Category Archives: Photographers

DIA’s Bulletin Looks at Portraiture from Delacroix to Mapplethorpe

Published annually, the DIA’s Bulletin was released last week (copies are available in the museum shop) with articles devoted entirely to the topic of portraiture. The focus of the 2009 issue came as a suggestion from George Keyes, our recently retired chief curator and former curator of European paintings at the DIA, who also brought a successful survey of Van Gogh’s portraiture to the DIA several years back.


Looking to “probe the elusive nature of portraiture, highlight its ability to engage and intrigue, and heighten general interest in this genre” – the nine contributing authors have presented their research on variety of DIA works from as early as the 15th century as well as the “virtuoso carving” found in British portrait sculptures, Delacroix’s Portrait of Doctor Francois-Marie Desmaisons, and the self-portraits of Lovis Corinth.

A Young Woman, 1460s-70s, by an associate of Desiderio da Settignano. Gift of Mrs. Edsel B. Ford in memory of her husband.

A Young Woman, 1460s-70s, by an associate of Desiderio da Settignano. Gift of Mrs. Edsel B. Ford in memory of her husband.


Throwing my own hat into the ring, so-to-speak, I included a short article about Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Sam Wagstaff from 1979. By the late 1970s, Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe had carved a unique and perhaps unprecedented place for themselves in the world of art and photography. Mapplethorpe was gaining recognition for his portraits of artists, collectors, writers and musicians. Wagstaff had become a serious collector of photographs. Prior to this, Wagstaff had a somewhat brief but memorable connection to the Detroit art community and the DIA where he served as a curator of modern and contemporary art from 1969 to 1971. He had little to do with photography at the time, but his interest in the medium was sparked after seeing the work of Enrico Natali in 1969. While on staff at the DIA, he also received an letter of introduction from a relatively unknown New York-artist named Robert Mapplethorpe.

The recent documentary film Black, White + Gray A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe investigated the lives of the two men, but the details of Wagstaff’s early foray into photograph collecting are not well known. While moving files and office records during our recent renovation, I discovered Wagstaff’s correspondence with our retired curator of prints, drawings, and photographs Ellen Sharp. Further research filled in some of the blanks, particularly from his papers from our library archives (unearthed with the kind assistance of DIA librarian Maria Ketcham) as well as from the Smithsonian, where the Wagstaff papers are currently held (and now digitized online) in the collections of the Archives of American Art. These sources were invaluable in uncovering the late collector’s visionary passion for photography when the rest of the art world was not all that interested in the medium.

I was fortunate to find an old photograph from the Willis Gallery, ca. 1974, where Brad Iverson snapped a quick picture of Wagstaff talking to arts reporter Joy Colby – Mapplethorpe is seated in the background. Wagstaff had his own Polaroid work up in the exhibition called Art Images along with photographs by Mapplethorpe, Judy Linn, Iverson and about seven other artists.

Joy Hakanson Colby interviewing Sam Wagstaff with Mapplethorpe at left in the background, Willis Gallery, Detroit, 1974. Photo: Brad Iverson
Joy Hakanson Colby interviewing Sam Wagstaff with Mapplethorpe at left in the background, Willis Gallery, Detroit, 1974. Photo: Brad Iverson

Many thanks go out as well to Susanne Hilberry, Brad Iverson, and Anne Marie MacDonald for sharing their reminiscences about this fascinating man and a very interesting era in the history of Detroit and it very special local arts scene of the 1970s.

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Late last week, DIA staff finished the installation for the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky which opened this past Sunday, April 19.  Sometimes for me, looking at photographs can be like stepping back into the past – or stepping into a time machine – I witness people who may no longer exist as well as the places where they once lived. This was exactly the experience I had when crates arrived at the DIA several weeks ago filled with 90 photographs from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. I saw first hand the work of Roman Vishniac, who photographed Jewish communities in Poland in the 1930s along with the work Jeff Gusky, who photographed remnants of those communities in the late 1990s. The images are powerful transmitters of traditions and history.

