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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

Ricardo Barros, Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds

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.

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