It was only 11 years ago that Curtis Speer’s boss laughed at him when he told her he was leaving the corporate world to pursue life full time as an artist, moving from Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles. For a while it looked like her derision had been prescient.
“I was hustling my work in Beverly Hills out of the back of my car, going from showroom to showroom,” Speer says. “‘Hi, my name is Curtis Speer, I’m an artist, I don’t know anybody here.’ I just got told ‘No’ all day.”
That was then. In the scant decade since, his photos have been exhibited everywhere from Palm Springs to Dallas, Orlando, and yes, Beverly Hills. HGTV has used his highly evocative work to stage spaces for House Hunters International. His art has also graced spreads for Architectural Digest and House Beautiful. And his haunting and eerily quiet takes on Theresienstadt Concentration Camp have been included in the permanent collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. His muse had it right after all.
On one level his oeuvre is niche-less: still lives of iridescent shells arranged ever so carefully; buoys, masts, and prows of boats; erotic but at the same time demure photos of himself; Irish castles; people going about their day as Havana crumbles around them. But what brings them all together is light. “Light is always the main subject for me,” Speer says. “It’s how the light hits it. I don’t use any studio lights.”
The light is what informed his view of Thereseienstadt, and he felt some guilt taking beautiful photos of a concentration camp — which he wanted to visit both as a gay man and as someone whose artistic bent leads him to question authority, because the Nazis persecuted people who fit either of those two descriptions. But he felt compelled to go with what the light showed him, even with the dissonance of the place’s brutal history juxtaposed against the lush grass, the arresting shapes.
Light also informs the mood of Speer’s self-portraits, which he shot to take back his body from the sexual abuse he suffered as a little boy. “I wanted to be desired,” he says, “but I wanted it on my own terms. I loathed my body so much. My self-portraits were a kind of exploration of it, of taking my power back. Everything had been coming from a place of self-disdain.” Through the self-portraits, he says, he was able to say to himself, “I am not ugly. I am not atrocious.”
What also sets his work apart, no matter what the subject matter, is how incredibly textured it looks in person, how right next to you or in front of you the content of his photos feel. Each has the intimacy of a painting as opposed to the distance that photos typically project, putting viewers at a remove. The effect is very intentional. “I was so tired of looking at photographs under glass,” Speer says. “Look at me, don’t look at me,” the glass barrier suggests ambiguously. Even the finishes of photo paper, high-gloss or not, tend to separate much photographic art from people, he comments.
Instead, his prints are pigment on cotton. “The cotton rag is porous,” he says, “so when the pigment hits, it actually soaks in. The process softens the work. If you had a photographer’s loupe and looked at my work through it, you’d see nothing with a fine edge.” It’s more the way things appear in real life, which adds to its proximity.
Lately, Speer has been experimenting with overlays to augment the effect, such as 24-carat gold leaf on cicada wings. It’s a stunning enhancement, and you can see it for yourself in his welcoming three-room gallery on two floors directly across the street from Provincetown Town Hall and the new funicular that will soon take people to the Pilgrim’s Monument—the iconic tower that comes into view from the boat as you head into Provincetown Harbor.
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