Before World War II, over 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland – their traditions, religion, and customs evolved and were preserved in the country for nearly five centuries. By the end of the 20th century, these communities had nearly vanished with their population diminishing to about 20,000 in recent years. Creating a very large visual record of this life, Roman Vishniac photographed the ghettos in Warsaw and Kazimierz as well in other cities in the 1930s. Gusky, although initially unaware of Vishniac’s extensive work in Poland, returned several decades later in the 1990s to capture the former ghettos, abandoned synagogues, and desecrated cemeteries, many which have been subject to neglect or vandalism. Although taken sixty years apart, their images share themes of memory, life, and loss. The photographs are evidence of people and places that once were, and what remains in their absence.

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Photographs like those in Of Life and Loss preserve historical moments, memories and life experiences for future generations. This is largely due to the dedication of individual photographers who capture in-depth ordinary moments or nondescript places. In a photograph these encounters are transformed by personal perceptions, and we acquire the ability to see and experience life through the eyes of a photographer. We grasp some aspect of the world that had somehow escaped our attention.

To further enhance our audience’s experience at the DIA, there are listening stations in the gallery, where visitors can hear personal stories by individuals who have survived the Holocaust in Poland. The audio is courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus, in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In addition, just outside the gallery is a monitor and brochures where visitors can view photographic work made in response to this exhibition by local high school students.

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky is on view through July 12 in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography at the DIA. The exhibition is organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In Detroit, the exhibition is sponsored by *Bill and Karen Davidson. 

*In blessed memory.

Avedon Fashion Retrospective Comes to DIA this Fall

avedon-books-1The DIA will bring fashion work by acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon to the walls of its special exhibition space this fall 2009. The exhibition, organized by the International Center for Photography, New York, is the first major retrospective of Avedon’s fashion photography since his death in 2004. It will feature many iconic works from his amazing and unprecented sixty-year career as well as magazines, proof sheets and other emphemera that illuminate the artistry and refinement of this stunning photographic genre.

The exhibition will open on October 18, 2009 and run through January 17, 2010. The DIA is developing an interesting slate of related programs and events as well as our members’ previews that will kick off on Friday evening October 16 and continue through Saturday, October 17 – details to be announced!

Robert Frank@The NGA – A Very Good Day for Photography

Untitled, (que for Robert Frank Lecture at the NGA) - photo by Michelle Andonian

Queue for Robert Frank's Lecture at the NGA, March 26, 2009 - photo by Michelle Andonian

On Thursday afternoon, I, along with over 800 others, ended up in the nation’s capitol for a rare program with photographer Robert Frank and the National Gallery’s curator of photographs, Sarah Greenough.  Frank rarely makes public appearances, so it was an opportunity to listen and learn first hand about his photographic work, which currently is the subject of the fine exhibition Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. While discussing several iconic images from his oeuvre, Frank humbly remarked, “It was a very good day for photography.”

Untitled - photo by Michelle Andonian

Outside the NGA - photo by Michelle Andonian, 2009

In their hour-long conversation, Greenough and Frank discussed his photography, influences (Bill Brandt and Walker Evans in particular), his love of America, and, most notably for me, a 1955 trip to Detroit to photograph what Frank referred to as “God’s Factory” – the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. For Frank, the automobile was an important part of the American dream, and he saw it everywhere. He thought it would be a good idea to see the place where cars were made and photographed at the factory for two or three days. It was difficult but worth it. The images were used in a number of his publications over the years including The Americans.

In March 2010, the DIA will open an exhibition of Robert’s Detroit work from 1955. It will be the first time these photographs will be on view to the public and an opportunity to see Detroit and the famous Ford factory the way Robert Frank experienced it at mid century.

Larry Fink – A Young Painter in the Studio of Moses Soyer

Moses Soyer’s Studio, NYC, c. 1957/1958, by Larry Fink.

Moses Soyer’s Studio, NYC, c. 1957/1958, by Larry Fink.

