Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of photographer Kurt Fishback. He was brought to our attention when we published this portrait of Edna Bullock. Thank you Kurt for sharing your work with us. If you would like learn more about Kurt’s Kickstarter please visit, Women Artist in Their Studios.
How did you get started in photography?
I was born into photography. My father, Glen Fishback, was a photographer and the first photograph of me he used for an ad in 1942 was when I was ten days old. Besides running a portrait and wedding studio in Sacramento, CA into the 1950’s, he made human interest photos of me and my sister for ads for Kodak, Rolleiflex, and other companies. Also, near the day I was born I received a letter from Edward Weston from whom I received my middle name sharing his pride of this event.
I wanted to be an architect and when time came to go to college in 1961 I didn’t want to do calculus. That is when I began making my own photographs. Since there were no college art departments that I could find with photography as one of the mediums on the West Coast I gravitated to ceramics. By 1970, when I got my MFA at UC Davis in sculpture I had been making documentary photographs of people in the street but gained a higher visibility in ceramics as part of the Funk Art movement in California.
In 1973, while teaching painting, drawing, design, and art history at College of the Siskiyous in Weed, CA my father asked me to teach with him at his school of photography in Sacramento, CA. This completed my shift almost full-time to photography as my primary medium.
In 1979, after my father’s death in 1976, I left the school and opened a commercial photography studio in Sacramento. I also began making portraits of artists the same year.
Did you have a mentor?
Aside from growing up around Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Wynn Bullock my mentor and teacher was my father Glen Fishback. I took one class in photography at Sacramento City College in 1962 and flunked it. Their darkrooms were dirty and the chemistry was never fresh so I asked politely if I could work in my Dad’s darkroom. The teacher took offense and that ended my training in photography in college. My Dad taught me how to make the “fine black and white print”. Then all of my experience as a child in and around photography came together and made sense personally.
What inspired you to do the Women Artists series?
In August, 2013 an exhibition of my portraits at Pence Gallery in Davis, CA hosted a gallery talk with me. A woman there asked me in a rather angry tone why there were not more women artist portraits in the show. I thought for a moment and shared that history had not be nearly as fair to women artists in opportunity. When I began making portraits of artists in 1979 it was all about sharing artists with the public in a personal, revealing way. I have done that and followed the level of acceptance and appreciation in a world that has left women begging for equal time and an eye for their work. And, in part, I was searching for the “most famous” which were of course predominantly men. Even so, I have made over seventy portraits of women artists out of more than two hundred and fifty. For example, when I was given a list in 1980 by the then curator at the Crocker Art Museum of 128 artists from which I could choose 35 to photograph and exhibit in 1981, there existed a ratio of 30% women to 70% men suggested as worthy of inclusion. That is how things were and not enough has changed.
While my reasons for making new portraits of women artists is to bring my archive into gender parity were important, something else emerged of a both rare and very personally gratifying nature portrait by portrait, experience by experience. This turned out to be the real reason I was guided to begin this project.
In practice, each time I make art in the portrait manner I both collaborate and partner with another human being. Working with women artists exclusively has helped to raise my understanding immeasurably as to their concerns through the years on gender equity in all things and not just their places in the world of art.
This has given me an opportunity to practice compassion and empathy in a way I might never have before this project presented itself. In recording each artist with concern for every detail shared, the portraits act in a very positive way to portray them in the very best light and share who they are with the public.
Was there a woman photographer that had an influence on your work? Is there a story you would like to share with our readers?
Ironically, the woman photographer who influenced me the most was Edna Bullock who your recent article was all about. That is one of the reasons I was so honored that my photos were used. Edna shared her wisdom with me a number of times. Her portrait, the one with her looking into the camera, I count as my most successful portrait. I learned the following from her daughter Barbara Bullock Wilson shortly before her death.
Edna had a few strokes late in her life. In each case while convalescing at home under her daughters’ care, this portrait was placed above her bed to remind all who visited about her wonderful, loving smile. Then it was also used at the altar in the church where her memorial service was held in Carmel. Barbara asked me later how much it would cost for four prints for her and her sisters. I sent them as a gift considering the wonderful effect my portrait of Edna had on that whole experience.
Also, Ruth Bernhard 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.
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.”
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. “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.
What do you love most about photography?
What I love the most about photography is how it captures light in such a special way. Black and White is my choice of capture now and while my Dad opened my eyes to good printmaking, it was Ansel Adams that gave me the axiom for it all.
I visited Ansel in his home shortly after my Dad died in 1976. I wanted to re-connect with my roots in Carmel. While we talked about things technical and historical, light came up and Ansel asked me to follow him. We walked through his house and into a back room to a large bay window. He pointed out a huge pine tree with limbs hanging nearly to the ground. He said, “look back under that tree, under the branches”. It seemed very dark under the tree. Then he said, “there’s light there”. In a class I was teaching at a college in Sacramento I wrote this axiom on the board the first day of class and we searched for its meaning the rest of the semester.
I also love the opportunities it affords me for nurturing old and gaining new relationships with other human beings.
Thank you Kurt for sharing your work and words.
To learn more about Kurt Fishback please visit his site at, Kurt Fishback.
To learn more about Women Artist in Their Studios just click on the title.
To learn more about these artist just click on their names.
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