When Russo arrives at an artist’s studio, he keeps his equipment to a minimum. He works with the same light that the artists have available in their studio spaces. “I think by not bringing in lights, it puts the person more at ease with me. If I spent half an hour setting up lights and running cables it might be more intimidating to them,” he says. There’s also the question of space. “Sometimes I go into spaces and my back is against the wall and I’m tripping over things. People work in little tiny bedrooms. But you figure it out. Every space is really different. Some are great, and with some I’m there scratching my head going, what am I going to do? That’s the hard part of it—lighting is everything in photography. I have to be very creative. All studios have light but usually nothing very sophisticated. Generally speaking, I’d say it’s worked. I’ve never had to go back and reshoot anything.”
“The first artist was a gentleman by the name of Domingo Barreres; he was a professor of painting at the MFA Boston. I knew Domingo and took classes with him when I was at the museum school. He’s a very colorful individual. It’s still one of my favorite images in the series,” Russo notes. Originally from Spain, Barreres began teaching at the MFA School in 1967. The photograph (taken in 2012) captures the artist in profile, surrounded by paintings, one elbow on a table awash in cups, brushes, paper, and tubes of paint. It is a timeless portrait of an artist that could have been taken at any point in last 60 years, but for the tip of the Croc clog just visible beside the arm of a chair.
For the first couple of years, Russo would reach out to artists he was interested in photographing, and received suggestions from artists as to who else to contact. “In the last couple of years, I don’t solicit artists anymore. A lot of people have been contacting me. And that’s OK, too. I’ve met some amazing people. Most of my friends are artists—not just in Boston but throughout the country—so I can just sit there and talk to people for an hour about their process and what they’re doing, and at the same time I’m looking around and deciding what to do.”
But sometimes, he will chase an artist. Elsa Dorfman, for instance. “I chased her for about a year, but Errol Morris was making a documentary about her [The B Side, 2016] and a lot of her time was spent with him. Then out of the blue, she called me and said, ‘Jerry, I can give you an hour.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ I get to her studio in Cambridge and there’s the big Polaroid camera (and who knows who she’s photographed with it!). I put her against the backdrop that she would photograph people on, and she had the remote that she would use to click the shutter on the Polaroid camera. She was awesome. A real child of the 60s, you know? She’s got a big personality—she has this great voice and says what she wants to say. It was great being around her. I set the alarm on my phone for an hour and when it was up, we were done. The next day, they shipped the camera to Teluride for the opening of the documentary. And then she locked the door on the studio and was done. She retired.”
Moments like this remind Russo of the historical value of the project, as well. “Somebody said to me, whatever else you’re doing, you’re keeping an archive. That wasn’t my intention when I started, but the more I do it, the more I think of it that way. Given that I graduated from the SMFA, and the connections I made there, I've naturally photographed many faculty and alumni and intend to continue. It's a special place and deserves this type of documentation.”
Kim Pashko and David Kelly were fixtures of the Boston art scene, with their huge place in South Boston that served as both their home and their joint studio for more than 25 years. His double-portrait of Pashko and Kelly catches the ambiance of this spacious, cool, arty, much-lived-in, much-worked-in space and freezes it perfectly in time. Shortly after this image was taken, Pashko and Kelly left Boston for Houston, Texas.
The Artist Studio Project also raises questions about the effect the economy has on artists, where they can work, and what they can make. “In Boston, with so much gentrification going on in the last couple of decades, it’s hard to find artists spaces anymore,” Russo points out. “And if you can find them, you can’t afford them. When I first moved here in 1996, it was easy to find a studio then. That’s a real problem, now. It’s different for a photographer—if you’ve got a computer, that’s your lab. But if you’re a painter, you need a real studio with ventilation or you have to switch mediums. I’ve been to all sorts of situations with artists and their environments—in their homes, in their attics, in their basements. Some of them live in their studios.”
Not every studio requires a well-lit loft or even a room in the basement. Russo heard that filmmaker Roberto Mighty was the first artist-in-residence at the historic 174-acre Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. Mighty spent a year there preparing his multimedia installation earth.sky, which is based on the cemetery and the stories of people who are buried there. “I called him and said, ‘You have a really interesting studio,’” Russo recalls. “He knew the cemetery like the back of his hand. He’s a filmmaker, so I asked him to choose some locations. We spent the afternoon walking around the cemetery—awesome filmmaker, great guy.”
After five years, the end of the Artist Studio Project is in sight. Russo has already photographed well over 100 artists, but still has a few more in mind, which will entail trips to Maine and the Berkshires this summer. “By the end of the year, I hope to start the process of publishing a book of many of these images.”
To see examples of Russo’s different photographic series, visit his website at www.jerryrussophotography.com.
Note: All photographs used in this article courtesy of Jerry Russo.