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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 21, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Ricardo Barros Builds a Book
Visiting Princeton photographer Ricardo Barros at his studio in the
turn-of-the-20th century Stockton Arts Building in Morrisville, you
may feel you’ve stepped back in time. Smack on South Pennsylvania
Avenue are three floors of odd offices, stacked above a traditional
"Main Street" block of storefronts. And when he opens his studio door,
Barros confirms my suspicions with the comment that Guy Noir, Private
Eye (Garrison Keillor’s alter ego) can be found in his office on the
12th floor ("trying to find the answer to life’s persistent
questions"). And we believe him.
Barros is a commercial photographer whose bread-and-butter jobs are
much like the one he’s currently working on: glossy color shots of
good-looking cigars. Yet back in the late 1980s, he was a contract
photographer for J. Seward Johnson’s Johnson Sculpture Atelier, then
directed by Brooke Barrie. When Barrie moved on to direct the nascent
Grounds for Sculpture, Barros moved too, producing brochure
photography for the sculpture park before its official opening in
1992. Barros is fortunate in that his work is also a vocation. And his
workaday proximity to sculpture and sculptors gave rise to his series
of art portraits of sculptors.
Now Barros is celebrating the publication of the fruit of more than 10
years’ work, his big, 165-page book, "Facing Sculpture: A Portfolio of
Portraits, Sculpture, and Related Ideas." Marsha Child Contemporary,
220 Alexander Street, hosts two receptions for Barros’ book and a
companion exhibition of his photographic portraits. Receptions are
Thursday, January 22, 5 to 8 p.m., and Saturday, January 24, 4 to 8
p.m., for the show that continues to February 24. Priced at $45, the
book can be purchased online at www.ricardobarros.com. It is also
available locally at Micawber’s Books and the Princeton U-Store, and
nationally at Barnes & Noble.
"Facing Sculpture’s" original photographs all share the same 14-inch
square format; shot with a Hasselblad single-lens reflex camera. Now
in his new digital darkroom equipped with computers, negative
scanners, and an Epson 7000 printer in Morrisville, Barros is
producing 22-inch archival ink-jet prints for exhibition at the Child
"Ricardo Barros takes the unorthodox approach of making each of his
portraits unique," says gallery owner Child. "Every photograph
reflects insight about a sculptor, his or her work, and the individual
experience from which the portrait was born."
Barros’ photography series was first exhibited in late 1998 at Grounds
for Sculpture with a sweeping and successful exhibition of 30
black-and-white portraits of 20 different artists. This was followed,
in 1999, by a second exhibition at Marsha Child Contemporary. "By the
time of the second show, the project had developed some momentum,"
Barros recalls. "We made up dummies of the book and started to figure
out how to get it out in the world."
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Marisol, George Segal, Toshiko Takaezu, and
Isaac Witkin are just a few of the luminaries of American art whose
portraits appeared in that 1999 show. All notables who consented to
collaborate with Barros – a comparative stranger – on their portrait.
Equally compelling are his inventive portraits of less well-known
artists such as Pat Keck, Vladimir Kanevsky, Joan Danziger, and Joseph
Barros meets his subjects after he has got to know their work. The
sculptors, he explains, are "interesting people who do interesting
work. I met most of them for the first time on the day of their
Credited for bringing both insight and whimsy into his art, he arrives
at the photo session with specific ideas for location and props. "I do
believe in a photograph being truthful, but that does not mean that a
photograph must be literal," he says. "To be truthful a photo must be
genuine to the observation and sincere to the feeling."
Over a period of years, as Barros’s vision for a book – which he calls
his "pipe dream" – grew, so did the scope of his portrait project. As
his idea took shape, he approached Nick Capasso, curator at the
DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park near Boston, for referrals to
regional sculptors whom he might photograph. Capasso not only provided
referrals, but took an active interest in Barros’ project and
eventually became the author of the introduction to "Facing
"Ricardo Barros’ portraits of contemporary sculptors must be
understood as works of art, not as visual documents vainly striving
for objectivity," writes Capasso. "They are sensitive, personal
meditations, worlds away from the market-driven image-consciousness
that repeatedly puts forth the posturing of celebrity artists."
