By Margie M. Palmer
San Carlos photographer explores local artists through portraits in upcoming book
Jennifer Spencer never thought she’d become a photographer.
The longtime San Carlos resident and former executive director for a visual arts organization spent most of her career working as a painter, but when the construction of Petco Park forced her out of her 450-square-foot art studio in Downtown San Diego, she found herself still struggling to create.
“When the ballpark came in, I lost my studio space I had to move back into my little studio that I had at home, which I had basically just used for framing work,” Spencer said. “My whole vision was altered by switching venues. I used to do large-scale paintings for corporations and individuals, but now I was in a space with a low ceiling. That’s when I decided I needed to do something totally different, and decided I’d maybe go back to school.”
Spencer enrolled in a photography class at Grossmont College and admits she was quick to fall in love with the camera.
“I got to take a number of classes over there with wonderful instructors. For one of the class assignments, we were instructed to go out and photograph people. I started out by photographing my family,” she said.
Yet throughout the process, she realized that between going back to school and having family responsibilities, she’d lost contact with a lot of her artist friends.
“I felt lonely, and I was also curious as to how they were doing,” Spencer said. “The art community that had been Downtown changed and it was now scattered throughout the county, so I started to get back in contact with them.”
She also asked if they’d allow her to take their portraits; the responses were overwhelmingly positive.
“I’d [meet with them] for about two hours at their studios to catch up and during that time I’d set up this big camera, which was different because they all knew me as a painter,” Spencer said.
Yet it wasn’t until she came back to the dark room and began to develop the film, that she realized she was seeing things about her friends that she’d never noticed before.
“When you know someone for a long time you have an impression of them, but when you see them through the camera, you capture them for a second of time. It’s just a slice of time you’ve caught them in that you get to look at. You realize you may have seen that expression before, but it was so fleeting you never focused on it,” Spencer said.
Throughout the course of the next 10 years, Spencer photographed 50 well-known San Diego artists and eventually, she decided to share the photographs in a book.
“The Artist Portrait Project: A Photographic Memoir of Portrait Sessions with San Diego Artists” is set to be released on July 10. The book is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
Among the artists that were photographed for the book are La Mesa residents Dottie Korn-Davis, David Beck-Brown, Suda House, Chris Lee, Polly Jacobs Giacchina, Jess Dominguez and Mary Lynn Dominguez.
Korn-Davis said she was honored to be included.
“Jennifer has been pursuing this project for many years and it is wonderful that it has come to fruition,” she said. “I hope [the book will help] people recognize that there is a vibrant, thriving community of working artists in San Diego County.”
House agreed, saying she was honored to participate because of Spencer’s longstanding reputation in the arts community, as well as her being a leader in arts activism.
“She’s a fine photographer and I trusted her interpretation and representation of me as an artist,” House said. “A portrait is more than a likeness, it is an embodiment of the person before the lens, and Jennifer is able to coax each artist to reveal something unique about themselves in relationship to their personal work and artistic practice. This is an important contribution to our arts community and a living memory of those who choose the path of creativity to enrich us all with their visions of our worlds within and throughout San Diego.”
Spencer said she believes there is a lot of local talent that is often overlooked; her biggest hope for the book is that it will help people realize the extent of talent that’s in San Diego.
“It’s unfortunate they don’t have more galleries here,” she said. “The persistence of creativity in San Diego is really quite impressive.”
— Freelance writer Margie M. Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.