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For Sculptors, a Photo
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on January 13, 1999. All rights reserved.
How did it happen that artists have become such solemn
members of our late 20th-century society? Although artists have been
regarded intermittently through history as society’s profligates who
never outgrew the urge to play, today we’re more likely to speak of
them in the hushed tones reserved for secular saints than as a class
of self-appointed free spirits brimming with psychic energy.
At Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, a sweeping exhibition by Princeton
photographer Ricardo Barros of 30 black-and-white portraits of artists
brings this and other lively notions about artists and artmaking bubbling
to the surface. It is an exhibition to be savored by those engaged
with art — particularly with the sculpture made by this gallery
of notables whose work itself gains an added dimension through the
photographer’s expressive vision. Barros gives a slide talk in conjunction
with his show, "Sculptors: A Portfolio of Photographs," in
the Domestic Arts Building at Grounds for Sculpture on Saturday, January
16, at 7:30 p.m.
Triggering our initial ideas about play is Barros’s documentary portrait
of Arthur Ganson, a four-part photo study that shows, in three successive
frames, shot just minutes apart, the artist seated at a workbench
in total physical and intellectual engagement with his work —
a scene that resembles nothing so much as a boy with a Tinkertoy set.
Then, in the fourth frame, like the sun breaking from behind a cloud,
his visage is illuminated with joy. Yes, art is a serious endeavor
— but it can also represent joy to its practitioner.
Tova Beck-Friedman, Marisol, George Segal, Toshiko Takaezu, and Isaac
Witkin are among the luminaries of American art and the region who
have consented to collaborate with Barros on a photographic portrait.
All images share the same 14-inch square format; shot with a Hasselblad
single-lens reflex camera.
Barros is a self-taught photographer who studied art history before
making a valiant effort to follow his father into the engineering
field. He arrived for a gallery tour last week in jeans and a heavy
knitted cardigan, and black watch cap. With striking dark eyes, dark
hair, and bearded, he’s soft-spoken and amiable, appearing as comfortable
in himself as he is in his vocation.
Born in Brazil in 1953, Barros emigrated to the United States with
his family at age seven and grew up on the outskirts of Boston, and
in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. At Lake Forest University he pursued
studies in art history, but then made a serious detour into engineering
at University of Massachusetts, earning a graduate degree in engineering
at Penn State.
Throughout these changes in direction, Barros’s interest in and practice
of photography remained constant. "That was where my heart and
passion was," he says. "I wanted to marry the two sides of
myself — my spiritual existence with how I spend my days."
Today he’s delighted to be making his living as an independent commercial
photographer whose clients include Grounds for Sculpture, the Atlantic
Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Seagram Americas. Although this
portrait series is in black-and-white, the majority of his commercial
work is in color; in his studio on Leigh Avenue he prints his own
color and black-and white.
"Although 70 percent of my commercial work is color, I have a
greater affinity for black and white," he says. "It’s my personal
vision, a departure from reality that simplifies. Color surfaces can
become a distraction that take away from the sense of space."
Barros’ actual experience in creating his photographs belies their
striking but unassuming appearance as true to life documents. He prefers
to work with full-frame prints, producing a series of variations on
the idea he has devised for each particular artist.
"My photographs coalesce out of a conversation with the subject
and usually surprise us both," says Barros. "Identity is a
relevant starting point, but ultimately I’m more interested in how
someone is seen rather than in who is seen. What’s unique about
this body of work is that I made an effort to incorporate other people’s
identities into my pictures." After familiarizing himself with
the sculptor’s work, Barros begins with an introductory phone conversation,
followed by a four-hour photo session with equipment, professional
lighting, and an assistant.
"Sculptors work in three dimensions. They transform materials
and reinvent space. I found that each had integrated his or her life
into a visible context, creating a physical relationship with space
that was idiosyncratically theirs. I became fascinated by how this
relationship with space showed up in their work and what it said about
Self-presentation can be a thorny subject for the artist used to standing
behind his or her work. For Barros, working with well-established
artists is clearly an exercise in diplomacy. He says he sought to
balance "work that I would own and that would satisfy the artist’s
needs. The subject must be allowed to be a dominant force in the composition."
The series began with a single commission, a portrait of Isaac Witkin
for a Grounds for Sculpture exhibition catalog. Traveling to Witkin’s
farmhouse studio in southern New Jersey, Barros seized on a pictorial
concept almost immediately.
"When I arrived to photograph him working inside, I saw this beautiful
light," says Barros. "We quickly shot right there in his field"
The resulting outdoor portrait, which shows Witkin like a windswept
adventurer in a well-worn sweatshirt, under a brooding, overcast sky,
suggests a man of independent strength, hungry for space.