I first heard Larry Fink lecture at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit back in the early 1980s. At the time he was photographing praying mantises in his backyard, but I distinctly remembered him mentioning his travels with beatniks and his interest in bohemian life as a kid in the 1950s.  When he took this photograph, Fink was only 16-years old, and a very young student studying painting with the artist Moses Soyer in New York City. The photograph is part of the exhibition In the Company of Artists in its final weeks at the DIA (closing on February 15). If you have never had the chance to see Larry Fink lecture now is the time to catch him at Kalamazoo College on February 16.

Inspiration Among the Ruins – Detroit’s New Vocation

As the Motor City saw a slight thaw in temperatures last Friday, I got an opportunity to venture out into the recesses of Detroit with some out-of-town visitors, including the DIA’s guest lecturer, photographer Ari Marcopoulos. On his final day in the city, a mini road trip through some of our more well-known landmarks seemed in order, and Marcopoulos was anxious to get out and about in Detroit.
Untitled, 2009 Untitled, 2009, © 2009 N.W. Barr

Untitled, 2009, © 2009 N.W. Barr

On any given day, one can witness a variety of visual extremes in our local landscape from the grandiose art deco excesses of the Guardian building to the perpetually graying and disintegrating corpse we all know and love as Michigan Central Station. Stopping nearby its ruins, we grabbed some lunch at the Mercury Coffee Bar. Over a plate of fresh greens, all you could see was the station’s wrecked facade from the counter bar. Nowhere else but in Detroit can you have a more surreal culinary experience, and I couldn’t help but think about this area as it existed decades ago, when the trains were running and Michigan Avenue was really alive.

From the train station, we decided to travel across town, ending up on Detroit’s east side, where the Packard plant, Albert Kahn’s industrial masterpiece, was the most awe-inspiring stop of the day.

Packard Plant, 2005, by Jessica Ehrlers, ©2008-2009 Jessica Ehrlers

Packard Plant, 2005, by Jessica Ehrler, ©2008-2009 Jessica Ehrler

In all its glorious and wintry decrepitude, the plant’s creepy vibe gave this author and my visitors more than a moment to pause and reflect since a strange serenity permeates this place. You never stop getting the feeling that something – you don’t really know what – may happen and that ghosts, their memories as well as local scrappers, haunt every path and corner. Fortunately, veteran urban adventurer/photographer and Packard plant enthusiast Jessie Ehrler was on hand to provide some history and lead us through the rubble. Back in October, Ehrler offered some guidance around town when Doug and Mike Starn visited the city to scout sites for their projects currently in development.

 Untitled, 2008, © 2009 N.W. Barr

Untitled, 2008, by N.W.Barr, © 2009 N.W. Barr

Ehrler has been photographing Detroit’s ruins, specifically the Packard plant since around 2000. Her work came to my attention last year when she submitted images in the DIA’s on-line Flickr photo competition. She noted in her artist’s statement that the “silence of this building is eerie, but calming…” and perhaps her remarks uncover a larger revelation, namely that this city’s character is quietly emoting  its new vocation as the artist’s muse.  In the throes of “beautiful decay,” as some natives refer to Detroit’s widespread urban blight, the city has, for some time, been the subject of many Detroit-area photographers’ lens, but it is quickly becoming more than the local artist’s fancy.

From the Curator’s Desk – The Chance Is Higher


A number of Ari Marcopoulos’ books arrived at the museum this week in plenty of time for his lecture/book signing on Jan.22. So I finally got my hands on a copy of his book The Chance Is Higher which was published in 2008 by Dashwood Books.


The book includes reproductions of large-scale photocopies that Ari made from his original photographs  – portraits of his family, friends, and acquaintances interspersed with city views, graffiti,  still life, and nudes; he even includes a few older portraits of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat. An eerie and mesmerizing image of a skull – a tattoo on the back of a shirtless boy  – floats beneath the embossed title and a fine pattern of cross-hatch found on the cover of this book. This texture gives it an inky flattened sheen like a faded tattoo, but it is reminiscent of a well-worn tapestry or an aged mezzotint. Strangely welcoming, a ghostly continuum follows. The imagery is steeped in memory, informed by urban iconography and the more intimate personal world and perceptions of the photographer.

