Lenswork Magazine Interview: The Dreams of Kings Brooks Jensen: This may be one of the most unique bodies of work we’ve ever published in Lenswork. You’re using a technique-which I want to talk about a little bit later-but also you set out with an objective, a premise that lies behind the images and that fascinates me. Explain to us the genesis of this project. David Robin: My wife and I have traveled quite a bit in France and Italy. Over time, I started to do more and more research about the connection between the Renaissance in Italy and what was going on in France at the same time. Also, I began to recognize similarities that were happening in the United States and in Western culture particularly with modern architecture and modern design. I became fascinated with how our visual sensibilities developed. Designers-whether of modern buildings, products or graphics-return to a thread that connectsus all in the Western world. It comes down to the basics and two individuals from history: François I of France who brought the Italian Renaissance to France and Louis XIV. Both of these monarchs had the power to create monuments to Renaissance design and we in the West have followed their lead for generations.I was photographing châteaux in France and started to look at their design more seriously. I started to realize the extent of this in Western design sensibility and that was the beginning of my photographic project. BJ: There are all kinds of fascinating implications in that train of thought. For example, this architecture you are photographing could just as easily be downtown Washington, DC, because so much of the architecture of early America was based on the vision defined by these very influential French kings; they codified what “sophisticated culture” looks like. There’s a visual aesthetic they layered on so much of our Western culture. DR: That’s right. L’Enfant was the man who designed Washington, DC. It is a series of radiating broad boulevards. Essentially, this is the same design as Versailles. Also, there was a sense that we wanted to mimic the kings and their culture. It’s ironic that this is precisely what George Washington fought against; he never wanted to be considered a king. How interesting that we built our shining capitol city that represents democracy around basically a king’s vision and then preceded to name it after Washington, the very man who rejected the idea and trappings of a monarchy. I’ve studied the work of Santiago Calatrava, the incredible modern architect who designed the buildings for the most recent Greek Olympics. These are soaring, grandiose visions, and while they are futuristic in appearance, they still speak to the idea of symmetry of iconic structures. This is classic François I and Louis XIV. You used the word “codify” and that is exactly what it is. BJ: Part of what captivated me about the context of your project was the idea that this Western aesthetic was defined in the 18th century. Back then, this was not only the dominant aesthetic, but in some cases the only aesthetic that was available to the people who lived through these times. How interesting that it still influences us today, two hundred years later. DR: Absolutely. I’m not an expert on the Renaissance, but I’m fascinated with architecture and the more I looked, the more I started seeing these designs repeat themselves. I started exploring inwardly, for example, why do I see things a certain way? Why do I photograph a certain way? It is fascinating how these cultural elements influence us in ways that we may not be aware of. It’s both external and internal for me. Why is it so easy for me to see things a certain way and so hard to get in the mind of somebody from the Far East? I appreciate the Oriental aesthetic, for example, but it’s hard for me to pre-visualize that. BJ: I think this is a particularly interesting question for someone like you who is doing personal and commercial work. DR: The interesting thing about commercial work is that more often than not photographers are brought in at the very end of the process. The photographer isvery seldom involved in concept. We are handed a layout that has gone through so many committees that by the time we get it we are executing a committee’s idea. BJ: Let’s talk about printing technique. You’re versed in all kinds of printing techniques: platinum/palladium, gelatin silver etc. DR: I’m steeped in traditional methods. I got in this industry when there was no digital; we shot Polaroids to show the client on the set how things would look. We couldn’t download a card onto our laptop and show them the image. What I loved about silver printing and traditional methods in the commercial world was that every single print was one-of-a-kind. It wasn’t instantaneous. Now clients want to take a disc home after the shoot. In the old days they’d see proofs maybe in a day. The final prints would be done in three to four days and they would get a range of prints knowing that each one was unique. They would choose one of the three or four prints that you did of the image. I like that one-of-a-kind quality from traditional methods. Everything is unique. There’s something to be said for the slow, deliberate process that happens when shooting film where you examine each step as it moves along. BJ: One of those aesthetic decisions you’ve made in this personal work we’re publishing was this wonderful and very interesting printing method which so perfectly matches with the subject. Here at Lenswork we too often see someone who has discovered some technique and layered it on top of some subject that doesn’t match. It’s the wrong technique for the wrong subject. In this case, although your images would be great as straight prints; the extra technique that you’ve applied really makes these images sing. Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you discovered it for this body of work. DR: Well, you’re probably referring to two things I’ve done from the original straight print. The first would be the application of the texture. I use as a starting point Papier d’Arches which is the French paper manufacturer that opened its doors in 1492 and is still producing paper. That’s an interesting year to open their doors based on what we’ve been talking about-the discovery of North America. This paper was being used at the time these structures were being built. I love that design element: the texture of my images is that of the paper that may have been used to create the original architectural drawings. One of the ways I create this effect when making silver images is to sandwich this paper with the film during exposure. I also diffuse and bleach using Farmer’s Reducer while printing. It gives the images a little more dream-like quality almost an infrared look. What it technically does is diffuse the shadows. This texture and diffusion technique helps the viewer see the images in a historical context. BJ: There is a third thing you’ve done, too, which is to heavily vignette the corners to create almost an aged look and to focus our attention in the middle. That, in combination with the wide-angle lens that you’ve used in a lot of these, places the images in a certain historical time. DR: You’re right. That was a decision made while shooting. It is something I use from time-to-time to convey, again, more of a non-literal image as opposed to a very literal recording of the subject. It also contextualizes it historically because in photography’s early stages, the lenses weren’t that good and they would vignette, or they would not be sharp from edge to edge. