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
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
upgraded his camera (the first was "a dollar Brownie") and then
found his way to Big Sur, Ansel Adams, and
Edward Weston. Along
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
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.' "
Harrington, Lisa. "An Eye for an I: Portraits by g. Paul
Bishop." California Monthly.
- excerpts. 92, No. 1 (October 1981), pp. 15-18.
of g. Paul Bishop taken by G. Paul Bishop, Jr, '81