The Artist Portrait Project: A Photographic Memoir of Portrait Sessions with San Diego Artists, 2006 – 2016, by Jennifer G. Spencer (She Writes Press, Berkeley, CA, 2018, 117 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
- Susan Sontag
August 17, 2018 (San Diego) - There is an old adage that says “A Picture is worth a Thousand Words!” Jennifer G. Spencer, a painter/photographer who creates images using alternative photographic processes and digital imagery, exemplifies that old adage in her groundbreaking memoir; The Artist Portrait Project: A Photographic Memoir of Portrait Sessions with San Diego Artists, 2006 – 2016.
Spencer, actually puts San Diego and its talented collection of artists on the world stage with her insightful and poignant book. Along with a foreword by Robert L. Pincus, former art critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, whom this writer also used to write for, Spencer’s memoir paints a picture of a culture in a city that the world needs to know. As a matter of fact, Pincus states in the foreword to this book: “Viewing these images as a group, I can see that Spencer isn’t trying to make some grand statement about San Diego artists, which is surely for the best. Spencer has simply crafted an appreciation, a personal chronicle of artists that matter to her.” This book speaks for itself!
After five year’s absence from San Diego’s art community, Jennifer G. Spencer returned and began to photograph the artists she had become acquainted with during her thirteen-year stint as the executive director of a visual arts organization … a project that became a ten-year journey. In The Artist Portrait Project, Spencer reveals the results of her adventure in portraiture after her retirement and shares how this endeavor enlightened and shaped her opinion of these fifty artists and her art community. The Artist Portrait Project is a book about self-discovery and the persistence of the creative spirit. As a matter of fact, in an aptly titled statement, she writes: “In Celebration of My Fellow San Diego Artists: Why Photograph Artists?”, “This project is about the persistence of the creative spirit.”
Having once lived in San Diego, this world-class city by the sea, it should be understandable that Spencer would have the opportunity to profile this collection of artists of such renown. In Spencer’s memoir, she profiles 50 San Diego artists.
Spencer says of Helen Redman: “When I appeared for her portrait shoot, Helen was in a state of hectic preparation for two upcoming shows at the Women’s Museum and Mesa College. I was glad she could give me some time and had a great catch-up conversation about art and family. Helen is a whirlwind with definite plans about how things should be done, intense and yet very vulnerable. This is reflected in her work. Fortunately, I was able to capture her in a more meditative pose, while a little pensive.”
The author says of Jean Cornell Wheat: “Many years ago, as I was beginning my portrait project, I photographed Jean in her home on the San Pasqual Academy grounds where she was an art instructor for foster youth. My first portraits of her were shot with my 35mm film camera. I decided to do a follow-up portrait of her using my 4x5 film field camera, like all the others in the series. Amazing that Jean has not changed much in over nine years. A caring artist with a talent for working with young people, she is still at the San Pasqual Academy, but now as a ‘grandparent’ to the foster kids. She greets you with a quick smile and a wonderful laugh.”
Additionally, Spencer says of artist James Watt: “James is an artist’s artist, living in downtown San Diego in a storefront space that serves as studio, gallery, and living quarters. How rare is that today! The lifestyle definitely suits James’s outgoing, freethinking style of unique sculpture and paintings. Always intrigued by James’s infectious fun-loving and outgoing nature, I was not surprised to find him quite literally at home in his space. Kibitzing with passersby and his neighbors, he is well respected in his neighborhood. James’s sculptures or figures look like his ‘family,” as they are placed around his home and gallery. Capturing this good-natured yet serious artist was a challenge, determining which side of him to portray.”
Robert L. Pincus, who wrote the foreword to this delightful and insightful book, had this to say about another author profiled in this book, Victor Ochoa: “Victor Ochoa, looking characteristically dignified, given his role as an anchor of the local Chicano art community for decades and as a multi-dimensional muralist and educator.”
Spencer further states of Victor Ochoa: “Victor, the well-known and celebrated muralist of Chicano Park fame, has been photographed many times. Many paintings have also been done of him, and photographs of him working on murals, but no formal portraits that I know of. It was going to be a challenge for me to find some new way to see him. Because his work is mostly on site, when he does do work on paintings in his home, many of them are very large in a small space. Even though I’ve known Victor for some time in the art community, there were many things I didn’t know that were revealed during our photo session. Victor is quite the storyteller as well as artist. As the portrait session progressed, I was regaled with many stories about his work with other Chicano artists in the community over the year and his activism in establishing Chicano Park.”
The Artist Portrait Project by Spencer is like looking into the artist’s soul, through the lens of the photographer.
Dennis Moore has been the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine and he is the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online newsletter in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine. Mr. Moore can be contacted at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.