Darryl Sivad, a Detroit native, is a fine art photographer known for his painterly abstracts and environmental portraits. Sivad has exhibited at a host of US museums including touring with the historic Smithsonian Institute’s Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to Present. His work is housed in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. Early in his career, Sivad’s Northlight Studio in NYC created advertising and editorial images for clients. Recently Sivad has produced film projects for Jazz at Lincoln Center and other entertainment outlets. When Sivad steps in front of the camera most will recognize this versatile artist from his film and television roles starring alongside Will Smith, Téa Leoni, Jamie Foxx, Charlie Sheen, Seth Rogen among others. He lives in the LA area with his wife Rochelle and son Sharif. We had the opportunity of interviewing Darryl, ahead of his exhibition at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles, opening on June 16th through July 18th.

How did you first become interested in Leica and who were your artistic influences in photography?

In 1971, my mom gave me a Jaguar V-12 and a couple of years later a Leica CL. It wasn’t long before I was more interested in that tiny camera than the exotic car – that’s when my passion for photography blossomed and I began pursuing it as a career.

I had a dear friend, Louis Draper, who was a former assistant to W. Eugene Smith. Lou always carried a Leica M3 in his pocket. The corners were worn to the brass and his only lens was an unprotected 28mm Elmarit. The front element was consistently full of lint and smudges. Somehow, with this grimy little camera and the genius of his vision Lou consistently produced images that were compelling and personal. I tend to treat my cameras with tender affection but it was the durability and the stunning results of Louis Draper’s work that heightened my interest in Leica.

I studied photography at the Center for Creative Studies College in Detroit. During that time, I was lucky enough to arrange an opportunity to meet my idol, Richard Avedon, in New York. He was kind enough to review my portfolio and compliment my work. It was a monumental encounter. That meeting let me know that anything was possible. It set me in the direction of my future. I went on to work as a freelance assistant for several commercial photographers before opening my own studio in NYC.

Please share your thoughts about the work you are exhibiting at the Leica Gallery: Wall Street. The images depict the endurance walls have over time, posing as static observers of our every day activities. What was the inspiration behind this and your creative approach?

The idea behind the Wall Street series started in the 1970s. I was on a rooftop shooting a portrait of a former apprentice to designer Charles Wilson Brega James. During a break I walked to the edge of the roof for a better view of the Manhattan skyline. My focus shifted from the skyline to a wall lined with tar patterns. After moving in for a closer look I noticed that the markings took on the appearance of a storm developing at sea. I decided to shot a few rolls of 120 black & white film. Weeks later I made a series of prints, filed them away, and forgot about them until the early 90s. The rediscovery of the wall photos inspired me to develop the Wall Street series further.

What equipment did you use specifically for this series? 

The initial photographs were shot with a Hasselblad. When I resumed the project I used a 4×5 view camera and color transparency film. The majority of photographs from the Wall Street collection were shot with the Leica V Lux and the Leica S (Typ 006) with a Leica Summarit-S 70mm 2.5 ASPH lens.

You’ve had an extensive career in entertainment and photography. How do these disciplines overlap and how did the transition from photography occur? You mentioned stand-up comedy; please share more of this experience.

When I first picked up a camera and began to take a serious interest in photography I mimicked photos that I saw in books and magazines. For a novice artist imitation is a natural part of the growth process. During the next phase my photographs were influenced by famous photographers. I recall entering a few pictures in a group show, which was held at Detroit’s Scarab Club. My photograph – Funeral in Atlanta – caught the attention of art critic Marsha Miro who wrote that it captured “the throb of a moment when talk begins.” While she could see Avedon’s influence in my other work she rightfully noted that this image was my own. Funeral in Atlanta was a shot of my grandfather riding in a hearse on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. This was the photograph that taught me about personal vision and to strive to develop my own signature in photography.That’s when I decided to move to New York to begin my professional career as a photographer. I had been shooting print ads and thought that I could expand my business by learning more about writing television commercials. So I signed up for a class. By accident I enrolled in a stand-up comedy writing course.

The instructor convinced me to take the class but neglected to mention that I had to perform in public at the end of six weeks. My first five minute performance at a New York comedy club was a success. I had no idea what went right that first night but I was determined to find out. I continued to perform stand-up. The following year I relocated to Los Angeles and soon made my television debut on Star Search. This led to appearances on the Joan Rivers Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and eventually a starring role in my own ABC situation comedy. It all happened very quickly. Photography and stand up comedy are very different art forms. In photography like most art forms the artist is expected to study and gain proficiency in private until the skill is mastered before it is performed or publicly exhibited. However, from day one the stand up comedian has to develop the art on stage in front of an audience in order to grow. It’s a very painful process. At the end of the day great photographs seen many times over become classics. Great jokes told many times over lose their magic. They lose the element of surprise.

The images, as you mention, look as if they were paintings. Some even seem as if they were “inspired” by Jackson Pollock, the late American painter. Even a “visceral” element can be found in your images (with the rusty water running down), how do you relate to these weathered patterns on the walls?

The Wall Street photographs tend to resemble paintings because of my approach. In Chinese martial arts, Fa jin (發勁) is a concept where energy is wound up tightly then suddenly released. I look for walls that contain this type of energy element. I may find it in an entire wall or just a portion of a wall. Either way, I’m looking for the Fa jin or explosion of energy in the subject and that is what I photograph.

Are there any stories behind the walls you photograph? For instance, if the wall was part of a legendary building, or a division between two cities?

These walls were not part of landmark buildings or memorials. They were simple structures that captured my visual attention. Beyond that they tapped my curiosity. What went on behind them? What secrets did they hold? I named each Wall Street image after the street where they were found. From time to time I have revisited some of the locations. In many instances the walls no longer exist as I saw them. At those moments I realize that my photographs become more than exercises in art – they become historical documents.
This line of work is quite different when compared to other work you’ve done in the past such as Ancestral Portraits. Please share your thoughts about this.
The exhibition Twice Taken Pictures: Ancestral Portraits ties the narrative threads of family and community together. It was inspired by and co-curated with my wife, Dr. M. Rochelle Sivad, who requested that I document her hometown and family. I began with a portrait of Rochelle’s Great Grandmother Mamie and Grandfather Walter. As I photographed the mother and son on the livingroom sofa I observed a ray of light filtering through the window. The light settled near a vintage photograph, of a woman, behind them on the wall. It turned out that the woman was my wife’s Great Great Grandmother Pearl. Intrigued by the oral stories that were being passed down we continued shooting and documenting families of diverse backgrounds. The Twice Taken Pictures: Ancestral Portraits exhibition was shot with a Leica M6 Summilux- 35mm ASPH, Summicron-50mm, and Summicron-90mm lens and Leica R8 with APO-Macro-Elmarit-R 100mm lens. It is currently available through Landau Traveling Exhibitions http://www.p-t-e.org/.

Lastly, is there anything else you’d like for our audience to know and are there any other projects in the pipeline you might want to mention?

Urban Memories is a collection we’re currently curating. The series contains large colorful abstracts that have a psychological element to them akin to Rorschach inkblots.

Thank you Darryl!

To know more about Darryl Sivad’s exhibition at the Leica Gallery LA, please visit this website.