is creating tells much and asks even more, but mostly it remembers.
Additional support was generously proved by Harry Montgomery, Typecraft Inc.
and Jack Miller & Associates.
A 48 page four color catalogue of this exhibition is available for $19.95 + s/h.
To order, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
all rights reserved by:
Leah Ollman &
The Colburn School of Music
200 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
A selection of this portfolio is exhibited in BODY LANGUAGE, Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA, Trevor Norris, curator; 09.02.12 – 10.11.12.