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Bill Jacobson

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Bill Jacobson
(1955 - )

Bill Jacobson was born August 20, 1955 in Norwich, Connecticut.(1) He became interested in photography in his early teens when he encountered a book of Diane Arbus' photographs. Soon thereafter, his father gave him a 35 mm camera, and Jacobson became a dedicated amateur photographer. After entering Brown University, Jacobson began to attend photography workshops at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he spent his junior year studying photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.
After graduating with his BFA from Brown in 1977, Jacobson moved to Seattle and worked taking photographs and doing layout for the Seattle Gay News. He also worked part-time for a commercial photographer. Jacobson returned to school at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1970s and graduated with his MFA in photography in 1981. Some of the first blurry images, which were later to become his trademark, appeared in the show of his final MFA project. After graduation, Jacobson relocated to New York where he still lives.
Jacobson's work was not well received when he first arrived in New York, so he supported himself by taking pictures of other artists' paintings and sculpture for clients such as the Pace Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Dia. On New Year's Day of 1989, Jacobson resolved to resume working on his own art. He began taking out-of-focus photographs outdoors, and over the next few years he produced a series of hazy, almost nonexistent landscapes, the Interim Landscapes. Gradually, the figures in the landscapes began to interest Jacobson more than their surroundings. He began first to isolate them out of the landscape photographs, and then began producing a series of misty portraits of men against white paper which he called Interim Portraits. Like his landscapes, details of these portraits are lost in an impalpable haze and the features of his individual subjects are indicated only by smudgy shadows.
Jacobson's Interim Landscapes and Interim Portraits were well received and by the early 1990s, his career began to accelerate. In 1994, as an outgrowth of his earlier portrait series, Jacobson began working on a group of portraits, called Interim Couples, which addressed issues of gay identity in the 1990s. Like the Interim Portraits, these black and white photographs were printed on color paper to obtain a slight sepia tone.(2) Indistinct gray figures are set against a white background, emphasizing shape and gesture rather than detail. Jacobson has said of this series: "I wanted to communicate the demise of the body, and transcendence. The diffusion of the image implies dispersion of the physical frame, the bodily shell. Life implies death."(3)
Jacobson's latest, and ongoing, project is his Songs of Sentient Beings series which he began in 1994. For these photographs, Jacobson has replaced his misty white background with a shadowy black ground from which pale figural shapes emerge. Like the earlier Interim Portraits, in these ghostlike photographs detail is replaced by evocative shapes produced by the play between light and shadow.
Jacobson's work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, predominantly in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and London. He has participated extensively in both one-man and group exhibitions since the early 1980s. New York has been his primary exhibition venue, particularly the Julie Saul Gallery, Richard Anderson Fine Art, and the Amy Lipton Gallery. His work has been reviewed by the Village Voice and the New York Times.
Jacobson lists as his influences a variety of artists including Felix Gonzales-Torres, Seton Smith, and David Wojnarowicz. His work has been compared with that of the "fuzzy school" of Barbara Ess(4), and the turn-of-the-century American Pictorialist photographers.(5) Jacobson's photographs explore the issues of anonymity, identity, and denial surrounding homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. As well, his works address broader themes such as the fragility and mystery of memory, and the transience of life and loss.(6) Jacobson has stated that his work "...refers to the known and unknown; to the well, the dying and the dead and to the fading of our memories and the recurring of our dreams."(7) "It's about coming together and letting go. No matter what one's sexual orientation, we all confront the transitory nature of desire, of relationships, and of life itself. Nothing is in a fixed state."(8)

(1)The following information has been compiled from: James Cary Parkes, "Looking Beyond Loss", The Pink Paper, February 15, 1995; Simon Watney, "Bill Jacobson", Artforum, April, 1995; Anastasia Aukeman, "Coming Together and Letting Go", ARTnews, October, 1995; Vince Aletti, "Not Fade Away", Village Voice, March 5, 1996; artist's vitae; information on file at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1996 (2)Watney, 1995 (3)Quoted in Aukeman, 1995 (4)Aletti, 1996 (5)Aukeman, 1995. "Intentionally or not, Jacobson's art training shines through in his photographs, with their allusions to turn-of-the-century Pictorialist photography. But if the psychological intensity of his portraiture is reminiscent of the early Symbolists, the style is different. Traditional notions of the male figure are complicated in his work by issues surrounding gay desire in the age of AIDS." (6)"My work is not intended to be a memorial to people who are dying, and is not really a documentation of AIDS, but works more as a parable or a metaphor for how our minds work, how we deal with reality and the tensions that arise when memory fades and suppositions or even fantasies take a place." Quoted in Parkes, 1995 (7)Quoted in Parkes, 1995 (8)Quoted in Aukeman, 1995

M. Bullock 10/09/96

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