The Photography of Art: Donita Simpson’s "Context Is Everything" documents Detroit artists


Nancy Mitchnick by Donita Simpson

Picturing Art: Detroit painter Nancy Mitchnick, shown here next to her work in progress. Photo by Donita Simpson.

Donita Simpson is racing to record and archive images of the Detroit art scene’s most important and enduring artists as she writes the first draft of the city’s contemporary art history. A generous selection from the award-winning portrait photographer’s years-long project is on view in Context Is Everything at Connections gallery in the University of Michigan's North Campus Research Complex.

She describes her project as an effort to seek out “the artists that have remained, endured, enlivened and enriched a city that has otherwise been crushed":

When I started this project I decided that I was going to focus on people who had been making art for over 20 years because I see that those people are survivors. I mean, you see all kinds of superstars in school, right? But they don’t always continue when life gets in the way. And so I wanted to concentrate on those folks who have been there for years, have been there no matter what happens -- like Detroit -- people that have really made an impact on the community.

Simpson is no novice at acquiring important images of Detroit’s artists. She attended Wayne State University, where she earned her MFA and has been working on the series since the late 1980s. She began photographing in classic black and white, but more recently her photographs have burst into color, the better to capture the essence of multihued creatives like painter Nancy Mitchnick and African Bead Museum’s Olayami Dabls. Her iconic portrait Detroit painter, teacher, and arts activist of Gilda Snowden (1954-2015) is currently on tour as part of the Outwin 2016 American Portraiture Today exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. 

A persistent hunter-gatherer of elusive quarry, Simpson often finds she has to pursue her subjects over time in order to get them to sit for one of her telling portraits. “It’s not always easy," she says. “I bet you I chase [some] people for 2 years. … I will ask people, and sometimes they say no."

Her artist subjects are often shy introverts, perfectionists, reluctant to cede artistic license over their personal image to someone else. 

“You know it’s really interesting [though] because when we [do] get together, this is the normal thing that transpires -- I sense that they are apprehensive or they’re uncomfortable … [but] usually by the end of an hour or so when we’ve had a chance to get to know each other a little better, when they’re a little more comfortable with me being in their space, then I think I get something a lot more real." 

Robert Sestok and Olayami Dabis by Donita SImpson

Left to right: Robert Sestok and Olayami Dabis by Donita SImpson.

As an example, Simpson describes the process of getting eminent Detroit printmaker and educator Stanley Rosenthal’s portrait:

I was after Stanley for months ... he was one of my advisers [at Wayne State University]. He was on my MFA committee. It’s not like we were close but we were kind of close. And I said, ‘Stanley, I really want to photograph you,’ and he’ d go ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ -- he always said yes -- but years went by! And one day I was in the drug store and I heard his voice. And I turned to him and I went, ‘Stanley how are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I know -- you want to photograph me -- can you come tomorrow?’ So I went there, and I photographed him and it was great and it didn’t take me very long and I got a wonderful photograph. And now he’s gone. 

Simpson’s portraits are characterized by images shot from a middle distance, combining both artist and creative environment within a single composition. The setting varies -- it can be a studio, the artist’s home or workshop -- but in each picture she tries to distill the essence of her subject framed by the setting. Her portrait of Robert Sestok -- a sculptor, painter and a leader in the Cass Corridor Art Movement of the 1970s and '80s -- is a case in point. A gaunt and impassive figure looks coolly out of the picture, bracketed by one of his sculptures on the left and a ladder on the right. In the background a fire burns, suggesting undiminished creative energy. By contrast, her photograph of painter Nancy Mitchnick projects ebullience and humor, and, just coincidentally, treats us to a shot of one of her paintings in the midst of its making.

Simpson is well aware of the significance of her project. “This work has a wonderful historic importance that I can’t forget about. I think it’s a lot of why I started photographing,” she says. When asked, she admits she still has a long list of Detroit artists she’d like to photograph. And in the back of her mind, she’s thinking of putting her portraits in book form, a tribute to the talent, endurance and persistence of Detroit’s artists. 

K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at

Donita Simpson’s "Context Is Everything" is at the Connections Gallery in U-M's North Campus Research Complex, 2800 Plymouth Rd., Building 18, Ann Arbor, through August 31. The exhibition is free and the gallery is open 9 am to 5:30 pm, Monday-Friday.