We first meet Bob at a photography workshop last year. His enthusiasm for photography was clear. As an example, one evening he went home after class and processed his photos through the night to bring back finished and mounted prints the next morning.
Recently, we where fortunate to spend some time with Bob and get re-acquainted with his photography.Practicing the craft and art of photography helps us see things that most people would walk by or stop and glance for only a moment then continue on their way. Bob Sadler’s photography shows us the grace in nature, and what happens if we take a moment to be aware of the beauty around us .
What first drew you to photography?
I was in Vietnam in 1965. Everything looked so different. The experience was so big and I wanted to record it somehow. I didn’t have much money so when I went to the PX to see what they had for cameras, the guy behind the counter recommended a Yashika Mat twin-lens reflex. He showed me how to put the film and use the light meter. I sent my first roll off to Japan for processing and what came back were 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ in Ektachrome transparencies. I had no idea what they were or how to even really see them, but from what I could see they were amazingly beautiful. I was hooked.
How does photography influence the way you see the world?
I imagine cameras, not so much as technical equipment, but more as the liquid that Shakespeare’s mischievous Puck carries with him in Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.
Oberon instructs Puck to fetch the
“…. little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”
The liquid has a powerful effect. Puck sprinkles the liquid on the eyelids of sleeping characters, and when they wake up, they fall in love with the first thing they see.
When I have a camera in my hands and bring it near my eyes, Puck’s liquid is sprinkled on my sleeping eyelids, and I madly dote on the most ordinary things. When I capture those ordinary things on film, things that are at the bottom, unnoticed, and put them in a different light, I am transformed. I’ll never see that ordinary thing as ordinary again. If I can create a print that opens the eyes of others as well, we all slow down and see better…hear better…feel better…and dote madly on life.
Who and what inspires you?
I am most inspired by visual artists who see things in a new way…a different point of view, a different set of colors, a different composition…a different texture….so different that the image turns truth to fiction in a way that states a larger metaphysical truth. Ed Weston, Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange are still my favorites in photography. Andrew Wyeth and Monet are my favorite painters.
How did the ‘Angel” series come about?
It was only a few months ago that I walked along the low tide rocks and pools in Pacific Grove, CA around sunset with all my senses fully alive.
A Great White Heron lifted off from the nearby ocean flotsam. I saw him coming and quickly changed to a 300mm lens, a high ISO and fast shutter speed setting as he approached. I fired off a few quick images as he landed in the nearby seaweed. I was really taken with him , the power of his wings, the whiteness of his feathers, the way he jumped out against the background of the rocks and sand. But my relationship with him didn’t really begin in earnest until I got back home.
I almost deleted the images instantly when I looked at them later.
They had no life at all. The color was flat. The birds were blurry and too far from my camera. The contrast necessary to make the bird stand out was missing. Clearly, the images didn’t represent how I felt when I was hitting the shutter release.
In a moment of reflection, I asked “WWWBD? What would Wynn Bullock do?”
Well, Wynn summed it up this way…“In printing, I don’t want to distort the reality of the image, but neither do I want to distort the reality of my feelings. I will go to any trouble to get the feeling I want. I don’t have any qualms about altering the image. I’m not a purist in that way, although you might say I’m a purist in the sense that I don’t want the manipulation to show. As soon as it does, the magic of the picture is destroyed.”
Clearly, Wynn wouldn’t let the reality of the image rule him! Neither did I! He didn’t have access to the technology that I do, but he would have manipulated this image in the dark room to make it say something. So, I took control. I picked out my the most dramatic image from that moment.
I converted the picture of the Heron to black and white using PhotoShop and NIC’s Silver Efex Pro. For me, that was the first step toward getting control because it made the image more abstract and less literal. In short, I turned it into fiction. As it became fictious, I could easily see other possibilities. In the moment of my encounter with the bird, I was in awe of its grace and majesty. I could hear the rush of air around its wings. I could smell the richness of the low tide. This bird was angelic. I felt inspired but the picture wasn’t evoking of those feelings.
In my experience, the Heron stood out powerfully from everything else around it. I wanted that to be reflected in the picture, so, using a paintbrush tool, I made the rocks behind the white Heron darker. I still couldn’t hear the air rushing under his enormous wings the way I heard it when he flew by me that day. It looked farther away than it was. So, I changed the frame of reference and brought him closer.
In this image, I could almost hear him! It’s a more accurate description of my experience…but, still, he was whiter and more majestic and stood out more than the picture shows. He glowed. He made my heart stop when he came by so close. And, he wasn’t just any angel. I felt him to be an angel of darkness…a powerful white light in a sea of darkness who brought me, at that moment, comfort and strength.
I made the rocks even darker leaving just enough light in a shape that calls even more attention to the shape of his wingspan. And then I brought more character to his body by defining his feathers with an exaggeration of the light and dark.
And, there was my “Angel of Darkness”.
