Archive for November 14th, 2017

Photographer Margo Davis and “the landscape of the face”

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017
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Photo by Margo Davis, of course.

Loyal readers of these pages know the legendary self-effacement and humility of the Book Haven. You should. We keep telling you about it. But we are shedding our accustomed modesty and shyness for a brief holiday.

Humble Moi no more! Now it’s Glamorous Moi! Elegant Moi! For we have had our photograph taken by the esteemed Margo Davis, whose artistic focus is fine arts portraiture.

The notable photographer and I met in an elevator, some years ago. We were both on our way to visit Marilyn Yalom, who was hosting the Middlebrook Salon at her lovely Russian Hill home. Margo was memorable. She was wearing a black leather jacket, with her hair characteristically short, and she spoke in a rapid-fire Connecticut accent (not New York, as my imprecise ear thought).

We’ve seen each other since – usually at Marilyn’s home. So naturally Marilyn recommended her as the perfect photographer for my once-every-seven-years photograph. Marilyn was correct, as she so often is.

Humble Moi is not the easiest client to photograph. I panic and freeze before the camera and my eyes bug out and go glassy. But Margo just kept talking, and she kept snapping, too. She talks about getting to know her photographic subjects as “a waltz between two people trying to do something in the way of a portrait.”

Margo, in color.

“You have to spend time,” she said. “This is not a journalistic activity, an in-and-out thing.” The result of her efforts above.

Margo has spoken in the past about being drawn to the “landscape of the face.” As a young photographer, she recalled: “When I was going through my proof sheets I realized I was really gravitating toward portraiture. And from that point on, I think I started moving in closer towards peoples’ faces. It was a process, it wasn’t something that happened overnight.”

Margo always uses natural light, and is known primarily for her black-and-white portrait photography, because, she’s said, “you’re already in an abstraction process, because the real world is in color.” In black and white, she’s photograph such celebrities as Saul Bellow, Maxine Kingston and Ursula K. Le Guin as well as average people in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America. But in my case she clearly made a colorful exception. In the quick tour she gave me of her home, I fell in love with her black-and-white portrait of an Angor Wat monk. He looks just as uncomfortable in front of the camera as I was, meditation notwithstanding.

An especial focus for her work has been Antigua in the Caribbean, as well as Africa: “I borrowed the methodology of an ethnographer: participant-observation, becoming part of the fabric of the culture,” she has said.

My favorite guy. He looks nervous, too.

“Being married to an Antiguan [her former husband Gregson Davis] and returning there often, I was able to work with this axiom in mind; the importance of getting to really know people.”

She has taught photography at Stanford University forever, as well as the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

By my count, she’s up to half a dozen photography books now. Her newest book this year is Antigua 1967-1973 from Nazraeli Press. Previous books include: Antigua Pride, Edition One Press, 2013; Under One Sky, Stanford University Press, 2004; The Stanford Album: A Photographic History, 1885 – 1945 (Stanford, 1989); Antigua Black: Portrait of an Island People (1973); and Women Writers of the West Coast (1983), with text by Marilyn Yalom.

Margo’s work is in major museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Cantor Art Center at Stanford, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.