E. Brady Robinson Is in Your Workspace, Photographing Your Desk
Photographer E. Brady Robinson is putting the finishing touches on Art Desks, a volume featuring 96 images of desks and working spaces of artists, curators, art dealers, critics, and "tastemakers" throughout the East Coast. She began working on the project in Washington in 2011.
Robinson splits her time between Washington and the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she teaches the history of photography, seminars in contemporary photography, photographic practice, and digital imaging. Robinson received her BFA in photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and her MFA in photography from Cranbrook Art Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Robinson will be in D.C. for a book-launch party on Nov. 9 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Georgetown's Addison/Ripley Fine Art. Books will be available for pre-purchase for $50, including shipping. Arts Desk—which, name similarity aside, bears no relation to Robinson's project—recently interviewed Robinson about her work.
Washington City Paper: Why desks? Why artists’ desks?
Robinson: This project started in 2011 in Washington when Cultural DC commissioned head shots for an annual report. At the time, art director Emma Fisher said, “Have at it—photograph anything you want.” During the assignment, I was waiting for the staff to arrive for a group photo and I took a photograph of Karyn Miller’s desk at Flashpoint Gallery. At this time, I had the “a-ha” moment and the realization of a desk as portrait. After the assignment, I knew I wanted to photograph the art world one desk as a time.
Why artists’ desks? Well, these are my heroes—people I admire and respect. I want to see what they’re up to, what their workspace looks like, to give a voyeuristic view and an inside look of “where the magic happens.” This are my people, my community.WCP: How long was the idea marinating before you started?
Robinson: Not very long. I got started immediately. I met with Philippa Hughes at the headquarters of Pink Line Project. We sat down and made a list of Art Desk contenders in D.C. Later, I went home and started emailing invitations, and within 24 hours I started to receive answers of “yes” in my inbox. One of the first people to say yes was Anne Collins Goodyear at the National Portrait Gallery and Andy Grundberg from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. From there, it was a domino effect—one “yes” led to another.
WCP: What was your standard for choosing someone to feature? Did anyone turn you down?Robinson: Really, word of mouth combined with six degrees of separation. Each time I’m on location I ask for names and recommendations of potential subjects. It’s organic. Only three people have turned me down because of privacy issues at the workplace, including a curator of the Art in Embassies program at the State Department, a prominent collector and defense contractor, and another collector who works for the AP. All said no because of privacy issues at work and policy issues with a government job. I would love to photograph the curator at the White House. So, please contact me, William Allman, if you’re reading this. Any leads appreciated.
WCP: Was it hard to convince people to let you in?
Robinson: Not really. It’s amazing—if I called the curator of a major museum and asked them to see my portfolio they might hang up. But if I emailed and told them about my project with a request to photograph their desks, it was, "Sure, how’s Monday?"
WCP: What are some of the most memorable desks you saw, and why?
Robinson: I love the desk of Rocco Landesman, director of the National Endowment of the Arts. First of all, it’s stately. And, I love the photographs of President Obama on his desk. The space itself if grand, simply beautiful. However, key to his office is the placement of a parking meter in front of his desk. As someone who values my own time and time of others, I love it. I can’t remember if the parking meter reads 20 or 30 minutes—but the idea of restricted time is applied. He believes meetings should not go beyond a certain time. More organizations should have timed meetings.
I’m also partial to the desk of [photographer] Victoria Gaitán. I love her work. Her desk is surrounded by images that inspire her combined with her own work. Artist Pat Goslee has a great view. And [curator] Andrea Pollan’s desk is sparse and minimal—I could only aspire to have such a clean workspace. I also love the "Hide/Seek" poster and very Mad Men-inspired briefcase, jacket and scarf placement next to the desk of David Ward at the National Portrait Gallery, it’s very dapper. It’s hard to choose just one.
WCP: Any particular objects stand out as unusual? Creepy? Totally awesome?
Robinson: Someone left their meds out. And an art dealer had to close her inbox, which listed the subject line “Invoice” with the name of a collector who owed money. Several cats made cameo appearances in Art Desks. Louie, Philippa Hughes’ cat, made the front page of the Washington Post in the fall of 2011.
WCP: How much does the artistic style of an artist influence what you see on their desk?
Robinson: Not much. Perhaps an exception to this would be the workspace of William Christenberry, whose artistic style informs the photograph. [His space is chock full of southern artifacts he uses in his mixed-media works.]
WCP: Did you sense any patterns of desk-hood? Say, men vs. women, or young vs. old?
Robinson: The MacBook is very popular in the art world. So is the iPhone and the iPad. Coffee cups are universal. Dated technology—Rolodexes, land lines, and older computers found in more bureaucratic locations.
WCP: You photographed Jon Fischer of Washington City Paper, right? What did his desk communicate to you?Robinson: Busy and on top of the scene. His desk was filled with invites, music reviews, performance fliers. A man out and about on the town. He’s also a piler—a bit of a mess, which I totally respect. Messy desk = creative, busy person. Coffee cup suggests help with a deadline, a speaker is representative of good music while working on a deadline. Wine glass on the top shelf might suggest the staff had a little something after a long night of work on a big deadline.
WCP: Did you have technical challenges in trying to photograph desk space?
Robinson: While I’m on location, I try to work quickly and respect the time of the subject in the middle of the workday. I work under the constraints of time, space and lighting. My goal is to get the shot and get out. It’s not until later when I’m editing that I’m able to study the photograph, look at visual juxtapositions of objects that fly under the radar and general topography of the desk. I always bring my flash as a fill light to balance natural light with artificial light.
WCP: What's your desk like?
Robinson: I have two desks. The desk in my studio is a reproduction of a “primitive piece” from early Dutch and German furniture from the 1700s Shenandoah Valley, where I grew up. I love antique furniture from this time period. My studio desk is filled with work prints, ink cartridges, boxes of Epson paper. A lit world globe from my childhood sits on top of my desk, which allows me to daydream about traveling. My favorite books are also placed on top. A 1950s silhouette of my parents hangs above my desk looking over me. The drawers are filled with business cards, receipts, exhibition postcards and, in general, stuff. A photograph of my husband circa the late '90s in Playa del Carmen also sits on my desk in my studio.
My second desk sits next to the window. This is more my “work desk.” I prefer to work in natural daylight. This desk is filled with textbooks (a history of photography text by Mary Warner Marien, Criticizing Photographs by Terry Barrett, The Artist’s Guide by Jackie Battenfield—all books I used in my classes), plus image lists, digital press kits, my sketchbook, espresso cups, measuring tape, an external hard drive. I could go on. I’m a piler. My desks are always in a state of flux.
WCP: Was it hard to persuade someone to publish this?
Robinson: Daylight Books was enthusiastic about publishing this work and publisher Michael Itkoff, whom I’ve known for years, encouraged me to expand the series into an East Coast edition featuring art-desk photographs from New York to Miami. Someday, I will do a West Coast version. I would also like to return to China and photograph art desks in Beijing and Shanghai.
Daylight is a nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing art and photography books. By exploring the documentary mode along with the more conceptual concerns of fine art, Daylight works to revitalize the relationship between art, photography and the world-at-large. Working with an independent, nonprofit publisher means I am asked to help fund the production costs of the book. The photo-book market is a tough industry. I plan on launching an Indiegogo campaign to raise money, combined with the help of private donors and recent print sales to help cover the production costs of the book.
E. Brady Robinson discusses her book 3 p.m. Saturday at Addison/Ripley Fine Art.
All photos by E. Brady Robinson, used with permission