Behind the scenes | October 20, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 20, 2006

Behind the scenes

Photographer Leo Holub captured more than 100 artists at work

by Rebecca Wallace

More than 100 artists have pulled aside the curtain and let photographer Leo Holub behind the scenes. He's captured them in their homes and studios and galleries, finding black-and-white moments of creativity and pensiveness.

How do you get all these artists to let their guard down, from pop artist Roy Lichtenstein leaning on his desk at home to painter Yvonne Jacquette thoughtfully fingering a pencil and paper?

I ponder this as I'm interviewing Holub, and before I know it he has taken my picture. Carefully, subtly, he has ushered me together with others in the room and pulled a silver Canon from his pocket. Click.

Something makes Holub, the retired founder of Stanford University's photography department, both unobtrusive and all-seeing. Quiet, with tidy white hair and a suit and tie, he is all gentleness. He also has a neat trick of putting subjects at ease: he doesn't look through the viewfinder of his camera, but gazes to the side of it. Connecting with his blue eyes, you don't see the photo coming.

"He wants to make eye contact with his subject," says his former student Lorie Novak, who also notes, "He never makes anybody look bad."

Holub smiles when asked about his method. "The viewfinder's too small. This way, I can watch my subject."

About 50 of Holub's subjects currently fill the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, drawn from the photos of artists he took over 10 years in the 1980s and '90s.

The project, in which he photographed artists in California, New Mexico and New York, was commissioned by Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, well-known art collectors whose enormous 20th-century collection is housed in Menlo Park. The two had been impressed by a photo Holub took of painter Richard Diebenkorn, and the project appealed to Holub because he'd never heard of such a thing being done on so grand a scale.

Holub knew a few of the artists, including "one of my good buddies" and fellow Stanford faculty member Nate Oliveira, but mainly the Andersons made the connections.

"'Hunk' was knocking on the door and I got in," Holub says, affectionately using Harry Anderson's nickname.

During the decade, Holub went from gallery to studio to home to warehouse, making one-hour appointments with the artists and snapping candids and more formal photos.

Whereas some photographers might use a distinctive style, easily recognizable from photo to photo, Holub says he simply tried to capture what he saw.

As a result, each photo is its own universe, with the style reflecting that of the individual artist. When the art is large, the photo may be a grand scale, such as a 1986 photo of Ellsworth Kelly in a SoHo warehouse. Kelly is a mere silhouette next to his massive metal sculpture that looks like a folded oval.

In contrast, a 1992 picture of painter Agnes Martin is intimate. She's seated in her spartan adobe New Mexico house holding a catalog of her work.

"She reminded me of my grandmother," Holub says, looking at the photo on the wall of the Thomas Welton gallery. "We had tea and Belgian chocolates together."

The intimacy of Holub's friendship with Oliveira is also evident in a 1983 photo of him. Oliveira, seeming relaxed, holds both a sculpture and a cup of coffee.

Lorie Novak, who had kept in touch with Holub since being a student of his at Stanford, assisted on some shoots, and also took a picture of Holub photographing painter and sculptor Frank Stella, a shot that is highlighted in the Stanford exhibit.

Visiting the Thomas Welton gallery with her former professor, Novak praises the way Holub avoided putting his own photographer's stamp on the pictures.

"These are really about the people and their work," she says. "He was amazing. People would really relax around him."

Still, Holub said many of the artists were reluctant to work in front of him. There are some images of people creating art in a print studio or sculpting session, but Ed Moses, for example, didn't want an audience. So Holub simply put Moses in a chair surrounded by his large paintings. The effect is surprisingly charming, as though Moses is waiting for the paint to dry, notes Lisa Vestal, publicist for the department of art and art history.

As befits a university, the Thomas Welton exhibit was fueled by student energy.

Patience Young, curator for education at the Cantor Arts Center on campus, taught a Stanford class last spring called "Anatomy of an Exhibition." In it, the students worked with the hundreds of photos Holub had taken during this project, paring the collection down to 75 and choosing such exhibit categories as "The Artist At Work" and "Private Studio, Public Space." Ultimately, Young co-curated the exhibit with students Vivian Crockett and Karla Mei Robertson.

Young said the exhibit is a tribute to Holub as the founder of the photography department -- and it's also an important documentary tool for future art historians.

"Working in a museum, we often don't know much about who made the art," she said. But Holub's photos reveal much about the artists themselves and the ways and conditions in which they work, she said.

For Holub, the exhibit is also a welcome excuse to visit the campus where he spent so much time before retiring in 1980. He came to Stanford in 1960 and worked as a senior planner in the planning office, then joined the art department faculty and founded the photography department in 1969. Before that, his resume included working as a graphic designer and teaching drawing.

Holub actually studied painting in school, and never photography. In fact, he says, he only took up the camera when he and his wife, Florence, had their first son. After all, the most beautiful baby in the world needs beautiful photos taken of him.

Nowadays, Holub lives in San Francisco with Florence, and will turn 90 next month. Nov. 25, to be precise. ("Put the date," he urges a reporter, grinning. "People will send me cards.")

Holub still photographs and is quite content with his point-and-shoot Canon, although he has "a museum" of photo equipment in his home. Most of the photos in the current exhibit were taken with a Mamiya camera.

Before bidding a Weekly reporter and photographer adieu, Holub takes them down to the basement to see the Stanford photography department he founded so long ago.

"I built wooden sinks," he said. "I had two darkrooms and 17 enlargers."

Now, he looks around one of the modern, dimly lit rooms where young students hurry to and fro and a Dave Matthews Band track plays from somewhere. He touches one of the sinks, which is now sleek metal, and says, "It's like the interior of a destroyer."

There's no nostalgia or confusion in his voice, but a matter-of-fact tone. It seems all right that this isn't his world any more -- it's still filled with other artists who are busily creating. He's just taking it all in.

What: "Studio Access," an exhibit of photos by Leo Holub

Where: Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall, Stanford University

When: Through Oct. 29. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 1 to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-723-3404 or go to


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