There is something fascinating about seeing the spaces in which creative people work. Not only for the simple interior-decoration voyeurism it affords, but also for the ways their desks, easels, drawing boards, dark rooms, workshops, and so on reflect the ways their minds function. It’s precisely this feature of the desk — the way it can serve as an even more revealing portrait of a person than an image of her face — that the photographer E. Brady Robinson highlights in her series Art Desks, published by Daylight Books on October 15. For Robinson, this marks the culmination of a four-year project.
“The series started in 2011 in Washington, DC following an assignment from CulturalDC,” she told Hyperallergic in an email. “I was on location at Flashpoint Gallery to photograph headshots and editorial for their annual report. The director at the time said ‘have at it’ and basically gave me permission to photograph anything I wanted on site. I was waiting for the staff to arrive above Flashpoint Gallery for a group shot and photographed the desk of Karyn Miller (former director of visual arts and communication, CulturalDC). The workspace was both empty and present at the same time. This was my ‘a-ha’ moment when I discovered desk as portrait.”
After her revelation, Robinson began approaching artists and art world professionals across the US, asking to photograph their work spaces, and the project quickly gained momentum.
“One shoot led to the other,” she recalled. “With each visit on location, I would ask for names of potential subjects. One recommendation led to the other. DC was fairly easy to navigate. I have a lot of support here. Other markets were more challenging, but most people said yes. In each market, I would reach out to someone I personally know and they would help with further introductions. Kind of like a six degrees of separation in the art world from New York to Miami.”
The resulting photos vary enormously in their level of interest. Orlando Museum of Art curator Hansen Mulford’s work station is charmingly eclectic, with a child’s drawing and conservator’s gloves sitting alongside more macabre fodder like the skull of a small animal and a small artwork showing a sailor being shot in the back of the head. Dealer Brian Paul Clamp, of Chelsea photo gallery ClampArt, has a comparatively unremarkable desk — unless you consider his predilection for Perrier particularly revelatory. Still, Robinson noticed enough variation among her subjects while working on this project to spot some broader trends in art world desk organization.
“Many galleries have closed traditional brick and mortar spaces and are embracing this shared economy, becoming mobile and embracing collaborative spaces with new partnerships,” she said. “And, for the artist space I’ve witnessed the collapse of the personal and professional. Many artists create in a live-work space environment. Boundaries collapse.”
Art Desks is available now from Daylight Books and ARTBOOK DAP. Select works from Art Desks will be on view at Addison Ripley Fine Art November 1–15 as part of FotoWeekDC. The gallery will host a book signing on November 1 from 3–6pm.