About the Photographer
'I was born in the mid-1960s, which makes me barely removed from being a baby-boomer; I guess that officially makes me one of the first Generation-X'ers. I first seriously pursued photography while stationed in the U.S. Army in Germany during the 1980s. There, I was encouraged by a photographer who ran the photography craft shop on post, Jeffrey Cate. Along with a German friend, Klaus Ditte - who is today a professional photographer in Lauffen, Germany - Jeff was extremely influential in teaching me darkroom techniques, composition and lighting.
'It was in Germany that I first became aware of the composition of an image; Composition - the placement of and the relationship between objects - is "the thing" in photography. A picture can be grainy, poorly lit, or the negative can deteriorate over time (particularly if colour film). But, if a shot is well-composed, then that's 90% of the picture. It was also in Germany that I was exposed to the superb black-and-white films and warm-tone papers produced by Agfa. Unfortunately, in America, people buy Kodak almost as if by involuntary reflex. Agfa is almost unheard of in the U.S.
'One area in which I had needed little training was shooting in black-and-white. Ever since I got my first 126 instamatic camera when I was six years old, I preferred black-and-white over colour film; Intuitively, I learned to think in terms of light and shadow, rather than trying to "reproduce the reality" of colour. Often, I would go to People's Drug and buy a cartridge of Kodak 126 Verichrome Pan, shoot all twelve exposures in an hour or so, then run back to the drugstore to drop off the film. I believe that today - with black-and-white film being a specialty item that can often only be found in camera shops - kids have less exposure to the alternative way of looking at the world that black-and-white offers.
'It was probably my preference of black-and-white that drew me to the movies; As a photographer, I wanted to capture in frozen form the same sense of style and drama that the great movie makers put up on the silver screen. My chief influences were directors and cinematographers influenced by the German Expressionist school: Karl Freund (director of photography, Metropolis, 1925; M, 1930; Key Largo, 1948), Alfred Hitchcock (most notably Notorious, 1946 and Vertigo, 1958, my colour holy grail) and Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, 1938; The Big Sleep, 1946). The reader will note their influences on my works Licht und Schatten (1986), Dark Side of Beauty (above, 1987) and Grain Elevator (below, 1999). My most obvious homage is to Hitch, with Back in Your Gilded Cage, Melanie Daniels (2000).
'My main influence in colour photography is Natalie Kalmus, who was the genius behind the Technicolor corporation for many decades. All the great Technicolor movies from the 1930s through the 1950s bear her master touch: The rich saturation, the vivid hues, the sense of translucent light presupposed by Vermeer and Dali were achieved under her careful supervision. This in itself is almost a dangerous confession: "Serious" colour photographers (and, there are still those who argue that "serious colour photographer" is a contradiction in terms) have long argued that colours should be muted, not exagerated and not impose upon the composition. Saturated colour is regarded in artsy circles as "vulgar" and "artificial." Well, who cast that arbitrary rule in stone? Colour photography must be primarily about hue, not tonality (though tonality is of vital, though secondary, importance), else why use colour film? The notion that colour photography is only "serious" so long as the colours can be found in nature (which was an idea promoted by Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter, not to detract from their respective masterful works) is such an absurdity that it should be rejected on its face. Colour photography ought to be about screaming artificiality and garish saturation! The prejudice against the magnificent unnaturalness of colour photography should have vanished the moment that the art snobs discovered that the devices of the black-and-white "purists" - the red and yellow filters, the platinum and paladium papers, the selenium and sepia toners, the "zone system", and the various darkroom tricks - are no more true representations of nature than the most saturated and garish Max Factor lipstick ad printed in a 1950s copy of Life magazine! Both are manipulations of the natural, and it's high time we start appreciating black-and-white and colour photography as such, rather than upon some misleading and unattainable standard of "purity."
'Unfortunately, up until recently negative colour film that could mimic the control and saturation of the Technicolor-IB process was inconvenient (waiting forever for the Kodachrome slides to come back from the sole processor, in Fairlawn, New Jersey), or unstable at best (earlier, dyes in Fuji and Kodak Ektar 25 negative films faded and yellowed rapidly) and there was never any wholly satisfactory process for printing transparency film, which always have been more stable. Now, however, Type- R technology has advanced so much that prints are faithful to original colour. There are also many more superb colour films, in particular Agfa Ultra 50 negative and RSX-II 50 transparency and Fuji Velvia 50 transparency films. The type-R print, La Vernia Drugstore was printed from Agfa RSX-II.
