Rob is a large format documentary photographer living and working out of Brooklyn, New York. His practice is centered on longer term projects often spanning the course of several years recording important societal changes and shedding light on underlying narratives. More particularly, almost all of Rob’s projects to date coalesce around the notion of an ubiquitous nature-culture chiasm, a peripheral region of existence where diverse topographies overlap borrowing from urbanism, environmental decay, agriculture, demographics, economics, and even more recently aeronautics (through his series ‘Myths of the near Future’ of which a piece was also selected for the FOTOFILMIC18 Exhibition to tour in Seoul, San Francisco and Vancouver in 2019).
Over the past decade Rob has held numerous group exhibitions internationally (Format Photography Festival, Derby, UK; Salon de la Photo, Paris, France; Renaissance Photography Prize, London, UK) as well as solo exhibitions at the Camera Club of New York (Baxter Street), Next American City in Philadelphia, the Center for Architecture in New York and at the Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Rob is also the recipient of several renowned photography awards (Joyce Elaine Grant, IPA, and the Camera Club of New York’s Darkroom Residency) and of two fellowships from the New York Foundation for Arts (NYFA, 2013) and the Design Trust for Public Space (PhotoUrbanism, 2011) which provided the framework to create the work ‘From Roof to Table’ chosen by juror Joel Sternfeld for the present SOLO V Exhibition Award and as such the focus of this interview.
As a photographer Rob doesn’t approach his subjects with a set political or polemical agenda, rather he creates a space of reﬂection open enough to invite both critical reading and aesthetic contemplation. This doesn’t mean he is not aware of how his photographs unavoidably end up inserting themselves into hotly debated 21st C. realities, he simply wishes to let audiences leverage their own deeper meaning outside of his initial context of motivation and fabrication. As such the wide photographic nets thatRob’s projects represent allow his curiosity to develop and keep strolling alongside his pictorial interests. That unencumbered honesty about what photographing means to him translates in bodies of work infused with rich photographic subtexts and wonderfully symbiotic depictions, echoing in this the untraceable nature of his favorite terrains of photographic documentation.
FotoFilmic: Welcome to FotoFilmic Rob, and congratulations on earning Joel’s endorsement of your work! As we often do with SOLO interviews we like to kick things off by ﬁrst inquiring about the relationship – inspirational or real – the laureate might entertain with the juror. I’m sure you’re very intimate withJoel’s photography (who is not?), but can you brieﬂy describe what it represents for you to be able to develop this closer tie to both the work and artist through this solo exhibition award?
Rob Stephenson: Thank you! It was such an unexpected honor and thrill to have been chosen by Joel for the solo award. Honestly, when I entered the project I had no thoughts of being chosen I just wanted Joel to see the work. When I ﬁrst opened American Prospects some 15 odd years ago, I immediately connected to the work and have been a fan ever since. It remains one of my favorite photography books to this day. I eventually bought more of Joel’s books and became more enamored by his body of work. His Oxbow Archive show at Luhring Augustine in 2008 really sealed the deal for me though. The prints were large, beautifully printed and full of so much detail. Joel’s consistent vision, the depth and subtlety of his compositions have been such an inspiration so needless to say this has been a great recognition.
F/F: Readers may not necessarily know this, but you have been assisting (and still continue to this day I presume) another hugely inﬂuential photographer also pioneering the New American Color Photography movement of the late 1960s& early 70s (also named Joel). Can you share a bit how this came to be, and how much of a positive impact in your view cultivating ‘real’ relationships with other artists (both elder and younger ones 😉 might bring to your creative process and photographic outlook ?
RS: While I no longer work in his archive, I did spend several years working for Joel Meyerowitz, and that time was absolutely the most important component of my development as a photographer. I actually got the job working for Joel after answering a classiﬁed ad. I still remember the grueling Photoshop color correction test he gave me. When I ﬁrst started working with Joel, I was a complete neophyte so working at his studio was like getting my MFA. Joel took notes on every 8x10exposure he shot including shutter speed, aperture and descriptions of the scene so he could make more accurate prints later. Just working in the archive would have been a huge eye opener, but being able to hear directly from Joel and learning not just the how, but the why he made a particular picture was such a learning experience. I still do Joel’s scans for him at my studio and I’m still learning new things from his negatives.
