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November 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Looking into the lens Looking into the lens (November 03, 2004)

Palo Alto portrait photographer Margo Davis publishes a book of 40 years of her work

"Under One Sky" by Margo Davis; Stanford General Books; 95 pp.; $65

by Don Kazak

Margo Davis is so pleasant, so quick to smile and connect with people, that the wonder of her art is no secret at all.

For almost 40 years, Davis has traveled the world with her camera, getting to know people well enough to gain their trust enough for her to photograph them, despite language and cultural barriers.

It's not just art. It's a true gift.

The Palo Alto photographer's book, "Under One Sky," is testimony to both her talent behind the lens and her ability to make a connection with people.

Davis, 61, is a long-time local photographer, who has lived in Palo Alto for 30 years, interrupted only by her excursions around the world.

A show of the photographs in "Under One Sky" closed in September at Stanford but opens Nov. 4 at the Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco, her home gallery. The show runs through Dec. 11. From there, her photos will travel to art galleries in London in January and then to New York City in May for new shows.

Not bad, for a woman who grew up in an artistic family, was in France at the Sorbonne studying French literature as a college student, but gave up the capturing life through words for the lens.

When she was in Paris, she met art students from all over of the world, drawn to the City of Lights. One of them had a darkroom.

"He said he would teach me to develop film," Davis said, "and he took me to his studio where he was working on sculptures. He was from Barcelona, but he also loved photography, and I saw my first roll of film developed and I made my first print."

Back in America as a college student, Davis set up a darkroom in her parent's home and did everything wrong.

"I basically went lights on, left my boxes of (light-sensitive) paper out," she said. "I was all thumbs, I knew nothing. I never had chemistry, I didn't know about chemicals (to develop film), I didn't know F-stops, I didn't know the enlarger. I just basically bumbled my way through."

But it all slowly came together for her.

Davis published her first book of photos in 1973, as a mostly self-taught photographer, before she enrolled at San Jose State University to get a master's degree in photography in 1980.

She got the degree so she could teach, which she has been doing off and on ever since -- at the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshop, Stanford, and University of California, Santa Cruz, extension classes in Palo Alto.

But much of her time, including four trips to Africa, has been in other places.

After her trips to Africa, she finally realized she wasn't as interested in the anthropological aspects of culture as she thought she was.

"When I was going through my proof sheets I realized I was really gravitating toward portraiture," she said. "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."

She says now she can look at her earlier work and see "how it is more distanced, and includes more of the environment. I was getting in closer, and what I was really doing was a portrait, but it was an evolution and a process of self-discovery."

She has a lot to say to her students about that.

"I tell my students, do not get involved in this business called art if you are really interested in the end goal, like: Where's my work going up? Whether I'm going to be in a museum or a magazine, whether I'll have a book I'll publish."

Davis is also almost casually but forcefully succinct about what art photography is.

"You have to spend time," she said. "This is not a journalistic activity, an in-and-out thing."

She has spent that time, often weeks, getting to know the people who would trust her enough to look into her lens, while also suggesting a mystery of what could be known about them.

"The mistake people make about photography is they think it is making images of the real world, and that it actually imitates the real world," she said. "But photography is an interpretation of the world, just like painting is or print-making, or composing music, or writing. It's an interpretation, not an imitation."

She has always worked in black and white images because "you're already in an abstraction process, because the real world is in color."

"Under One Sky" is a title with a double meaning it signifies the people she photographed around and the fact that Davis always uses natural light.

Davis talks about getting to know her photographic subjects as "a waltz between two people trying to do something in the way of a portrait."

On the last night of her show at Stanford Sept. 20, which included a reception and book-signin, she said one person came up to her and asked why she didn't do more candid photographs. That's not what it's about, she told the man.

"I could go back in there and dance a while, back into the work," she said. "If he can't waltz with someone in that room, that's OK, it wasn't for him."

Don Kazak can be e-mailed at [email protected]

Editor's Note: Margo Davis will make an author appearance at Stanford Bookstore (campus) at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 1.

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