Rather than imposing his own "style," on his photographic portraits,
Barros has the ability to approach each one afresh. The result is a
quirkiness that often surprised Barros himself. Each picture comprises
its own style, mood, and interpretation of both the art-maker and his
or her art. Settings vary widely from the obvious – the artist in his
studio – to the unanticipated, such as his 1998 outdoor portrait of
Vladimir Kanevsky which has become one of his trademark works.
Upon meeting the Russian immigrant artist Kanevsky, Barros
photographed him in his library. But since this was also a snowy
winter day, he suggested they move outdoors, and Kanevsky brought one
of his endearing sculpted figures 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 recalls. The result, "Vladimir Kanevsky with
New York Skyline," features the magnificently delineated Twin Towers
and skyline of Lower Manhattan rising behind the artist. The artist,
swathed in a mysterious black overcoat, cradles his sculpted figure
like a totemic partner.
In a technique learned from master photographer Jerry Uelsmann, Barros
set up his photo portrait of Joseph Acquah to replicate the artist’s
own bronze self-portrait. Fusing his negatives of the two subjects,
Barros creates the illusion that the artist has merged with his bronze
alter ego. So seamless is the fabrication of the two images of the
face, that Barros superimposes a black border to point up the artistry
of the image.
Barros got his book into the world by means of conviction, fortitude,
and a shoestring budget. After coming close to signing, with three
separate prominent publishers, September 11, 2001, hit and he found
himself left with sincere expressions of interest but no publisher.
The entrepreneurial Barros proceeded to self-finance his project by
selling portfolios of images from this body of work to the
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the DeCordova
Museum, and Hamilton’s Grounds for Sculpture, among others. He
produced a print run of 2,500 copies without incurring any additional
Writing for the book was a task Barros had not seriously anticipated,
but to which he eventually devoted much time and energy.
"I had this image of me making photos, and a knight in shining armor
who would swoop down and take the photos and make a book," he says,
ruefully. In fact his texts are almost as provocative as his images.
"As an artist, my entire focus had been on the work. But taking it
from portfolio to book is like taking a novel and making a screenplay.
Editor Nancy Russell worked with him on his essay, guiding him towards
writing for the general reader. And with the coaching of editor Kate
Winton of Princeton Day School he actually "went back to high school"
to learn to craft the short, cogent commentaries that accompany each
portrait. The book’s design is by Kathleen Forsythe.
"Do not be fooled by this book," is Barros’ opening salvo, writing in
the Preface to "Facing Sculpture." "It is partly about sculpture . . .
partly about photography. . . The realms of sculpture and of
photography are shallows in an ocean of expressive media; this book
passes through their territory like a net through water."
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, where his father worked as an engineer. 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."
Long-time Princeton residents, he and his wife, Heather Barros, an art
teacher, are parents of two sons, ages 20 and 25, and a daughter, 19,
who is a freshman at Mitchell College in Connecticut. While the
Morrisville studio has become Barros’ photographing site and digital
center, he still prints his own negatives in his wet darkroom in his
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 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.
Working with Brooke Barrie of Grounds for Sculpture, Barros says this
first portrait, "was like an archaeological discovery. We knew if we
dug we’d find more." 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, is 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 late sculptor widely known 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 monumental charcoal
drawings inspired by Rembrandt – larger-than-life portrait studies.
And Barros succeeds in lighting the aging artist’s face with the same
striking chiaroscuro as he lights the subjects in his drawings.
His photo portrait of African-American sculptor Chakaia Booker is a
reproduction of the original version which, in the manner of Booker’s
own art, he printed on twisted and layered fabric. Charles Wells is
shown standing in the leafy driveway of his Pennsylvania home pulling
one of his carved sculptures in a child’s wagon.
J. Seward Johnson Jr., founder of Grounds for Sculpture, who recreates
Impressionist paintings in bronze, is shown standing within the
boundaries of his multi-figure "Dejeuner Deja Vu" sculpture
installation, holding two gilt picture frames, with his own head and
shoulders mysteriously framed by a third.
Marilyn Simon is presented with her portrait head of Israel’s
assassinated prime minister Itzhak 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.
220 Alexander Street, 609-497-7330. Opening receptions for "Facing
Sculpture: A Portfolio of Portraits, Sculpture, and Related Ideas."
Show runs to February 24. Thursday, January 22, 5 to 8 p.m. and
Saturday, January 24, 4 to 8 p.m.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.;
Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.
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