'After I was discharged from the Army, I enrolled as a photography major at Shepherd College in West Virginia in 1988, studying under the talented Maryland photographer Benita Keller. More than anyone else, I am indebted to Benita for having the integrity to push me, but in my own direction; so many artists would rather have artistic "heirs," but Benita is secure enough in her own abilities to help her students mine the hidden talents within themselves.
‘In 1989, I transferred to Hunter College, New York, where I studied photography with the late renowned photographer Mark Feldstein, author of Unseen New York. Professor Feldstein had a particularly intellectual approach to photography, and it was from him that I gained an appreciation and understanding of the communicating through visual ideas.
'I began hitting the road in my beat-up 1977 Toyota before attending Hunter, documenting the remnants of roadside civilisation along the old U.S. highways on the East Coast of the United States. I wasn't very familiar with Walker Evans - the great Depression-era photographer - at this point, though I was unconsciously taking photographs similar to his great works. Rather, I took my cue from movie directors of the 1980s' depictions of small-town and backroads America: Tim Burton (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure), Robert Harmon (The Hitcher) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet). Instead of "formal education," I picked up technical advice and darkroom techniques by picking the brains of hobbyist shutterbugs, newspaper photographers and photo lab technicians.
'It wasn't until the 1990s that I started giving masters of photography more than a glance. Instantly, I fell in love with Walker Evans' straightforward images as well as the stylistic, sheer beauty of Alfred Stieglitz' Manhattan skylines. I found a further kinship with an unsung industrial photographer of the 1950s, O. Winston Link, whose chronicle of the last days of steam on the N&W Railway is one of the greatest artistic and technical achievements of the 20th century. And, to me, Robert Frank's The Americans is an artistic revolution of beautiful simplicity, quiet sadness and poignant dignity. It is the photographic counterpart to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America: America as seen through the discerning eyes of a sympathetic foreigner.
'As the reader can probably tell, I don't eschew influences. I rather believe that if an artist lets himself be influenced at a subconscious level, then one can be true to his own self as an artist. I don't set up a shot of a landscape thinking "How would Walker Evans or Albert Renger-Patzsch have taken that shot?" But, if I find a tinge of their composition or stylization evident in one of my prints, I think "okay, that's cool."
'For many years - up until 1999, in fact - I worked strictly in the 35mm format. My mainstay up until 2002 was the Ricoh KR-5, with f2/ 50mm lens. Though it is an "entry-level" camera, it is quite clear that even with a simple camera, one can take extraordinary shots. Lately, though, the Ricoh has found a new home, in the hands of a photographer you don’t know by name now, but you soon will. Thank you, Ashley Hernandez, for giving my old warhorse a worthy stable; I couldn’t let some anonymous buyer on e-Bay abuse it by feeding it a steady junk-food diet of Kodak Max 400.
‘Lately, I use another manual 35mm, a Nikon FM-3A body, with some choice “golden age” Nikkor glass from the 1960s and 70s.
'A friend, however, suggested that I was holding myself back, even though I was quite satisfied with shooting in 35mm. An entire new world of imagery has opened up for me by another warhorse manual camera, the Hasselblad 500C medium format camera with f2.8 80mm Zeiss Planar lens. The 500C has made me rethink composition, inasmuch as it produces a square negative (with a standard camera back), rather than a rectangular image that is typical for 35mm work. Many photographers find the square format constricting and thus use a 645 back in order to make vertical/horizontal images. To me, that's defeating the purpose; most medium format is unique for forcing photographers to conjure images on a square canvas. In doing so, I have found - for example - that a more powerful statement of height can be produced by working within the viewfinder, rather than by taking the easy way out of positioning the frame vertically.
'Currently, I work out of Philadelphia and New York, having spent the past seven years in San Antonio, Texas. However, the Southwest is where my photographer's heart is, and I am still represented by Sonja Heldt-Harris at the Rebecca Creek Gallery near San Antonio, which is exclusively dedicated to photography. I could live and die in Texas, never leaving the state for the next 50 years, and always have something new to my eyes to shoot.
'The Southwest is still so new and fascinating to me. The colours seem so much more striking down there than in the Northeast - so I am finding myself buying almost as much colour film as black-and-white. On the other hand, the skies are so big and wide that the lighting they provide a landscape almost begs for the subtle gradations of grey found in a film such as Agfa Pan 25. I am trying to find my own way of documenting this Southwest, and to the degree that I am successful, I am satisfied.'
Robert L. Jones
Philadelphia, October 2003
Portrait of Robert Jones, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 2007. Photograph by Lori V.M. Montoya.