I know its easier said than done, but I can’t think of a better way to learn than by having a mentor. Its like the difference between taking Spanish classes and living in a country where people only speak Spanish. You just learn by osmosis. I was also lucky enough to meet some really incredible (younger) photographers in Joel’s studio who I’m still in touch with today. I think relationships with other artists, whatever their discipline, are really beneﬁcial and having a network of people you can bounce ideas off of is invaluable.
F/F: We can’t wait to meet you and Joel in Vancouver next year and surely start yet another exciting sharing of photography and life! For now let’s go back to your work in general, and to what seems to shape and sustain a genuine fascination from project to project, and as a result could be viewed as the guiding focus of your documentary practice: the transitionary, the meeting place of seemingly opposite environments and cultural concepts such as wilderness and the city (‘Borderlands’ series about New York’s natural edges), the seaside and the social landscape of underprivileged communities (‘ThereSwept Out of the Sea a Song’ series on Rockaway Beach in Queens), the social and architectural tensions between old and new through the prism of real estate development (‘Transformations’ series documenting since before the 2008 recession New York’s most rapidly redeveloped neighborhoods), or even the enduring psychological and almost archeological presence of anAmerican myth gone awry (‘Myths of the Near Future’ series on the Kennedy Space Center’s termination of the Space/Shuttle Program in 2011). Do you agree with this reading of your work as bounded together by such a constant exploratory pattern , be it an allegorical one at times?
RS: I can’t wait to come out there. I’ve always wanted to visit Vancouver though I never imagined I would have such a good reason. I think thats a very insightful reading of my work and that I should hire you to write my project statements. It wasn’t something I was really conscious of until I had a few projects under my belt, but the theme of transitions or the tensions between two seemingly opposing forces, slowly revealed itself to be a constant. I think I was initially drawn to the physical spaces where these transitions play out because they are often so visually compelling, you can see these tensions manifest themselves in the landscape. Photography, for all its limitations, is quite good at documenting change. That can be over time or it can be in a single picture. The inherent tensions that arise from change, between past and future, wilderness and civilization,etc, are what I’m most interested in exploring.
F/F: Speaking of which, the SOLO V exhibition work ‘From Roof to Table’ could all the same be seen as belonging to that supposed thematic canvas in its own way, in this case the conﬂation of opposites studied being agriculture and high density urbanism. Perhaps the notion of ‘ecotone’ (borrowed from biology and deﬁned as a zone of transition and gradual integration between two biomes) can resonate eloquently here given the new agricultural landscape described? Regardless, the project, who culminated in a homonymous book in 2012, follows the different adaptive strategies put into place in New York over the past decade to grow fresh local produce within along term perspective. Please tell us a bit more on the project background,and how you chose to approach this arguably pretty complex socio economic subject.
RS: Yes absolutely, I think this project dovetails into the the theme of the tension of transitory spaces. I really like the ectotone designation you mention – a place where ecologies are in tension. That is kind of the perfect description.
This genesis of this particular project came from a call for submissions from the Design Trust for Public Space in NYC, a non proﬁt that tries to improve city life through the intersection of policy and design. Once awarded the fellowship, I was given free reign to approach the project in any way. The more pictures I made, the more I saw the work ﬁtting into the tensions of two seemingly opposing ideas, in this case, urbanism and agriculture. I tried to concentrate on locations that felt either very urban where agriculture seemed impossible or so fertile and lush that it seemed impossible it existed within the conﬁnes of the largest city in the US. Our preconceptions of typical urban cityscapes do not usually include corn ﬁelds and beehives. That these things exist, and in abundance, speaks to the adaptability of our cities and the resourcefulness of their inhabitants.
F/F: In commenting on your the series in his short foreword statement, Joel Sternfeld calls your work simultaneously ‘clear-eyed’ and ‘contemplative’,able to embody a fundamental ‘model of naturalness’ in photography that he also interprets as ‘artlessness’, the highest state of Art. In just a few eloquent words Joel is reasserting the particular position the photographic document still occupies today vis-a-vis our cultural picturing of photography as an art form. It also cleverly speaks to the major trends that have been ongoing in the contemporary art world since the 1970s and postmodernist thinking (some would argue since Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 ‘Fountain’). What are your thoughts on this? Does this reversal – viewing artlessness as a positive for the medium – truly pinpoint the epitome of good photography? After all most audiences in this day and digital age are well aware the myth of photography as a ‘transparent window’ can no longer be trusted.
