A Santa Barbara Photographer’s Hurricane Odyssey
by Brett Leigh Dicks photos by Keith Fishman
As Keith Fishman drove through the forbidding landscape of coastal Mississippi in fall 2005, his car was loaded with supplies not usually associated with a photographer: copious bottles of water, packaged food, a box of diapers. Through his windshield, he saw that homes were reduced to mere foundations and found the streets — whose signs were completely blown away — were blocked with washing machines and amusement park rides. The progress as he nosed his car into the once thriving community of Lamont was slow and surreal.
A few days before, one of the worst hurricanes in anyone’s memory unleashed its fury upon the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina’s winds lashed everything in their path. What wasn’t blown away subsequently sank below the water line that quickly rose due to rain and surging tides. The Santa Barbara-based photographer watched the tragedy unfold in a New York hotel room until he couldn’t stomach it any longer.
“I have never done anything like this before,” explained Fishman recently. “It affected me so deeply that I just had to do something. My brother is a physician and he was going there to help, so I told him I was going too. It didn’t matter what I would do when I got there. I simply had to go and see if I could make a difference.”
And help he did, in his own unique way. Since communication was virtually impossible, Fishman’s carload that day in Lamont also included a hastily scribbled map and a brief note from Sonia Reid, who had not heard from her sister even though she lived just a couple miles away. Fishman offered to find her, and he eventually did. Upon accepting the note, the sister gratefully composed a reply for his return journey. In the midst of Katrina’s wrath, Keith Fishman was making a difference.
The Voice of the Print Like many contemporaries, Keith Fishman’s relationship with photography is more about obsession than anything. His initial fascination arose not with a camera but with the magic of the photographic print, which is what still captures his imagination.
“I started printing before I even owned a camera,” explained Fishman. “The day I saw a print evolve and float in the developer, I was hooked. I went through boxes looking for any negative I could find. I just wanted to print. After about six months, I got my first camera and started making all the silly pictures that every 14-year-old did. I was something of a vampire, spending all my nights alone in the dark!”
It was quickly obvious that photography would play a significant role in Fishman’s life; he eventually earned an arts degree from Hartford Art School in Connecticut. He then ventured into commercial photography, but encountered an artificiality that was contrary to every passion the young photographer held dear. After working as an assistant for two years, he tired of commercial work and sold his equipment. He would not make another photograph for nine years, until that same passion for the print inspired his return to the art form about 10 years ago.
During the past decade, Fishman has quietly established himself as one of Santa Barbara’s leading fine art photographers. His work was first exhibited at the Caruso Woods Gallery and has since graced the walls of both the Contemporary Arts Forum and the now-closed Staton-Greenberg Gallery. But while Fishman found an appreciative audience, it hasn’t come easily.
“Becoming a successful fine art photographer is a thousand times harder than becoming a movie star,” mused Fishman. “Everyone in the world watches cinema and there are thousands of movies being made all the time. How many people collect photographs? How many people go to museums? And how many of them even consider photography? Fine art photography is probably one of the toughest fields there is out there.”
That’s a little hard to swallow coming from Fishman, whose imagery is impeccably interpreted and executed. His work is a reflection of his poetically minimalist perception of life, free from clutter or confusion, full of visual grace. But as his new work is showing, Hurricane Katrina and his personal response not only shook his life, but also impacted his approach to art.
Storm Clouds Gather When Hurricane Katrina hit land, Keith Fishman was halfway through a cross-country photographic odyssey. As he watched people being airlifted from the devastation, he realized they were just like the people he’d met during his American travels — only these ordinary folks were coping with an extraordinary situation.
In Gulfport, assisting his brother with Red Cross work, Fishman was standing in the rubble of what was once a suburb. As he tried to make sense of the scattered debris, he heard someone tell him he was standing in her living room. It was Amy Hopkins, who had lost everything. After apologizing for his intrusion, he talked with her for hours, which, while overwhelming for the visitor, proved cathartic for the local.
As they sat on the remains of the family’s fence, Fishman’s attention turned to the only two remnants Hopkins had from her pre-hurricane life: a coffee cup and a Moody Blues record, ironically labeled Long Distance Voyager. He snapped his camera.
“I was visiting my property after the storm,” recalled Hopkins, “and Keith and I just started talking. My entire family lost everything in that storm. We have been through hurricanes before, but this storm was heart-wrenching in so many ways. To completely lose everything you own is an unbelievable experience, one I hope I don’t have to go through again. But with this storm, your sadness is not just for yourself — it is also for your family and friends and the entire community. Everyone here was affected.”
While New Orleans captured the attention of the national media, coastal Mississippi suffered just as harshly. Thankfully, Fishman was there to document it, though photographing was really more of a way of dealing with what he found. As well, he didn’t spend much time searching for shots, because when surrounded by such drama, the images quickly found him. “I just got in the car and drove, not really knowing where I was going or what I was going to encounter,” remembered Fishman. “And things unfolded in front of me. I make the images but it is usually my subconscious that pulls it all together. A lot of the time I don’t realize how many layers of information are actually in those images. I am drawn to a scene for one reason and it is uncanny how other elements simply tend to appear — things I didn’t see and wasn’t aware of at the time.”
Proof Is in the Photography Once Fishman went through his prints, he knew something needed to be done with them. The work has now evolved into an exhibition called Silent Witness that will tour the nation to maintain awareness of the plight of the Gulf Coast. And before being shown at the University of Southern Mississippi Museum of Art to mark the passing of a year since Hurricane Katrina crossed the coastline, the exhibition — which was featured prominently in the April issue of B&W fine art photography magazine — will hang in Santa Barbara at The Arts Fund Gallery until early May. Fishman will also give a talk about his work next week, on April 11 at the S.B. Museum of Art.
The Arts Fund Gallery’s director Cody Hartley was immediately impressed with the work, explaining, “Even in the images that are dense with wreckage and the detritus of destruction, there is a quiet, reflective quality. Fishman’s portraits of life in the wake of the hurricane are insightful without being intrusive or exploitative. As a group, his photographs invite narrative — we want to know these people, to know what they experienced, to know their stories.”
But Silent Witness is more than an opportunity to experience this tragic event: Fishman is also donating all proceeds from the photo sales — including limited edition prints — directly to selected charities working on hurricane relief.
“The good thing about a show likes Keith’s is that it serves as a reminder there are still tens of thousands of people displaced, many of whom still don’t have a home to go to,” said Amy Hopkins, the Gulfport resident. “There are still so many problems down here. It was a massive storm and here we are, six months later, and there still hasn’t been a lot of progress. I can understand how people get caught up in the weekly headlines and attention shifts to whatever is happening now. Stories change. But, for us, it is important to keep the dialogue going.”
For all his giving, Fishman certainly got something out of the tragedy too. He explained, “Being down there has resolved my faith in the human spirit. I saw people who, in the event of great tragedy and immense compromise, laughed in the face of it all and dealt with what befell them with grace and humility. If it was me in their situation, I would have wanted to throw up my arms and cry.”
4·1·1 Keith Fishman’s Silent Witness is at The Arts Fund Gallery until May 5. Fishman will give a gallery talk at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Tuesday, April 11, at 5:30 p.m. See keithfishman.com.