Arts Desk

My Office Squalor Is Now Art

If my desk reflects my personality, then clearly I am a mess.

Yesterday, E. Brady Robinson, the photographer behind the ongoing project "Desks as Portraits: An Inside Look at the DC Art World," stopped by Washington City Paper to take a portrait of my workspace. Obviously, I did not clean up beforehand.

Well, OK, I made one change. When she arrived, Robinson asked if I wanted to cover up anything. See that yellow notepad? It's in front of a whiteboard I no longer use, on which I used to jot down story ideas. Before Robinson got started, I adjusted the pad so it's blocking a particularly provocative article idea I never got off the ground. But otherwise, that's my desk in all of its usual squalor.

As Robinson told The Washington Post earlier this year, "Desks as Portraits" began covertly. In January, she was in the offices of the nonprofit Cultural Development Corporation, taking headshots of staff for use in an annual report. While she was waiting at CuDC's Flashpoint space, she came across the work area of the gallery's visual arts director, Karyn Miller, and took its portrait. Eventually, following some help from art doyenne Philippa Hughes and her Rolodex, Robinson began shooting the desks of a large swath of local artists, collectors, curators, and administrators. She's now shot more than 40 desks.

In November, the series made its debut in the "American Life" competition of the 2011 Lishui Photography Competition in China—and it won, which means Robinson got to take home 10,000 renminbi. The 16 portraits that showed in Lishui are now touring other cities in China.

Robinson splits her time between D.C. and the University of Central Florida, where she's a professor of visual arts. Once she feels she's got enough desk shots, Robinson says, she'd like to publish a book of the body of work. She's planning to return to China, and hopes to shoots the workspaces of creative types there, as well as in more U.S. cities.

One thing you'll notice about "Desks as Portraits"—and, in fact, in most of the work on Robinson's website—is an absence of people. In the desk series, you see two exceptions: the tattooed arm of photographer Victoria F. Gaitán in one portrait, and the full figure of art patron Mera Rubell, who's working on her smartphone, in another.

The whole idea, of course, is to reveal something about each absent subject by focusing only on their stuff. I asked Robinson what patterns she's detected in the project. "The messier, the more creative," she said. I'll take it.

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  • Lindsay

    As someone who used to share office space with you, I'll simply say: True story.

  • John

    Looks like you've cleaned it up, some.