PAINTERSTarleton Blackwell Cynthia Knapp Kevin Taylor
PHOTOGRAPHERSJulia Cart William Christenberry Eliot Dudik William Eggleston Walker Evans Gary Geboy Alberto Korda Jack Leigh Kendall Messick Kathleen Robbins Arthur Rothstein Anne Rowland Roberto + Osvaldo Salas Richard Sexton Jerry Siegel Ben Gately Williams Ernest Withers
SCULPTORSBill Long Rod Moorhead
We played 20 questions with Kathleen Robbins to learn more about her life and work in celebration of Rebekah Jacob Gallery’s upcoming exhibit Somewhere in the South. Click here to learn more about the show and its other participants.
1. What began your passion for photography? When did you get your first camera?
The first camera I remember as my own was a Kodak disc camera. That would have been around 1985, I think. The quality was terrible, but I shot loads of images with it. I always remember being intrigued by photography in general. My father and grandfather were photography enthusiasts, so there were always cameras around, but it was my grandmother, Jessye, who steered me towards a creative life. She was a painter, and a prolific Polaroid shooter. When I was very young I spent weekends in her studio (a bathroom) on our family’s farm. She taught me to recognize the paint colors that make up the landscape of the Mississippi delta. She was also the first person to refer to me as an artist. Many years later, when her memory was lost to Alzheimer’s, I used photography as a way to continue the dialog between us.
2. Where does your inspiration come from? How does this fit in to your artistic process?
Into the Flatland evolved after I married my husband, Ben. We bought a house in downtown Columbia, SC. Things are comfortable here, and it occurred to me that I would likely not return to the family farm or the rural area where I grew up to live. That realization was the impetus for Into the Flatland. I was sort of mourning the loss of my former home.
In his book The Most Southern Place on Earth, James C. Cobb wrote that “in Mississippi one spoke not of going to Clarksdale, Greenville, or Greenwood, but of traveling ‘into the Delta,’ the implication being that of a passage back in time, to a setting that-‐if such a thing were possible-‐seemed even more southern than the rest of the state.” I connected with this sentiment. I photograph during visits to the delta over summer and winter break. I am there for 2 to 3 weeks at a time, and there is a transformation that occurs when I travel into the delta with my husband and our son, Asher. There is a confluence of present and past.
I tend to work in a fairly organic manner over a long period of time. I spend a lot of time looking at images and looking at family photographs. There is research, and I scout locations. My work unfolds pretty slowly. I worked on the Flatland project for 7 years.
As for what inspires me in a more intuitive sense, sometimes it is as simple as light or color. I drive the long, flat roads of the Delta in my late grandmother’s 20-‐year old Cadillac and my camera is in the passenger seat. If the light or the atmosphere is interesting I am easily inclined to stop the car.
Over a period of several years working on the Flatland project, I amassed a lot of film. I regularly scan the transparencies and print them at 7”x7”. I live with the proofs in various edits and sequences. I lay them out and move them around and tape them to my studio wall. Looking at those images on a regular basis informs my shooting practice on return visits. Into the Flatland is a non-‐linear project – portraits and landscapes photographed over a long period of time are intermixed, so it’s a bit of a puzzle. The sequence is important.
3. Where is your favorite place to experience art?
That is difficult to answer because for me it often has more to do with particular images and curation more than the place. I do prefer to experience an exhibition away from a crowd if possible-‐ alone is ideal.
There are a few terrific contemporary art venues in Columbia: The Columbia Museum of Art and 701 CCA. The High Museum, The Light Factory, The Mint, and The Gibbes are all spaces within driving distance that I enjoy. I also love the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.
Not living in a major city, it is difficult to see many exhibitions. I frequently view work on the DLK blog http://dlkcollection.blogspot.com/. Reviews of photography exhibitions are posted regularly with installation shots. The Internet is by no means my favorite place to experience art, but this blog has become a convenient and comprehensive resource for viewing many exhibitions easily.
4. Who do you count as influences in your work?
I’m interested in a number of artists and writers who deal with ideas of family and place and narrative, such as: Harry Callahan, Maude Schuyler Clay, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, Tom Rankin, Sally Mann, Susan Worsham, Raymond Meeks, Doug Dubois, Mark Steinmetz, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Mitch Epstein, Larry Sultan, August Sander, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Cynthia Shearer, Donna Tartt, and Lucinda Williams.
