Kurt Edward Fishback, son of photographer Glen Fishback and namesake of photographer Edward Weston, grew up as part of the photographic community in Northern California during the 1940s and ‘50s. Mentors and friends of the family included Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston. Despite his immersion in the world of photography, Fishback began his artistic career studying ceramic sculpture at Sacramento City College, the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California, Davis in the 1960s. He first began to experiment personally with photography in 1962 as a way to document his experiences with other sculptors, but it was not until 1973, when his father invited him to teach at the Glen Fishback School of Photography, that photography became Fishback’s primary medium of expression. You can find out more about Kurt on his website here
Kurt Fishback’s photo essay “Portraits of Women Artists in their Personal Space,” published in our July 2015 issue, is a collection of portraits of artists in their studios, their most personal and intimate space. The studio is where artists develop their ideas both conceptually and physically. Photographing artists where they make art can shed light on their influences, desires, and creative processes. The point of his essay has been to share artists with the public, making each artist more accessible and relatable.
Q. When did you get into your art form?
A. I was born the son of photographer Glen Fishback and namesake of photographer Edward Weston in 1942 and grew up as part of the photographic community in Northern California during the 1940s and ’50s. Mentors and friends of the family included Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston. My father made advertising photographs for companies like Eastman Kodak, Ansco, Honeywell, Pentax, Rolleiflex and wrote many articles on photograph while operating a portrait and wedding studio in Sacramento.
My first personal work in photography in 1962 began when I asked my dad to be my teacher. I was learning to photograph people in the street and also to document my experiences with other artists. What I learned first was the love of the fine black and white print. It was not until 1973, when my father invited me to teach at his school, the Glen Fishback School of Photography in Sacramento, that photography became my primary medium of expression.
Q. Were there other mediums you tried before?
A. Despite my immersion in the world of photography during my childhood, my artistic career began focused on ceramics in the early 1960s. It was difficult in 1961 to find photography in college art departments and ceramics was already well established as a medium everywhere. The ultimate goal was to gain the degrees necessary to teach in higher education as a means of supporting a career in fine art.
It was in the early 1960s I met Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, David Gilhooly, Peter Vandenberge and others. The shift in ceramics from pottery to sculpture without a need for utilitarian function was happening fast. I was swept up by this shift at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1964 studying with Jim Melchert and Ron Nagle and became part of the movement coined by Peter Selz as “Funk Art.”
I had been exhibiting ceramic sculpture widely beginning in 1965 and in 1970 after receiving my MFA at the University of California, Davis, began my teaching career at Fayetteville State University, an all-black school in North Carolina. I taught art history and drawing. A year later I was teaching painting, drawing, design and art history at College of the Siskiyous in Weed, California. And, invitations for clay sculpture shows were still coming in. (I also taught a one year sabbatical replacement job at Sacramento City College while a grad student teaching ceramics, drawing and design 1968/69).
Q. Where do you find most your inspiration?
A. I am inspired by the ready availability of ideas that flow when I simply get out of my own way and make art without trying to make things happen humanly by overthinking the process of making art. It was made clear to me early on that life is a letting process and not one that works very well when forced to fit into any particular mold.
Q. Whom do you find has influence over your work?
A. My obvious influences are to this day my teachers and mentors through the years, those who shared their wisdom with me about making art and also how to be the best me I can be. Living with and growing up surrounded by creative thinkers made it impossible to consider a life without making art. I quip on occasion about those who sit on my shoulder when I make art such as Robert Arneson and my dad. Even my Grandma “B” sits there on occasion. She taught me carpentry and how to sew and embroider.
