For photographer E. Brady Robinson, the stuff on desks is the stuff of portraits

September 2, 2011

To E. Brady Robinson, you are just your Rolodex.

And your coffee mug. Your tape dispenser. Your page-a-day calendar.

In January, while waiting to photograph head shots for an annual report by the CuDC, a local arts nonprofit, Robinson noticed a private workspace in a back room at Flashpoint Gallery.

An ordinary assortment of stuff — glue sticks, a half-eaten box of gourmet crackers — sat on a steel desk belonging to Karyn Miller, director of visual arts at the gallery.

The mundane scene piqued Robinson’s interest. That space, neither shocking nor glamorous, anchored the contents of one woman’s career. For Robinson, that was enough to warrant a photograph.

Robinson, 41, an exhibiting photographer and professor of visual arts at the University of Central Florida, had seen her share of office supplies. Still, she felt like a snoop, both guilty and electrified, examining the highlighters as though they were a stash of Oxycodone in a neighbor’s medicine cabinet. Fueled by voyeuristic impulses, she snapped a few shots of the desk and then tended to her commissioned head shots. The chance to shoot other desks wouldn’t emerge until months later, when this unexpected form of still-life portraiture would lead her through a maze of Washington arts players.

“As a photographer, one image can lead to a whole new body of work,” said Robinson, sitting in her Northeast apartment, which doubles as her studio. In her case, snapping Miller’s desk led to a new photographic series, an international exhibition and access to Washington’s close-knit arts community. What started as a social experiment in June, a quaint “six-degrees-of-separation study,” became “Desks as Portraits: An Inside Look at the D.C. Art World.” In November, the series will debut in Lishui, China. Robinson will be among more than 30 international artists at the Lishui Photography Festival, where this year’s theme is “American Life.”

Funny, don’t desks keep Washingtonians from having a life?

We’re the city of desk jobs, news desks, “what desk are you on at State?” cocktail party small talk. Desk portraiture seems an eerily accurate depiction of Washington living. But Robinson excludes the usual bureaucrats. For her, the buck stops at the arts desk.

The artist as a desk fan

There are checks to be signed and translucent file cabinets sitting on the collector’s desk.

A dictionary and a reporter’s nameplate decorate the cubicle of the art critic.

The tech-savvy art lover let her cat Louie linger behind her lime-green MacBook.

The art dealer’s walls are sparse, spare spattering on three canvases by the same painter.

It’s telling that Robinson crafted the project not as social commentary but to help her seep into a new social network. Last year, she moved from Orlando to Washington for family obligations. Although she still teaches online courses at UCF, she wanted to start a project that would introduce her to all kinds of D.C. art lovers.

She contacted self-described arts connector Philippa Hughes shortly after photographing Miller’s desk. Hughes, the founder of the Pink Line Project, helped Robinson make a list of Washington arts notables, and within 24 hours, Robinson had invitations to photograph the desks of Anne Goodyear at the National Portrait Gallery, arts collector James Alefantis and Andy Grundberg at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. The immediate, positive response stunned Robinson.

“I’m amazed by the support,” she said. “Each photo shoot leads to another introduction, and the project continues. It’s funny, because if I had called the National Portrait Gallery and said, ‘Hey, can I come over and show you my portfolio?’ the answer would have been, ‘No, we’re busy.’ But when I ask, ‘Can I come over and photograph your desk?’ the response is: ‘Sure! How’s next week?’ ”

Robinson has yet to be turned down out of disinterest. Only one collector has refused, because his security clearance prohibited photographs of his computer.

“I’m shocked that everyone’s saying yes. That’s probably my grand finding in this experiment,” Robinson said. “I’m also surprised by the workspaces. Some people who are larger than life in my own mind share an office or work out of a cubicle. This demystifies the art world. We’re all just people.”

Mona Lisa’s stapler

Artists have always been slightly obsessed with re-creating their relationship to their work in their art. Edouard Manet’s portrait “Emile Zola” portrayed his subject at his desk with Manet’s own painting “Olympia” in the background, while Rembrandt’s 17th-century portraits often depicted men at their desks with large quills, confirming their self-proclaimed intellect through oil on canvas.

There were few office supplies in early desk portraiture, but Robinson finds these items most revealing. She has no preference for neoclassical mahogany or midcentury minimalism when it comes to her four-legged subjects. “I’m more interested in the things on top of the desk, the composition, than the desk itself,” she said.

She doesn’t notice the hidden details until after her 15-minute sessions.

At home, she’ll examine the photographs and notice her own exhibition postcards tacked above someone’s desk, reminding her how small the Washington arts world is.

There are few neon Post-its. No crumpled granola wrappers. Washington mostly seems too P.C. for MacBooks. Some of the desks are so clean, it’s hard to believe the subjects aren’t accountants.

“I told them not to clean up. Don’t bother a thing,” Robinson said. “If you look closely, not everyone’s desk is clean. I won’t name names.”

Self-conscious subjects

Robinson’s subjects, all of whom are well-versed in photography, have strong opinions about how their desk portraits represent them. Larissa Leclair, curator and founder of Indie Photobook Library, selected Robinson to exhibit at the Lishui Photography Festival.

Leclair is an organized Apple devotee, displaying both a MacBook and an iPhone in her portrait. She keeps a cart of photo books in her wood-paneled home office. She’s most interested in the tiny details.

“When she told me about the project, I thought it was an interesting take on ‘American Life,’ ” Leclair said. “It also reveals so much about the art world. Even if you’re a curator at the National Gallery, these workspaces are unassuming. They don’t reflect the kind of influence the subjects have.”

Philippa Hughes sees the series as deeply personal: “My desk is my dining table. That alone says I’m collaborative. I spend more time with my assistant than anyone else, and his things are in my portrait.”

Hughes admits that she cleaned her desk before the portrait. “But I deliberately left the ice cream bowls out,” she said. “I’ve been eating a lot of ice cream lately.

“I know a lot of people cleaned up before the shoots,” Hughes said. “It’s like how you tidy up before your housekeeper comes. You don’t want to reveal too much.”

Sarah Kennel, curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art, said of her portrait: “I saw the photo and thought: ‘Wow, I have a really strong engagement with the city of Paris. All my photographs have Paris in them.’ ”

Others take less personal views of the portraits, finding greater symbolism in the idea itself than in the photos.

“There’s a certain sense of fun that prevents the portraits from becoming too heavy-handed,” said Goodyear, curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who deliberately did not clean her desk before Robinson arrived. She left brown file folders strewn across her keyboard for Robinson to capture.

“I realize that my desk is always changing,” Goodyear said. “The papers, the piles are always in flux. It’s a moment in time when the desk becomes an extension of us.”

Audiences in China will view American desks through an entirely different lens than Robinson, who’s still networking and seeking introductions for her ongoing project. She’s hoping to snap White House curator William Allman’s desk before the November exhibition.

As for Robinson’s desk, what does it reveal about her?

“I’m a Gemini. So, honestly, I have two.”

8What does your desk say about you? Share a picture of your workspace by pasting in a link to a photo in the comments below, tweeting it with the hashtag #deskspotting, or e-mail it to userphotos@washpost.com. Please include your name and location in the body of the e-mail.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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