5. What is the most indispensable item in your studio and on a shoot?
My grandmother’s Polaroids / My Hasselblad.
6. Do you collect anything?
Asher’s collections have taken priority over mine. A while ago, I collected vintage clothes, old photographs, photography books, cameras, glass bottles, Nancy Drew books and art. Now, I collect children’s literature and toys. I can’t get enough of Oliver Jeffers’ books.
7. Who is your favorite living artist?
I could never name just one. Susan Worsham and Bo Bartlett are a few of my favorites.
8. Outside of photography, what do you love to do?
Down time is fairly kid-‐driven around here. We try to keep things simple. I love being outdoors with Ben and Asher. I love spending time on my porch with our neighbors who are like family. I love my students in the photography program at USC. My creative life and my teaching life are entirely interconnected. I could never do one without the other.
9. If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I have never been to Ireland. I would like to make a pilgrimage one day to discover my paternal roots.
10. What was the last great book you read?
I’m currently reading Cheryl Stayed’s memoir “Wild.” I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do, but it’s a terrific book-‐ cathartic and honest.
11. What is the last artwork you purchased?
As for the last artwork I almost purchased, I badly wanted to buy a painting yesterday at an estate sale. There was a young girl holding a dead rabbit by the ears. Someone beat me to it, and I’m heartbroken.
I think the last piece I actually bought was the illustration “Eggs Shotski” by my colleague Marius Valdes at the USC art auction: http://valdescreative.blogspot.com/2008/03/eggs-‐ shotski-‐is-‐free.html. It hangs in my dining room.
12. What was the first photograph you ever sold?
The first piece that I remember selling was as an MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico during the Graduate Art Association’s art auction-‐ a B&W gelatin silver print of the Tallahatchie River.
13. What do you hope we can learn from your photography? What have you learned?
At a recent opening reception a guy said to me (I’m paraphrasing): “When people ask what my childhood was like, I’m going to tell them to look at your photographs.” Occasionally, southern expatriates contact me because they connect with the ideas in the work. That’s always nice. I hope that something resonates. I hope there is room for the viewer to create their own narrative.
I’m still learning. I have learned to work at my own pace – to see a project through to fruition even when it shifts direction. It is time consuming, and it should be. The slow pace allows me freedom to reconsider aspects of a project. So, I have learned to let the work direct me somewhat, and that has been my approach. Over the course of this project there have been periods of time when life has intervened, like when my son was born in 2009, and perhaps I shot less during those periods. But those experiences also manifested in the work somehow.
14. Where do you see the trends in photography taking us?
If I look to my students to forecast the future of the medium, I’m encouraged. They are collaborative, generous, participatory, communal, and inventive. There are more platforms for sharing work and displaying work both on a screen and on the wall. I think these are exciting prospects.
15. You photograph the land of your birth. What are the challenges of documenting a world that is so familiar?
The Mississippi Delta was almost the land of my birth. Actually, I was born in Washington DC. My family moved back to the area where my mother grew up (my father is from Kentucky) when I was an infant. I was raised in Greenwood, MS about 30 miles from my grandparents’ farm.
I need to photograph in Mississippi. It satisfies something in me to have my camera in that particular landscape. I have a desire to make photographs in general, but I must make pictures in Mississippi and in the delta. It allows me to understand something about my past and my present. And it helps me understand a place that is not easy to understand. But I’m not trying to make definitive or declarative work. It is quite personal.
It can be a challenge to live apart from the area where I photograph. I feel somewhat pressed to make a lot of work when I’m there because I have a fixed period of time. But I also think the distance is beneficial, because I have time to consider the experience and the images before I return. Traveling back and forth to photograph supports a necessary rhythm of shooting and editing and thinking.
It can also be a challenge to photograph family. Criticism is a bit different when it’s autobiographical work, and my family is connected to that. It is a risk. People often make assumptions about my family that may or may not be accurate, because I am not primarily concerned with presenting something truthful or accurate. I aspire to have a visceral connection with the subject and with the viewer. My family is supportive, and they understand that the images are a sort of exaggeration or fiction in terms of representing a kind of feeling or experience. Their trust in me-‐ that they put up with my camera and me year after year is laudable.
