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Al Fisher; rendered essence of subject into exacting art

Al Fisher (left) showed versatility, shooting both on site and in his studio, where he created a series of images of Boston's street performers. Al Fisher (left) showed versatility, shooting both on site and in his studio, where he created a series of images of Boston's street performers. (File)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 29, 2009
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A street troupe caught Al Fisher's eye more than 20 years ago as he shopped at Quincy Market, and as one of Boston's best commercial photographers, he studied the performers with a more penetrating gaze than others who stopped to watch the show.

"They were wonderful, interesting people," Mr. Fisher said in a 1989 interview with the magazine Photo District News of his decision to capture the performers in a series of portraits. "I wanted to pierce the facade and find out who is this person."

Featured in a show at the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston, the images became part of Mr. Fisher's most recognizable fine arts work. Over a quarter century, his photographs were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people who paged through his uniquely crafted shots in print advertisements.

Mr. Fisher, who had also worked as art director for advertising agencies and in recent years set aside photography to resume painting, died in Brigham and Women's Hospital Jan. 9 of complications of a stroke he had suffered the day after Christmas. He was 75 and lived in Charlestown.

"There was this double level of performing going on, the performance of the performer and the performance of Al setting up the photo in his studio, so they were interpretive portraits of the performers," Nick Capasso, senior curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, said of Mr. Fisher'sseries on the clowns, mimes, and musicians. "On one hand, the photographer is trying to reveal truth, but the portrait photographer is always dealing with layers of masks. I think the ultimate challenge for Al was to show the truth and the mask at the same time."

A disciple of photography as it was practiced before the advent of digital cameras, Mr. Fisher excelled at creating platinum prints, a more complex and expensive way of transferring an image from a photo negative to paper that offers a greater range of tones and shades.

"Everything he touched was refined," said Karin Rosenthal, a fine arts photographer in Watertown. "When he had an idea of perfection, he just went for it. Nothing stood in his way."

Having stepped behind the camera after first working his way up through advertising agencies in New York City in the 1950s and '60s, Mr. Fisher brought the encompassing vision of an art director to his photo shoots.

Using a pad, he drew precise illustrations of how his assistants should construct and light scenes. When shooting a portrait, he might visit a home to look at his subject's clothing, furniture, and possessions, then send a truck to bring to his studio what caught his fancy. Placing his subject in a familiar milieu, however, was only part of the preparation.

"He also had a great ability when he was working with people to somehow capture their essence," said Carolyn Ross, a Boston photographer who was Mr. Fisher's assistant for three years. "Not the staged, 'Hi, I'm going to smile for the camera,' but that moment when they actually were at ease and he was able to show who they really were. He had an amazing way of getting people to relax while telling them a story, then - boom, boom, boom - he took the photos."

Pat Keck, a sculptor in Andover, said Mr. Fisher was "a really meticulous craftsman, and his work was just always exquisitely done."

Born in New York City, Mr. Fisher suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, and his family sent him out west to restore his health. Enchanted by the beauty of the land, he decided to attend Colorado A&M, which is now Colorado State University. Graduating with bachelor's degrees in horticulture and journalism, he initially worked as a reporter for a newspaper in Eureka, Calif., and began painting watercolors.

His father, a treasurer at an advertising agency, took a look at Mr. Fisher's paintings and helped him get a job at the New York City firm Doyle Dane Bernbach. After working for several years on large accounts at advertising agencies, Mr. Fisher decided he would rather be a photographer than an art director.

Photo assignments took him from the confines of the studio to Africa, as he honed his craft and collected stories that delighted friends, clients, and photo subjects. He lived in London for two years in the early 1970s and then settled in Boston.

"Rather than go to New York, he wanted to come to a place more youthful," said Linda Wege Fisher, whom Mr. Fisher married 26 years ago, "so he relocated and started all over here."

In Boston, Mr. Fisher's clients included nearly every kind of business, from Fleet Bank to the Four Seasons Hotel, as he won awards and became a prominent commercial photographer. His background in advertising agencies helped him speak the professional language of his clients, said Lou Jones, a photographer in East Boston.

"He seemed to live a charmed life in that regard," Jones said. "Al seemed to be dancing the light fantastic. To be truthful, I always thought of him as part of the photo elite in Boston, and there weren't many."

Adding to Mr. Fisher's gravitas, Jones said, was his stately presence and appearance.

"He knew his role in the world as an artist, as a photographer, and he didn't fail in delivering that," Jones said. "In the mode of Richard Avedon, Al looked like a photographer."

Admirers said Mr. Fisher's work was defined by his precise eye for lighting and the expansive vision that was apparent from the moment he sketched out a photo shoot to the hours he spent looking through the viewfinders of his Hasselblad cameras, then precisely crafting prints in the darkroom.

"He had the ability to interpret somebody's idea into something that was so much more than you could ever imagine," Ross said. "You would look at what he was shooting, then see the photo later and think, 'He got that from that? Wow, I didn't see it.' It was just breathtaking. Everything he did was a work of art."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Fisher leaves two daughters from a previous marriage, Sharon and Hannah, both of Odense, Denmark; a brother, Adam of Stony Brook, N.Y.; a granddaughter; and a grandson.

A service has been held.

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