Photographer gathers dozens of city’s artists for historic shot
By Donna Beth Weilenman
BACK IN 1958, A FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER, Art Kane, shooting for Esquire magazine, captured one of the most famous images in music history. Kane’s portrait of jazz musicians assembled at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem was so iconic, it even inspired a 1994 documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.”
That photo was one of Michael Van Auken’s inspirations when he decided to do something similar here in Benicia, using Open Studios artists as his subjects.
A photographer for 30 years, the last four for his own company, Van Auken has long been intrigued by other pictorial assemblies: those that recorded a certain time, place and gathering in history, from group photographs of Hollywood studios’ stars to those of lesser-known parties.
“There are old photographs of railroad workers and miners from 100 years ago,” he said. “They’re inspirational, too.”
Van Auken has his own studio in the Arsenal, too, and during Open Studios 2012 he decided he wanted to use a stairway in the historic district to photograph a gathering of Benicia’s artists.
He chose 991 Tyler St., the same building as Arts Benicia, for which Van Auken’s girlfriend, Peg Jackson, works.
“The stairways and levels are good for a picture,” he said. “You want different levels to see everybody.”
Not only that, but the late Bill Harsh’s studio was at the top of the building, “so it was a tribute to him.”
The idea came too late last year to invite the artists to pose, but this year Van Auken was ready.
He said he used social media, email and other communication, including handouts, to invite artists participating in Open Studios May 4-5 to meet at the Arts Benicia building about 7:15 p.m. after the conclusion of the artistic celebration.
That’s because, with good skies, the lighting would be ideal, Van Auken hoped.
“It’s the magic hour, the sweet light,” he said.
He told the artists to come “be part of a historic portrait.” His entreaties created “quite a little buzz.”
But when the 85 or so artists began finding their spots on the stairway, they were standing under cloudy skies.
“I would have taken the photograph anyway,” Van Auken said. Not only was it the concluding day of Open Studios, but he had also passed up a chance to see the Rolling Stones in Oakland, a show to which he’d won special-price tickets in a lottery.
So rain or shine, there would be a photo.
Fortunately, at just the right moment, it began to shine. With a little musical help.
Van Auken and the artists waited out the clouds, inspired by Jackson to sing the Beatles’ tune, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” to pass the time.
He and Jackson started the sing-along by introducing the first lines, “What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?”
The artists chose to stay and sing rather than walk out, and within 15 minutes the clouds broke open.
Van Auken finally had the light he wanted for his photograph.
“Everything happened just right,” he said. “Everyone had a good time.”
The photographer even got to be photographed, too, by switching places with Michael Malerba for a few of the shots.
And before he was done, he made sure he had all the artists’ names, so they could be recorded along with the photograph. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I can herd cats!” he said.
He’s still considering what to do with his photograph, though those who have seen it have given him “great feedback” after he sent digital images of the pictures to those who have asked.
“I’m thinking of printing prints with information on the back, and using it as a fundraiser — sell it for Arts Benicia.”
Meanwhile, he said, “I had a lot of fun doing this. I’m glad we have a bit of history recorded. A hundred years from now, people will look at this photograph of those ‘crazy artists.’”