Q. How long does it usually take you to complete a photo spread?
A. One of the ways I was able to gain access to well known artists with very busy schedules was that I work quite fast. I promised that I would not take more than an hour and would not bring lights or cords and work exclusively with existing light. The key is that I know the craft of photography. There is no guess-work involved. And within what I want my final print to look like, each decision as to composition, light quality and direction on my subject and what might need fixing later with predictability simply flows one by one to the best possible result. When I went to New York, for instance, in 1982, I made forty-four portraits of artists in their studios or place of choice in twenty-one days. Film was my medium then and I exposed a total of 600 frames of film for all forty-four without needing to “bracket” exposure. Every frame I exposed was usable. In other words I made about thirteen exposures per sitting with more than half posing the subject in more than one place and I had never seen my subjects’ studios in advance. Oh, and another thought on time. Most of my exposures are relatively long at 1/2 to 1 second in length.
Q. What do you enjoy most about art and its creative process?
A. Making art simply allows me to be in contact with my higher self and all the unseen sources of wisdom that most people are just not aware exist. Through the art-making process I not only produce finished objects to share, I also work through other problems in my life and find comfort and a sense of peace that might not be possible to experience otherwise. Over the past four months I even built a Navajo-style loom and wove a 30″ x 40″ blanket as a meditation practice. And, when something I have made inspires someone else, that makes me the most happy.
What is the hardest part of doing what you do?
A. This is an interesting question. Usually I eschew any negative references to what I do but a thought does occur that might bare sharing.
I have been doing what I do for so long that the solution to making a good portrait and an equally fine print comes both quickly and easily for me. This does not mean that the process is in fact “easy.” Also, post-production time in Photoshop preparing the files for printing with an exact thought for how those image files will print takes time and effort just as it did in the darkroom before I shifted to digital. All too often photography is taken for granted in this world of iPhones, Facebook, and Instagram. What I make takes time and an ongoing consideration of details and minute elements that most people have learned to ignore and not be aware of. It is often not what is included in each image as much as what is left out that makes it successful. And, that takes years to train the photographer’s/artist’s response, step by step. And astute viewers will feel the difference all of the attention I pay to my final result makes even though they don’t know what it took to get there. All too often today, people are in too much of a hurry to take the time to allow themselves to both sense this difference or frankly even care. That does frustrate me at times. What good photography costs is another factor that lacks public understanding as well.
Q. Do you work from home or a studio space?
A. My studio has always been in my home. When I did more commercial work much of what I made for clients was on location and did not require a large studio space. The art that I make doesn’t require much space either. Now that I have made the conversion to digital photography almost completely all I need space for is my computer, scanner and professional printer. I still love making my own prints and when a larger size is necessary work with a trusted lab near home. The portraits I make are still on location and in someone’s else’s space. Working with existing light also makes things easier.
Q. Do you have a favorite photographer?
A. I have known and know too many photographers to have one favorite. Each one has their own special message and set of abilities and ways of seeing. If I were to mention two photographers who influenced my work the most they would be Arnold Newman and Yousuf Karsh. Both were portrait photographers but their styles were very different. Since I work with existing light good “street photographers” are my biggest inspiration as they also must make their art with what exists at the time and place their image is captured.
Q. Do you have a set schedule for when you work?
A. Commissioned personal portraits by clients are scheduled when they present themselves and when the funds will allow I continue to make portraits of artists. Occasionally a grant stimulates a new series of portraits such as the Leff-Davis Fund for Visual Artists which I received in October of 2014. Thirty new portraits of women artists were partially funded by that leading to two exhibitions, one at Archival Gallery in Sacramento, and the other which just came down at Transmission Gallery in Oakland. At present I am seeking further funding to continue making portraits of women artists.
Q. Are you featured in any galleries or anywhere?
A. At present I don’t have any work hanging in any galleries. The long-term goal however is for an exhibition of 100 portraits of women artists that will flow from support I am seeking at present.
Q. Is there anything else you want to tell us that hasn’t already been touched upon?
A. I would like to add that I am grateful for opportunities like this to share my experience and what I know and feel. The portfolio of portraits of women artists that was published in Under The Gum Tree honored my photography and also the women I photographed. The primary purpose for these portraits and the project is to share women artists with the public gaining them visibility and presence in the world of fine art they might not otherwise have. My hope is that in some small way what I am doing will make a difference in someone else’s life other than mine.