The Chance is Higher (inside spread) by Ari Marcopoulos

The Chance is Higher (inside spread) by Ari Marcopoulos

The images may well be faithful reproductions of Ari’s grainy black-and-white photocopies. When I first looked through the pages of The Chance Is Higher, I experienced an aesthetic throwback to the 1970s, when experimenting with a xerox machine to make a homemade comic book, zine or flyer for a friend’s rock band required some pocket change and a trip to the local library or post office to make copies. Until Ari revived it, somewhat formally for this series and the book (he has used xeroxing for years to design his other books and zines), the photocopy was an old-school but treasured method of reproduction reserved for low-brow, albeit creative endeavors. It is ingeniously recaptured here with a remarkable amount of refinement and even a low-key elegance.

Michigan connection brings Karsh’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso to the DIA’s photography exhibition

Yousuf Karsh, Georgia O’Keefe, 1956 (printed later); gelatin silver print. Gift of Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh in honor of Governor James and Mrs. Janet Blanchard, © Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1956, by Yousuf Karsh. Gift of Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh in honor of Governor James and Mrs. Janet Blanchard, © Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

While serving as U.S. ambassador to Canada from 1993-96, former Michigan governor James Blanchard befriended Armenian-born photographer Yousuf Karsh, who operated a successful portrait studio in Ottawa, Canada. In honor of Gov. Blanchard and Mrs. Blanchard, Karsh and his wife Estrellita donated to the DIA two portfolios of Karsh’s most famous portraits of notable individuals from the arts, sciences, and politics in 1991. A selection of the portraits are now on view in the exhibition In the Company of Artists at the DIA.

In perhaps one his most famous photographs, Karsh traveled from his studio in Ottawa to Abiquiu, New Mexico, to capture American painter Georgia O’Keeffe for a portrait around 1956. He later wrote that he had hoped to find in her “some of the poetic intensity of her paintings.” Instead Karsh found “the austere intensity of dedication to her work.” He made a quiet portrait of the distant O’Keeffe during a moment of repose in her home.

The exhibition includes Karsh’s images of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, and Isamu Noguchi on view through February 15.

Yousuf Karsh, Pablo Picasso, 1954 (printed later); gelatin silver print. Gift of Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh in honor of Governor James and Mrs. Janet Blanchard, © Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Pablo Picasso, 1954, by Yousuf Karsh. Gift of Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh in honor of Governor James and Mrs. Janet Blanchard, © Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Robert Frank in the Motor City

What a great pleasure it was to see a number of Robert Frank’s photographs from Detroit in 1955 published in Saturday’s Detroit News . The images are from Frank’s historic travel to Detroit on a Guggenheim fellowship to make pictures for his now-classic photo book The Americans. Apparently, LeDuff has gotten to know Robert Frank well in recent years, and he penned another interesting article about the photographer during a visit to China for Vanity Fair earlier this year.

I had a rare opportunity to meet Robert Frank back in 2004 while a number of his photographs from the DIA were on loan to the Storylines exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Robert had fond memories of Detroit, eventhough he spent a night in a downtown jail over a misunderstanding regarding his used car. All and all, he knew Detroit had a reputation as a tough city, but  found it a “real and unique” place and one of the most inspirational American cities for his photo essay.

Robert Frank (at left) and British artist Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern, London, UK, 2004

Robert Frank (at left) and British artist Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern, London, UK, 2004

Many thanks to Charlie LeDuff for giving Robert’s work some visibility on the front page of our local paper, so few people realize Frank spent time photographing throughout Detroit.  The Detroit Institute of Arts is fortunate to have over fifty photographs from Frank’s 1955 visit to the city, and the museum looks forward to featuring this work in a special exhibition during our 2009-2010 schedule.

Ari Marcopoulos on YouTube

I just viewed Ari Marcopoulos on YouTube in a recent interview where he shares his thoughts on photography and life –