RS: I’m hardly qualiﬁed to opine on what the epitome of good photography is, but I think Joel’s comments speak to a particular approach to photography that eschews artiﬁce for the sake of description. Clement Greenberg wrote, “Photography is the most transparent of the art mediums devised or discovered by man. It is probably for this reason that it proves so difﬁcult to make the photograph transcend its almost inevitable function as document and act as work of art as well.” Contrast this with Joel’s statement that photography ﬁnds its power in its ability to describe and invite the viewer in. While Greenberg sees a photograph’s clarity and descriptive power as a hinderance to its acceptance as art, Joel sees that as its strength. I think it is telling that Joel talks about a suspension of disbelief. This assumes that the viewer is not accepting the photography as an objective truth, an assumption at odds with Greenberg’s assertion that a photograph functions primarily as a document. Arguments can be made for both sides, though of course I’ll side with Joel on this one!
F/F: Let’s strike the iron while it’s hot and also talk about that inherent tension in photography between description and interpretation, as I believe Joel as a documentarian artist was, well, undoubtedly doubly striking at it in words and with respect to his long lineage of outstanding works. Starting with a number of postwar photographers, amongst whom Walker Evans stands especially tall, the clarity of the photographic document has progressively been reconciled with the authorial eye, allowing highly detailed circumstances and events to be recorded alongside the photographer’s underlying commentary.Joel again belongs to that small set of American artists that best represents this making use of 8×10 large format ﬁlm cameras to infuse his social observations with minute details and perfect color rendition. This he ﬁnds necessary in order for a photograph to invite the viewer ‘to suspend disbelief,enter the picture’s space, and linger a while’. You work in a similar manner photographing your projects on 4×5 large format ﬁlm: do you too feel the large format practice to be necessary to formulate your work as you intend to? And where do you stand yourself on that ﬁne line between description and interpretation as a documentary photographer?
RS: The majority of the Roof to Table project was shot with an 8×10 camera. I was fortunate at the time to receive some support from Kodak via the Camera Club in New York and decided to shoot the project with my 8×10, though I’m primarily using 4×5 now. Working with a large format negative, the ﬁnal result, in both its clarity and its balance, is unparalleled. I ﬁnd the amount of information and detail a large negative contains plays a critical role in how the images are read and is absolutely a necessary component of my process.
In regards to description vs interpretation, I don’t think they are opposite ends of the spectrum but rather work in concert with each other. The ultimate interpreter of the photograph is the viewer, not me, so whatever my intended interpretation, it is almost secondary. What I am in control of is the descriptive quality of the ﬁnal image and that in many ways informs the image’s interpretation. What I choose to photograph and in what way (in this case with a large format negative) is how I give value to certain aspects of the landscape. Much of what I photograph are these often mundane or overlooked subjects that possess some sort of unique intangible quality that I want to highlight. I am using the camera’s descriptive power as a tool to amplify the quotidian, the ﬁnal image functioning as my interpretation of the landscape.
F/F: Color ﬁlm. Today. Why color? Why ﬁlm? Can you elaborate a little on the speciﬁcs that guide and inform your choice of the analogue ﬁlm medium? Do you also work digitally, and if so what’s the rationale for it?
RS: Originally the work I gravitated towards was shot by photographers working with color ﬁlm and large format cameras. So that’s how I started and since it gave me the results I wanted, I saw no reason to stop. I love the look, I love the latitude, I only hate the price.That’s the main reason I shoot primarily 4×5 now. A sheet of 8×10 color ﬁlm, before processing, is close to $15. I am interested in maybe shooting some black and white8x10, but that is going to require a serious shift in thinking.
I ﬁnd working with a view camera so much of the process of making an image that I can’t imagine not using it. The ritual of setting up the camera, framing the shot, moving back 2feet, to the left, reframing, moving again. Its all part of the making of the picture, not to mention the experience of looking through the ground glass which is one of my favorite moments in the making a photograph. I will shoot digitally for certain jobs due to budget and time constraints. Also, I’ve been working on some long panoramas, full city blocks that I stitch together from hundreds of digital shots, but that is soul crushing work. While I ﬁnd shooting digitally can deliver results, I still prefer the physicality and patience shooting analog and particularly large format necessitates.
F/F: What are you currently working on? Any news, publications, exhibitions or upcoming projects you’d like to share for us?
RS: Currently working on a few local projects in New York City which remains my favorite place to photograph.
View Rob’s SOLO V Exhibition page including a foreword from Juror Joel Sternfeld and also presenting the works of Runners-Up Ariana Gomez and Clay Jordan.