Barros says it was largely on the basis of this image
that he was invited to produce the series for exhibition. Working
with gallery director Brooke Barrie, Barros says this first portrait,
"was like an archaeological discovery. We knew if we dug we’d
find more." With a complement of evocative images of Grounds for
Sculpture artists, Barros eventually sought the help of other curators
to contact sculptors working in the region.
In the realm of photography, Barros’s personal inspirations include
American photographers of the 1930s and ’40s, Edward Weston and the
f-64 group, and Magnum photographer Eugene Richards. Following this
now-classical tradition, he seeks the long tonal range and high fidelity
of such artists as Minor White and Paul Caponigro. Yet rather than
the sense of completion associated with this tradition, Barros has
a fierce interest in the edges of the frame. He uses them as compositional
elements that set a style and also create tension. The edges gain
significance, he says, by what is missing. "The viewer recognizes
that the life and work of these artists extends well beyond the borders
of the picture."
"None of this happens a priori," says Barros. "I don’t
walk in and say, `This is what I’m going to do to you.’ What I’m looking
for is a shaft that pierces through to their core. When I find it,
that’s what I want to photograph."
For regular visitors to Grounds for Sculpture, Barros’s 1997 portrait
of Marisol with her work "General Bronze" in the studio, prior
to its outdoor installation, will be revelatory. The stern military
bearing of the art work is matched by the artist’s own intense confrontation
with the photographer’s lens as she stands on a ladder, shoulder to
shoulder with the general, her hair pulled sharply back into a beret.
Other striking and ingenious compositions include a portrait of Jonathan
Shahn in his Roosevelt studio, his own visage almost lost in a scene
packed with life-size portrait heads. Magdalena Abakanowicz is portrayed
by way of an environmental study that shows her scouting a location
for her next installation at Ground for Sculpture. And Barros captures
a glorious portrait of ceramic artist Takaezu, her luminous visage
burnished to the same luster as one of her ceramic vessels.
George Segal, the sculptor known worldwide for his monochromatic figurative
sculptures captured from life, is caught seated and alert on the huge
worn leather couch that occupies a corner of his South Brunswick studios.
On the wall above are his recent, monumental charcoal drawings inspired
by Rembrandt — larger-than-life portrait studies of individuals
who are both near and dear to the artist. And Barros succeeds in lighting
the aging artist’s face with the same striking chiaroscuro as that
of the drawings.
Upon meeting Russian immigrant Vladimir Kanevsky, Barros says he was
struck by the artist’s huge library that reminded him of the great
Russian 19th century literary figures. He asked the artist to gather
a group of his eccentric ceramic figure sculptures on a table in front
of the bookshelf, and the studio cat spontaneously joined the shoot.
Since this was also the single snowy day of the winter of 1998, Barros
and Kanevsky then moved outside, bringing a sculpture figure along
for the ride.
"We drove to Liberty State Park where we found this field of
untouched snow. I asked him to walk out into it and told him, `There’s
Oz. You’ve arrived,’" Barros reports. Thus Kanevsky is represented
by two portraits, the latter, the whimsical "Vladimir Kanevsky
with New York Skyline" in which the magnificently delineated skyline
rises behind the artist. He in turn, swathed in a long black overcoat
cradles his ceramic figure. It’s as if we see a passenger emerging
from Alfred Stieglitz’s quintessential immigrant photograph "The
Steerage" of 1907, some 90 years after its creation.
Among the more playful and low-key portraits is Barry Snyder, facing
away from the camera to reveal the vertical tear in his T-shirt, with
a glance back toward the camera lens to confirm his participation
and presence. Robert Ressler’s portrait offers a clash of disparate
elements. Set in his outdoor studio yard, a dog affectionately nuzzles
the artist while a huge sculpture of an oversize meat cleaver hovers
over the pair. Marilyn Simon is presented with her portrait head of
Israel’s assassinated president Rabin. The posthumous commission had
brought her into intimate contact with a man she never knew, and over
time she came to appreciate his contribution to history and to feel
he had become part of her life. Barros says that toward the end of
their session she asked his permission before bending to kiss the
top of her subject’s head. "The gesture was hers — one that
I encouraged," he says.
The exhibition continues at Grounds for Sculpture to February 28.
Barros’s work will also be included in the group show "Empire
of Light," opening at Marsha Child Contemporary, 220 Alexander
Road in Princeton on Saturday, January 23.
— Nicole Plett
Road, Hamilton, 609-586-0616. Slide talk in conjunction with "Sculptors:
A Portfolio of Photographs." Free with reservation. Gallery hours
are Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the exhibit that
continues to February 28. Saturday, January 16, 7:30 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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