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What Can We Learn from Artists’ and Curators’ Desks?

E. Brady Robinson, "Hansen Mulford, Orlando Museum of Art" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Hansen Mulford, Orlando Museum of Art” (2014) (all images courtesy of the photographer, © 2014)

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.”

E. Brady Robinson, "Mera Rubell, Collector" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Mera Rubell, Collector” (2014)

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.”

E. Brady Robinson, "William Christenberry, Artist" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “William Christenberry, Artist” (2014)

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.”

E. Brady Robinson, "Daniel Cooney, Daniel Cooney Fine Art " (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Daniel Cooney, Daniel Cooney Fine Art ” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Anna Walker Skillman, Jackson Fine Art " (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Anna Walker Skillman, Jackson Fine Art ” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Jennifer Schwartz, Crusade for Art " (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Jennifer Schwartz, Crusade for Art ” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Katherine Hinds, Margulies Collection" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Katherine Hinds, Margulies Collection” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Jamie Smith, PhD, CONNERSMITH" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Jamie Smith, PhD, CONNERSMITH” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Jay Flynn, Photographer" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Jay Flynn, Photographer” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Lee Wells, IFAC" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Lee Wells, IFAC” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Dina Mitrani, Dina Mitrani Gallery" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Dina Mitrani, Dina Mitrani Gallery” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Flashpoint Gallery" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Flashpoint Gallery” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Michael E. Northrup, Photographer" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Michael E. Northrup, Photographer” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Patrick and Holly Kahn, SNAP! Space" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Patrick and Holly Kahn, SNAP! Space” (2014)
E. Brady Robinson, "Brian Paul Clamp, ClampArt" (2014) (Images courtesy of the photographer, copyright 2014)
E. Brady Robinson, “Brian Paul Clamp, ClampArt” (2014)

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.

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