It depends on the relationship. I’m familiar with most of my subjects. With portraits of
my family members on the farm, I usually find the space first-‐ I drive the landscape and find a backdrop for a portrait, or sometimes they will take me to a location, as with the portrait of my nephew Charlie in the Mill Pond. My brother, Steele, has an all-‐terrain vehicle that is able to traverse into areas that are remote and overgrown. He drove me through a thicket of ivy and kudzu and woods that looked inaccessible into an opening that was just breathtaking. Charlie is a sweet and sensitive kid and he was such a natural part of that delicate landscape. Photographing kids in some ways is easier for me-‐ they tend to improvise more and become part of the space without prompting or direction. Adults tend to be more self-‐ conscious.
17. You have true talent for capturing the unique personalities of the people you photograph. What was the most satisfying aspect of meeting these people?
I find it difficult to have the courage to photograph strangers. It requires a great deal of trust, really. Most of the subjects in “into the Flatland” are members of my family. “In Cotton” involves a few portraits of strangers. Because this is the area where I grew up and where members of my family still live, that is usually where I begin the conversation if I’m meeting someone for the first time. We share a familiarity with the place and often we have friends or family in common. I show examples of my work. This all helps to break the ice. It is awkward to make a portrait of someone unfamiliar, but I also enjoy the feeling of uncertainty when photographing someone for the first time. It can be exciting.
18. Your limited edition book of Into the Flatland printed by photoNOLA has been a great success. What do you think is the role of the book in the art world?
I am sequencing images for a larger book of Into the Flatland (forthcoming fall 2014, USC Press), so I have been thinking quite a lot about photobooks.I think about a project both in terms of an exhibition and a book as it is unfolding-‐ not that there is any guarantee of either of those things, but that is the aspiration. Of course, the book is very different from the exhibition. The sequence and pacing work differently. Honestly, I have more of a romantic connection to the photobook than the exhibition due to the tactile and singular experience one can have with a book. The book is more lasting.
There is an opportunity to share more images and content. The object in its entirety is important. It is an opportunity to collaborate with designers and writers. Tom Rankin and Cynthia Shearer are contributing writing to the USC Press book, which is exciting.
I also love the small artist books produced by photographers like Raymond Meeks, Frank Hamrick, and Bill Schwab. There is something really beautiful and simple about these books. These are the books that I return to on my bookshelf.
19. Do you have any future projects planned or any goals long-‐term?
At the moment, working on a new book of Into the Flatland with USC Press is pretty exciting. Into the Flatland is traveling to a number of venues over the course of the next few years, so I’ll be busy with several upcoming shows. I’m photographing for the new project In Cotton for at least another year, and I hope that will be published eventually.
20. How would you describe your work in 3 words?
Stark. Muddy. Familial.
View Kathleen’s work on her website http://kathleen-robbins.com/.
Rebekah Jacob Gallery is pleased to partner with New York University and the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) in celebration of Black History Month. All events take place on February 13th at the New York University (NYU) campus (Connie Milstein and Family Global Academic Center, 1307 L St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20001):
CIVIL RIGHTS PHOTO EXHIBIT/ ONE NIGHT ONLY: RJG will install a selected group of 25 black and white, rare Civil Rights photographs by significant artists as Bob Adelman, Danny Lyon, and Ernest Withers. The 1960s brought about turbulent times in the South as the Civil Rights era was at full height. These revolutionary and influential photographers created truthful, compelling images that range from the Selma March to MLK’s last speech in Memphis where he was murdered the next day at the Lorraine Hotel. All Civil Rights era photographs will be available for purchase.
SCREENING OF Freedom Riders tells the story about the volunteers who participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961. The movement that was made up of an incredibly diverse group of people who risked injury, arrest, and death to bring the fight against Jim Crow laws out of the courts and into the streets. Freedom Riders features incredibly potent imagery including previously unseen amateur footage of the bus that was firebombed in Aniston, Georgia.
PANEL DISCUSSION: Immediately following the screening, NYU/ NEH will host a panel discussion featuring a prominent Civil Rights-era historian, a photojournalist and Rebekah Jacob, expert in Civil Rights-era documentary photographers and photojournalism in the American South.
READ MORE ABOUT THE EVENTS AND RSVP ON THE NEW YORK UNIVERSITY WEBSITE!