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~ G. PAUL BISHOP - PORTRAITS ~

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g. Paul Bishop

AN EYE FOR AN I
 

 

The place is packed with people. Pressed against a wall, Odetta sings in rapture. An arm's length away sit Imogen Cunningham, her eyes flickering with mischief, and Robert Frost contemplating Roads Not Taken. Across from them, Ansel Adams surveys the room's rustic brick and timber interior while, in a less-crowded corner, a cadaverous Aldous Huxley talks about his latest book. But the colloquy of Huxley is imagined here, not heard. And the eyes lining the room stay open all day and all night. This is the Durant Avenue studio of Berkeley master photographer g. Paul Bishop whose portraits of Cunningham and hundreds of others seem to breathe.

"My people are real," says the easygoing Bishop, who relaxes on the far end of the studio's couch, away from the lights of an overhead lamp. His work is never re-touched. It comes complete with the freckles, dimples, and wrinkles that are there in person. "When I do a portrait of someone, I'm less concerned with their anatomy than I am with their spirit," explains Bishop. "If I removed any line from Imogen's face, I would kill the life of the picture."

When Bishop first set up shop as a portraitist, on Oakland's Grand Avenue, he specialized in another kind of picture -- a glamour shot, He employed dramatic lighting and exotic backgrounds and spent hundreds of rolls of film on "pouty lips and bear rugs." He even went to  Hollywood to improve his techniques by studying the photographers who transformed actors and actresses into gods and goddesses. He learned how to direct light to shorten or lengthen a nose or soften a jutting jaw-line. He made "Pretty pictures," which were what the local debutantes and aspiring actresses wanted. He also made a reputation and a substantial living. But something was missing. Before he could identify it himself, World War II stepped in and did it for him.

Bishop abandoned the starlets for an ensign's uniform. The Navy sent him first to photography schools in the States and then Barber's Point, a naval air station in Hawaii, to teach what he had learned. He went to do aerial reconnaissance photography, covering the second battle of the Philippines, for which he received the Presidential Citation. He was then sent to work with Edward Steichen in a special photographic unit. A promotion to the rank of lieutenant sent him to sea on the U.S.S. Hancock, 100 miles off the coast of Japan.

Bishop spent 21 months on the Pacific during the war. he recorded battles in the sky and on deck, as well as taking what he calls "the first truly great picture I ever made." It is a portrait of the Navy chaplain on board, a 34-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey named Father Doyle. It shows a man wearing a helmet, life preserver, the beginnings of a beard, and an unmistakable look of courage. Like many of Bishop's portraits, a feeling of serenity radiates from it. "Father Doyle is the first man I had ever known who had completely conquered fear," says Bishop. "I saw him --- under fire --- remove his battle helmet and clamp it down over the head of a gunner's mate who had lost his own." No doubt the mate felt secure under Doyle's helmet; it has a cross painted on its front.

Somewhere out on the ocean, Bishop says, he underwent a metamorphosis. "There was some moment aboard ship when I said, 'For the rest of my life, I will use my camera to seek the absolute sincerity in my fellow Man.' " It became clear that he could no longer devote time to producing artificial pictures. "I made a pledge that, come hell or high water, I would keep my integrity." Hell and high water came, and Bishop's integrity survived.

The first thing he did when he returned to Oakland was to close his old studio. He then married Luella, moved to Berkeley and started over again as a portrait photographer. His new approach, however, cost the young Bishop family a few dollars in the beginning. Many people were reluctant to be revealed on film as they were in the flesh. So, to help make ends meet, Bishop left Luella in the studio to manage the phones and set up appointments while he hired himself out as a carpenter.

The experience paid off later on when the Bishops acquired property for a vacation home on Lake Alpine in the Sierras. They had long dreamed of having a home in the mountains, but the chance to buy a valuable piece of land came when their funds were low. They bought the land, and Bishops built the home themselves, using stones and recycled lumber. Some years and three children later, they built a larger home in Bear Valley, once again from scratch. Building a home, says Bishop, is akin to taking a picture. "You must visualize what you want before you begin."

Except for a modest listing in the yellow pages, Bishop did not advertise. Instead, he relied on word of mouth referrals. For 52 years, referrals had ushered more than 3,000 people into Bishop's studio, which doubled as the family's home.

Bishop had a "mental list" of people he hoped to capture on film. The University had been a large source of photo subjects. After the UC Press commissioned Bishop to do a portrait of anthropologist, Theodora Kroeber, for one of her books, Theodora called Bishop to do portraits of she and her husband, Alfred Kroeber, throughout their Maybeck home. During a portrait session with Glenn Seaborg, Bishop mentioned that he would like to do a series of the University's Nobel Prize Laureates. The next day Bishop received phone call after phone call from Seaborg's colleagues, calling to making an appointment.

Although his subjects are not always celebrities, quite often they are. His camera has focused on a veritable potpourri of the well-known --- from poet W. H. Auden to comedienne Phyllis Diller. there had been talk of publishing a book on the subject of his famous faces and the University's Regional Oral History Office has taped interview of his oral history.

Bishop's interest in photography began when he was well on his way to another career: dentistry. One of his classmate's in Cal's dental school bought him a camera, and "it was love at first sight." One of his professors spotted his restlessness with dentistry and suggested that a career in photography might suit him better. "I think I rebelled against dentistry because it gave me a feeling of claustrophobia," Bishop says. "Even wide open, the oral cavity is pretty small."

Bishop gradually upgraded his camera (the first was "a dollar Brownie") and then found his way to Big Sur, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. Along with Imogen Cunningham and Dorthea Lange, they became his mentors and friends. "I guess I'd have to say I believe in miracles," remarks Bishop. "Photography's been good to me. Who would have ever thought I'd spend an afternoon someday with Robert Frost and George Stewart? Yet it happened."

"It's as corny as Aladdin's lamp, but I would shout it from the rooftop if I could: 'If you really believe in something, do it. If you really believe, you'll survive.' "

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Harrington, Lisa. "An Eye for an I: Portraits by g. Paul Bishop." California Monthly.
     - excerpts. 92, No. 1 (October 1981), pp. 15-18.

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- Photograph of g. Paul Bishop taken by G. Paul Bishop, Jr, '81
 
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