Southernmost Art and Literary Portraits

Observers become the observed in Jimm Roberts' photographs of Southern writers and artists

The Orlando Museum of Art continues its yearlong celebration of Florida with a show so homegrown, the artist lives just half a mile from the museum. Having thoroughly explored the landscape, both natural and manmade, in shows of painting (Reflections: Paintings of Florida 1865-1965) and photography (the Snap! collaboration Urban Wild and an au courant dip into user-generated content with the Facebook-driven photo competition Picturing My Florida: A Grassroots Portrait of the Sunshine State), the museum turns now to the state's people – specifically, its artists and writers – with its exhibition of local photographer Jimm Roberts' passion project.

In 1941, Miami-based photographer Arnold Newman, later to become one of America's pre-eminent portrait photographers, took his first "environmental portraits": that is, he packed up his equipment and met his subjects in their natural surroundings rather than having them come to his studio. In 1945, his show Artists Look Like This opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, cementing the concept. Roberts' idea to shoot 50 Floridian writers and artists is a direct descendant of this exhibition, but one in which the environment is an equal participant. Not only are Roberts' subjects quite often shown among the "tools of their trades" – writers posed with pencils, notebooks, typewriters, word processors, bookcases; painters and sculptors posed in their studios and/or surrounded by their art – but Florida is itself always present, represented by palm fronds or other flora, by jaunty rattan furniture or simply by nova-bright sunlight, straining through a roller shade or pouring in unabashed to brighten a shy writer's face.

Roberts, who lives and works in a peach-painted, pocket-sized Key Westian building (complete with wrought-iron balcony and walled garden) on North Orange Avenue, says: "In 1983, I was surprised to discover how many internationally noted artists, authors, poets and playwrights were then living and working in Florida," in the afterword of the book Southernmost Art and Literary Portraits, which came out after the original 1989 exhibition and from which much of this current OMA exhibition is drawn. "Why had no one ever portrayed the artists and writers of their time who had migrated to this sub-tropic scratch-mark on the globe?"

And so Roberts set about doing that, tracking and capturing his prizes with the single-mindedness of a birder. Roberts shot and printed portraits of a who's who of '80s-'90s arts and letters: legends such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Edward Albee and John Knowles; tough guys like Harry Crews, Robert Stone, Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard; literary prom queens including Ann Beattie, Annie Dillard and Joy Williams; Pop Art wunderkinder Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.

What saves this show from being merely a deck of cultural baseball cards is Roberts' reverence for his subjects, which illuminates each image. Art is thought to be invariably a product of ego, but Roberts is absent from these images; he often allowed his subjects to choose their settings, their props, patiently waiting for the decisive moment when personality peeped through the carefully groomed version of reality seemingly constructed by each sitter. That moment doesn't always come – a few of the images are stilted – but when it does, it's a knockout, as in a close-up of painter Jules Olitski in which a startling, sly intelligence blazes forth.

It's always difficult to observe an observer, anyway; they don't give much away. As Gertrude Stein pointed out in What Are Masterpieces, "I have always noticed that in portraits of really great writers the mouth is always firmly closed."

Southernmost Art and Literary Portraits

through Oct. 28
2416 N. Mills Ave.

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