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Keith Fishman Witnesses Silently

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.

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