MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Throughout most of the past two decades, Alabama photographer Jerry Siegel has focused his lens on a subject he is passionate about — his contemporaries in the art world. Siegel, a Selma native, has set out to capture in still film photography some of the South's most well-known artists — not in formal portraits, but in intimate settings, their studios and homes.
He has found that a studio, where an artist's creative energy is most intense, is often the place where they feel most comfortable and relaxed. Most themselves.
Through June 1 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition "Creator/Created: Portraits and Artists from the Permanent Collection," gathers Siegel's portraits of artists who have works in MMFA's permanent collection, pairing them alongside the featured artists' well known works.
Artists representing a variety of media — photography, painting, sculpture, clay, fabric, mixed media — are represented here. Among them are William Christenberry, Thornton Dial Sr., Lamar Dodd, Crawford Gillis, Dale Kennington, Charlie Lucas, Charles Shannon, Mose Tolliver, Melissa Tubbs and Yvonne Wells.
"The project actually started with me being a portrait photographer, loving to shoot pictures of anybody," Siegel said at a recent reception at the museum celebrating the exhibition, with many of the subjects present. Siegel's close friend Crawford Gillis, whose portrait and work are included, was the first. Later, Siegel had commissions to photograph Georgia artist Lamar Dodd and Bill Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art.
"This group of four or five portraits suggested that I had a great series of late-career Southern artists," Siegel said. "At that point, I was just shooting pictures of friends and artists that I wanted to meet. It kind of snowballed from there."
Siegel's book, "Facing South: Portraits of Southern Artists" (University of Alabama Press, 2012), includes 100 of his portraits of renowned Southern artists.
A substantial number of his portraits are of artists whose work is in MMFA's permanent collection. One of them is noted pen-and-ink artist Melissa B. Tubbs of Montgomery. Before their photo encounter, Tubbs and Siegel had never met.
"I got a phone call last fall and this man introduced himself as Jerry Siegel, and I knew his name — I knew who he was," Tubbs said at the reception, standing alongside her portrait and her works. "And then he said he wanted to come take my picture. He said that the museum asked him to. My first thought, and I said it out loud to him, was 'I don't like to have my picture taken. But if the museum wants it done, OK.'"
"And he came and spent a couple of hours at my studio and home. It turned out to be great fun, because he has the most wonderful camera, that makes no noise. I wasn't waiting for that click. I could feel myself relaxing. And I can guarantee you that this was one of the ones he took with that camera. And I like this photo. I think he did a great job."
Siegel said he has become aware of the benefits of this semi-stealth mode of working.
"I have one camera that does make a little noise, but I have another one that I can put on silent mode, and I've had a lot of artists mention, 'Oh, did you just shoot a picture?'" he said. "I never thought it made that much difference, but there is kind of nice when you don't hear the click. They're not aware that you're actually shooting a picture."
Is that the trick that brings out the artist's real demeanor and personality in the photos?
"I think it's just a matter of having a conversation with the artist. It's just a matter of making them comfortable," Siegel said. "I've always felt that if they find that comfortable place, they go from being a little bit stiff and thinking about being posed to — all of the sudden they kind of lean into it, and you get that kind of real, sort of relaxed person which is really, truly indicative of who they are."
One early work in the exhibition is a 1996 portrait of Selma artist Charlie Lucas, widely known as "the tin man" because of his art's use of found objects, many of them metal, such as hubcaps and other pieces of hardware, which he crafts into sculptures. On exhibit with Siegel's portrait of Lucas is his "self-portrait" sculpture, a gathering of rusted pieces rising into a looming human-like figure.
When Siegel approached Lucas about taking photographs, "I thought he was a little crazy," Lucas admitted.
"But when I really looked deeper into the way he wanted to photograph me, it was like, just coming up to a person and filling out a moment of his life and making it into a photograph," he said. "To see him move around, was like, 'OK, what do you want from me? Let's get it over with.' But I could see that he was a master at what he was doing, and I admire him for it."
Lucas was a longtime friend of Siegel's uncle — also named Jerry Siegel — who loved collecting art.
Like a lot of the artists Siegel has captured on film, Lucas was both pleased and surprised at the result.
"I think Jerry is ahead of his own time," he said. "I think he has that magic eye — looking at the art, looking at the people, and then combining them both together, and he makes the masterpiece right then. Most artists — I don't consider myself an artist, I consider myself as somebody that makes things — so Jerry makes up these beautiful pictures of us artists, and I think that's icing on the cake."
The fulfillment is mutual, Siegel said. "I've said to people that even if I never did any of the museum shows or had the book out, just the fact that I had 160 different artists, give or take, let me in their houses, in their studios, to share with me how they work and what they do has been incredible," he said. "It's just been a great experience."