Stillman Sawyer’s photos again featured at foaSouth, more than a decade after inaugural show, but different images on display


Art rarely travels along a straight Point A to Point B path. Often, there are many circuitous routes taken from conception to completion. But photographer Stillman Sawyer’s vision was so holistic that his work has been resurrected for a second show at the foaSouth Gallery – a little more than 12 years since he was the featured artist at the gallery’s inaugural exhibition. Ephemeral Monuments: A Stillman Sawyer Retrospective opened January 10 and will run through March 30.

It’s a stunning show of beautiful, large, stark black and white images of nature. The prints are a joy to look at, as the contrasting details within them reveal the power of darkroom printing, a process gone the way of film and negatives.

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Photos by Tom Lamb

The foaSouth gallery, located inside the Active Culture store, is currently showing photographs by Stillman Sawyer, who was the featured artist when the gallery originally opened in 2011

Sawyer, who died in 2007, had not only been an accomplished geologist and engineer, he was also an photographic artist who showed his work at the Festival of Arts.

“I spent a lot of time with Stillman creating his collection of work,” said landscape photographer Tom Lamb. “We met as exhibitors but became good friends.” The two also lived in the same Laguna Beach neighborhood. Lamb watched as Sawyer, in the last 10 years of his life, started “cherry-picking” his images and was distributing them to friends and family as Sawyer never married or had children.

“I wanted him to really start looking at his photography as a collection,” explained Lamb. “He was an engineer, so he had all the negatives and proof sheets numbered and when they were printed. It was really well organized.”

Sawyer’s photography spanned decades, including when the profession was evolving from print to digital. His work style is considered along the lines of the f.64 group, so named because the images made famous by photographers like Ansel Adams (who Sawyer spent time with) used an F64 camera aperture. This setting allows deep, detailed saturations of black and white images. In Sawyer’s obituary, Adams is credited with saying the two men’s work is deemed comparable.

Sawyer often documented the extreme locations he went to for his engineering work, including time in Alaska. He also was an avid camper said Lamb and would hop into one of his many sportscars with a friend and take off on a whim, including one time when he awoke at the edge of the Grand Canyon in a morning snowstorm and started taking pictures.

“He spent a lot of time being in nature,” said Lamb. “There was a naivete to some of the work that added to it. He was going after his own vision and his own personality. He had an appreciation of flight and space and natural forms.”

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The show opened on January 10, after receiving critical support from (L-R) Emma Zent, exhibits and events assistant; Larry Forster, operations supervisor and Morgan Matthews, art collections specialist at the Festival of Arts

Lamb credits Sawyer’s down-to-earth perspective for his beautiful images and also why so many people enjoyed being with him.

“He would spend a lot of time with people and get to know them, really talk to them,” said Lamb. “He didn’t mind a party here and there, but he wasn’t extravagant at all. He’d ride his bike and show up in flip-flops. He was casually laid back.”

When making arrangements for the collection, Sawyer reached out to his alma maters, both Pomona College and Stanford. Neither institution had the wherewithal, or space, to accept such an extensive collection. In addition to the prints and negatives and contact sheets, Sawyer’s collection also includes cameras and various photographic ephemera appropriate for the time he was shooting, from the 1970s through 2000.

“We looked to give the collections to the universities,” recalled Lamb. “We didn’t get very far. Stillman wasn’t overly well known, but it was a really nice representative collection.”

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He did arrange for selected images to go to the Salvation Army and a cancer center. Sawyer also made generous donations to those organizations, and the Stillman Sawyer Family Center in Harbor City is the main Salvation Army facility serving people in need in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.

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“Ephemeral Monuments” is the current show at the foaSouth gallery, featuring large photographic prints by Stillman Sawyer

He ultimately opted to give his collection to the Festival of Arts Permanent Collection. With 49 prints, Sawyer is the most-represented artist in the collection. He also contributed financially for the care of the collection.

“Most of it is finished prints,” said Lamb. “There are a few master prints, and some framed and unframed. The festival has some discretion in how it’s handled.”

In 2011, just prior to the opening the foaSouth gallery, there was an exhibition of Sawyer’s work of black and white silver gelatin prints at City Hall which impressed gallerist Peter Blake. When it came time to install the inaugural show at foaSouth gallery, Blake offered to curate it with assistance from Anders Lasater, who was project architect for the gallery. The show featured 13 selected pieces of Sawyer’s work, as well as a portrait of the photographer.

“Peter and I and Anders worked closely together to make that gallery what it is today,” said Lamb. “I really respect how they’ve treated that space.”

Ironically, in the round-about way that art evolves, when Morgan Matthews was named the Art Collection Specialist at the Festival of Arts, she chose Sawyer’s work for her inaugural foaSouth curation. Ephemeral Monuments features 16 of his prints.

“I felt a poetic resonance bridging the present and the past,” Morgan wrote in a prepared statement. “The display of Sawyer’s work mirrors the very first show at foaSouth in 2011, which featured a selection of his landscape photographs. Through this meaningful continuity, Sawyer becomes a vital link that grounds me, the Festival, and the Laguna Beach community in history.”

For a preview of the current foaSouth show, click here. The gallery is open from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. It is located at 1006 S. Coast Highway in the Active Culture building. For more information about the show, click here.

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