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith would burn down the corners of their prints to bring the primary subject matter in the print more as a focal point for the viewer. That is done in post-production. Vignetting in my images is primarily done in-camera. BJ: The work you’ve submitted to Lenswork has a consistency between the first image and the last image. This is obviously something you didn’t conceive and execute in a weekend. I suspect you’ve put a lot of time, effort and energy into this. How much thought process actually went on beforehand in order to conceive the project and execute it? And how long have you been working on it? DR: One of the early mistakes I made (and I think most of my students make) is to believe that the photographs they see on the wall of a gallery were taken over a weekend or a few days. Successful personal projects more often require years and years. This particular project is still ongoing. I don’t know whether it will ever be done. Many art projects never are. So far this project has taken me four years and continues to this day. It doesn’t mean that this is the only project that I’m working on, of course. There are several projects happening simultaneously and I revisit them from time to time. It is a long process involving a lot of introspection. I did a lot of research and reading before I picked up a camera. And then there is the editing process. I shot lots and lots of film, so the editing process becomes extremely critical. It takes years sometimes, just to get through the process of editing and curating a show. This is something all photographers need to consider when they want to undertake a substantial project. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with the project. The results will benefit from that. BJ: One of the things I often emphasize with students in the workshops is that every project has at lease one dead-end. It just has to. If you’re thinking it through, eventually you’re going to find that you’ve thought yourself into a corner and you’ve got to back out and take another approach. DR: Absolutely. That’s part of the process that needs to be embraced. You’re learning every step of the way whether it ends up being a dead-end or whether it ends up leading you down a rabbit hole that gets really, really interesting. Either way, it’s a process and it's all one-and-the- same. BJ: The converse of that, of course, is the perfectionist tendencies to never finish anything. Creative and productive artists always find that middle ground where they’re pursuing excellence, but don’t let that ball them up and prevent them from finishing anything-ever. DR: True, and I guess that’s the tortured perception of artists. It’s also a certain degree of compulsion. When I am done with my work, if I continue to look at it and I get increasingly unhappy with it, I need to keep working. There’s that curse (I think a healthy curse) because it keeps you improving, keeps you not satisfied, keeps you searching and that is what artists do, they search. BJ: That’s true. A good friend of mine who is a commercial photographer says that’s one of the advantages of having one foot in the commercial world. He knows there’s always a deadline and that reminds him that, even with his own personal work, it’s not a bad idea to say “I’m going to be done with it at some point in time.” That may be years down the road, as you point out, but it’s nice to be able to say, “Okay, here’s a period finally, at least at the end of this sentence, if not this paragraph.” DR: Exactly. That’s a very good way of putting it. It may not be the whole story, but it is at least part of the story that I’m ready to present to the world and then move on. Part of how I go about that is that I work on several projects simultaneously. I have several projects working simultaneously so that I can pull myself away from a project that is maybe consuming me too much-or perhaps I’m too close to it and I can’t see it anymore-so I start working on one of the other projects and then come back to it. BJ: I believe it was Picasso who said, “Ninety percent of art is knowing when to stop.” DR: Yes, and Picasso is, I think, one of our most prolific artists in history. It’s amazing what this man accomplished. BJ: The prints that are offered through you galleries…are they silver prints or platinum / palladium? DR: I have a silver collection of these images, but one of my galleries I work with (Steven Amedee) sells images much larger which I produce as pigment prints. So, I offer two collections-silver and pigment. BJ: That would imply that this paper texture technique that you’re putting into images is done digitally. That is to say, are you scanning the paper and then laying that on top of the digital image or are you printing through the paper when you make you gelatin silver prints? DR: Actually, there are several ways I achieve this effect. I shoot through the textured paper when I shoot 4x5 by sandwiching the textured paper with the film in the holder. This technique is really tedious and hit and miss. The results are fabulous when you nail it, but you have to spend a lot of time and money on film to get there and you never know what you’re going to get until the film is processed. That’s one way to achieve this effect. The second way of achieving this effect is by scanning the texture and then overlaying it onto the straight image in Photoshop. That is much more precise, much more repeatable. Some of my imagery-depending on time constraints-will be done that way, and some of the imagery will be in-camera if I have the time and wherewithal to be able to go through that process. The other way is to print through the texture when using an enlarger. BJ: There is another technique you didn’t mention that I’ve used on occasion, for those people who are interested in the technology. I make a straight image file, with no texturing while photographing nor any texturing in the digital file. Instead, I apply a paper surface texture to the finished digital file in Corel Painter. There are thousands of paper textures you can give to an image. DR: Right I think that’s a viable way of doing it. On other work, but not on Dreams of the Kings, I’ve done textures primarily digitally. I wanted a specific paper and I wanted each image to be from a different section of that paper. In other words, I didn’t want any similar textures. Corel Painter is great way to do it. BJ: I don’t want Lenswork readers to assume that you only do textured landscapes. You also do a considerable amount of work with portraiture and in fact, if I’m not mistaken, you’re doing a portrait workshop in the spring of 2010 with the folks at Santa Fe Workshops, correct? DR: That’s correct. My background is portraiture and fashion, having worked with Irving Penn back in the day when I was a photo assistant. I’ve traveled miles since then but I was originally a portrait and fashion / beauty photographer. One of my first loves is portraiture, as you’ll see on my website. That’s what I’m primarily known for commercially. Most of my work is black and white, although when I do music packaging a lot of that ends up being color. BJ: You have your finger in ever-so many pies! Traditional, analog, color, black and white, commercial. personal work, etc. It’s been fascinating to talk with you about this incredible range. I’m sure the workshop will be very interesting. I have a feeling you have a few war stories you could share with your students. DR: And wounds I could show! BJ: David, it has been great talking with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to share not only your creative process, but also this exquisite work with our readers. It’s a thrill to have you in Lenswork. Thank you. DR: Great. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.