The rewards of diving into the darkness and finding the place where my soul meets the essence of this animal had great and unforeseen rewards. Once imagined, this idea of the White Heron as the ‘Angel of Darkness’ became too rich to ignore. I wanted a body of work that brought the idea to life. I go back often to that spot in near darkness to look for this bird. He lives in the marsh next to the Pacific Ocean. He feeds in the tide pools at low tide and about 200 yard off shore in the flotsam at high tide. He seems to want his picture taken. I think he knows me now because I stalk him for long periods of time. It takes a lot of quiet patience. I have to slow down…and observe the minute details of his life… so that I can ready… and catch him in flight… when he is the most angelic.
We are intimate. I know his tricks. He is within my frame of reference. And I think I am within his… Maybe this is a waste of my time. How can I justify spending valuable time just observing life in the tide pools and waiting for the flight of a single Great White Heron?
How do you challenge yourself creatively?
I get a lot of inspiration and ideas from our local photography group in Carmel, CA call Imagemakers. There are about 50 great photographers in that group, and they are all approachable, generous, and helpful. I take on assignments that people ask me to do…even when it’s not in my comfort zone. I’m currently working on a portfolio for an extraordinary artist whose canvas is fingernails and toenails. I’m also doing a series of portraits of homeless men who are part of a program to turn their lives around. These assignments challenge me to stretch and learn to do things with photography that I would have never even considered.
In your eyes what makes a great photograph?
The best photographers I know have a rare combination of comfort with the mechanics of the camera, the chemistry of film and/or the software of the digital age, and an imagination to see beyond the literal image. Most people can be good at one or the other of those capabilities, but not both at the same time. It’s even more rare when someone has both those qualities as well as an added commercial capability. As a result, a lot of photographers are great…but unknown. All three capabilities are ideal.
Any stories you would like to share?
On a raw, foggy morning, along the banks of the Connecticut River, I set up my tripod to try for a shot of the Wesleyan University crew shells gliding by in the fog shrouds. I was attracted by the loud, carefully paced call of “stroke….stroke….stroke”. After an hour of waiting, the shells never came close enough to shoot.
Another sound…a ‘squeak’…’squeak’.. ‘squeak’…caught my attention as it grew increasing loud from my left. As the sound got closer, a shopping cart pushed by homeless man emerged out of the fog. He was sleepy, dirty, and in layered of tattered cloths.
I was an unusual sight on his morning routine. My camera and tripod blocked his well-worn cart path. He stopped.
He began a monologue about how he was also an artist…a writer really. He had spent his whole life trying to write a novel. He was a failure. He said he spent every day at the library in town attempting to write. Recently, he said he had a revelation. He was not, after all, an artist. An artist, he said, is “open to the world and spontaneously sees and connects the unrevealed… and the apparently unrelated”.
His revelation, he said, was that he was not, after all, the artist he wanted to be. He had to settle for being ‘an observer with a pen’.
As he moved past me, to my right, and gained momentum disappearing into the fog, he said, “I suppose the question for you is …are you an artist, or are you an observer with a camera?”
In my solitude again, I felt ashamed of my pursuit of the foggy river crew shell picture because I knew it had been done before. Within minutes, I dropped my fraudulent quest. I moved away from the camera. I took a deep breath. I began to let the images find me at their own pace. The riverbank unfolded and revealed itself. After an hour, the unconnected came together.
A dock and it’s poles, which had been in front of me for two hours unnoticed, was reflected in the still water to form a perfect “10”. The design was elegant, the color monochromatic. It was zen-like. “GREY DOCK” is still one of my favorite images.
What is on the horizon for your work?
More Great White and Great Blue Herons… more Agave plants….more homeless portraits…and, discovering how to use on-line media, as it continues to emerge, to learn new technique and exhibit my work to a wider global audience.
Anything else you would like to share?
That’s probably more than anyone wants to hear….
On a different note we would like to add a project of Bob’s to this post .
I will let Bob explain in his own words.
I am currently working on a project for program that supports homeless men in Monterey County. Our church, UUCMP, organized a program many years ago called IHELP!. The program organizes over 30 organizations, mostly churches but also Rotary, etc, that provide dinner and a safe place to sleep indoors every night of the month. Our church offers the second Sunday night and the Fifth Sunday night (when there is one) of the month, every month. Although our church has been very supportive, most members don’t really see the men. They drop off food. A few people prepare set out the meal and have dinner with the men. We’ve been doing this program so long and it’s so efficient that many members have lost sight of its importance. So, I’m doing a series of portraits of the men in order to introduce them to the congregation at a worship service in November. So far, I have 14 portraits. I’m trying to get an image that reflects their best selves…not the down and dirty grit that is usually captured when doing photo essays of the homeless.
I was surprised at the number of men who volunteered to be photographed. I was also surprised by the human connection that took place in the sitting and the presentation of an 8×10 print a month later. Many of them never had more than a snapshot taken of them. Many of them haven’t had another human being look at them and bring out what is enormous self-worth. They don’t see themselves as another person might see them. They were shocked at how good they looked. Others were shocked at how much personality shows through. I love this project! I’m going to keep doing it as a special feature of the evening at UUCMP on a regular basis.
I’ve attached one image, but the others are just as interesting. This young man had been at church all day, so he had a shirt and tie. When he saw this, he choked up. He said, “I’ve never seen my self like that. I’m going to send it to my mother.”
Thank you Bob for your time and your art.
To learn more about Bob Sadler please visit his site at Light Moment.