PHOTO FINESSE: Steven Meckler is one of the original downtown artists of the Tucson arts revival. He's in the select group whose Congress Street studios were razed a few years back to make way for the Ronstadt Transit Center. Nowadays he lives in a cavernous warehouse/studio he bought nearby. Grimly situated halfway between the Greyhound Bus Terminal and a plasma donation center, from time to time the building's storefront has become a gallery for the work of other artists. A photographer who's respected and successful in his commercial work--he just won a gold medal from Photo District News for his photography work on a brochure--he's also known for his color art photography. A couple of his pieces, framed by ceramics by Susan Gamble, were in last month's Mentors show at Central Arts.
Right now, Meckler is about 80 percent along the way toward finishing a grueling job he gave himself about a year ago: photographing 100 Tucson artists. These pictures are not just documentary headshots, but carefully constructed "environmental" photographs of the artists placed in evocative settings, either in their homes, their studios or sometimes out in the backyard. Meckler's less interested in picturing the artists' work than he is in showing the person behind the work. The Tucson Museum of Art expects to exhibit the pictures, printed as color Cibachromes, in about a year's time in the museum's large upstairs exhibition space. Meckler is also hustling to get a book of the pictures published in time to go along with the show.
In slide form, the portraits are pretty great. Benefiting from Meckler's wizardry with artificial lights, the pictures bear the photographer's unique stamp. He's probably the only one ever to use a subdued palette of whites, grays and blacks to catch Jim Waid, painter of rich, thickly colored paintings, wearer of outrageous Hawaiian shirts. In Meckler's hands, photographer Frances Murray, maker of austere black and white photos, lounges like a '30s diva in a room colored in smoldering gold and fuschia. José Galvez, photographer of the barrio, is somehow perfect posed in a tuxedo in the ruins of a demolished building.
Before I got my private slide show in the chilly environs of his studio, the amiable Meckler eloquently explained it all to me. Here's just a portion of what he said.
"I've always had a lot of interest in people. I was a street photographer in New York. I grew up in Brooklyn, went to (State University of New York at) Stony Brook and took grad courses at Brooklyn College. I have a bachelor of science in biology and a minor in photography. I apprenticed with a photographer. Then I tried freelancing. That was a failure. I knew so little I didn't know how little I knew.
"I spent two years photographing in Coney Island, in the summer, at night. I photographed the water, the boarded-up buildings, the Coney Island Polar Bears (a winter swimming club). I used to see a lot of photographers walk in for a day or two or a week. It wasn't the same as someone who really got to know people.
"Then I combined my two backgrounds in science and photography. I was tired of eating squash and potatoes. I got an apartment and a regular job. I became a medical photographer at Sloane Kettering (cancer research hospital in New York City). It was good in that it stabilized me a little while. The job was technique-oriented and I learned a lot. Big hospitals publish things all the time. They need documentation before, during and after chemo and surgery. I took pictures of things like body parts that had been amputated. The tough thing is that you have to photograph people. After a radical mastectomy, you ask a woman to please raise her arm. The pain, you cry. The final phase is black humor. I stayed a year.
"Last March I started calling some friends who were artists. I have had trouble figuring out what to photograph, it's not a problem how. I've been pleased with the artists' cooperation. I've done about 80. They're snapshots of the Tucson arts community over a whole year. To pick people, I started with the artists I knew and I asked them for names. Joanne Stuhr (TMA curator) gave me some really good names. I started with contemporary artists and then I realized that there are cowboy artists and landscape painters. Since then, I've really enjoyed meeting these people. It took on a life of its own. The project started pulling me instead of me pushing it.
"It's exciting, going to all these artists' homes and studios, looking at them, seeing their environments. You can go to a gallery and look at a piece in a show but now I'm in their homes and seeing a body of this work. You get an appreciation, a sense beyond the image they're working on. The canvas or sculpture ends here but they have all this outside. The studio and the life frame their canvas.
"I try to make sure I have as much time as possible. I ask for four hours. I come with an assistant and lights. First I spend an hour talking. You bore them a little bit. By the time you set up the lights and start doing something, it's not as jarring. I do a dance with the natural light, the props and the environment.
"I've tried very hard to stay away from a shtick or some repetitive technique. It reminds me a little of jazz improvisations. You can't make a definitive portrait of someone in three hours. The best you can do is make an interesting photograph. How well could you know someone in that time? It matters how much they want to give you.
"Doing a portrait is a kind of conspiracy. You have to conspire with the person being photographed."
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