Buckeye Pearl © Roger Aguirre Smith
Buckeye Pearl © Roger Aguirre Smith

We met Roger Aguirre Smith during a presentation of his work at the home of Kim and Gina Weston.   We enjoyed the depth of his images and the joy he expressed as he described the various darkroom processes he utilizes to craft his images.

On viewing his photography, one sees a different view, a different focus.  Roger is a photographer who truly enjoys the process of crafting photographs.  From the capture of the image, through the darkroom process, his reverence for the art of photography is apparent in his images.  It is a pleasure to bring you a conversation in three parts with Roger Aguirre Smith.

What first drew you to photography?

My ego, a feeling of accomplishment, and an unknown sense of peace.

My ego:

I am not sure I was drawn to it in as much as I was encouraged to pursue it.  I borrowed a K1000 35mm camera from my Mom for a 2 month tour of national parks I was taking.  I did not know how to use the camera other than to make sure the meter was “in the middle”.  Whatever button or dial got me there was fine with me.  What prints turned out, were yellowed by the age of the film I had used.  Despite that, my family responded favorably to the images.  They encouraged me to keep at it.

My dad bought me a Olympus point and shoot shortly thereafter and I continued to fire away at the encouragement of family and friends.  I was motivated by the praise.

Sense of accomplishment:

The owner of a large ranch I had been working on outside of Mt. Shasta happened to see one of my snapshot greeting cards and asked me if I would consider making a book-style portfolio of fine art color prints. The task was to spend a year with a camera, while doing my daily ranch chores, and capture the annual cycle of the ranch landscape.

With the retainer I received for this project, my wife and I drove to Medford, Oregon (the closest camera store) and I bought a Elan 7 35mm camera, a tripod and some Velvia slide film. It was one of my most humbling experiences. I cried when I got in the car holding the items I had just purchased.  I had spent a lot of money by our standards.  I had earned money, or was going to, based on a skill I had and turned around and invested that money into my potential.  This was a first.  During that year, I figured I best learn how to use a camera so I took a Black and White photography class at the local junior college.  My teacher was James Gilmore.  He was the perfect teacher for me in that he just let me go for it without any need to control…he allowed me to explore and create.  As long as I had something to show when portfolios were due, I could work on whatever I wanted, with whatever tools I wanted.

Sense of peace:

I spent countless hours photographing around Mt. Shasta then rushing to school to develop my negatives then an equal time printing.  I would be the first one in the darkroom each morning and often the last to leave.  The sound of the darkroom ventilation, the trickle of the print washer, the smell of fixer…the tactile and sensual experiences of working in the darkroom. The test strips, filtration, the burning and dodging and, as most darkroom printers will attest, the magic of silver halide as it reveals your vision on a film or paper emulsion. Pure magic. Pure joy.

I remember one of my first printing attempts:  An old metal lunchbox set diagonally next to a coffee can filled with old tools…both raked by sunlight entering through our barn door. Pretty high contrast, I had to hold back the densities in the shadows and also make a cutout to further pull out the shadow detail. The specular highlights were brutal so burning those down was difficult for me.  What I remember most about that moment was that I felt like I knew what I was doing even though I had never done it before.  I had done this before…a sense of deja vu if you will.  It was my first feeling of natural potential.  This, in my early thirties, was significant.

It was also at this time I begin to feel something unknown to me.  Peace.  Life has always been a struggle for me, I never really had an outlet or resolution for this struggle.  What  previous attempts were made proved to be very unhealthy.

Working in the darkroom,  being out in the woods photographing, composing a macro shot of a derelict train part or setting up for a pre-dawn shot,  I was at peace, my mind was quiet.  This is what motivated me to learn more about the craft of photography. This is what continues to motivate me to deepen my experience within this craft and deepen my understanding of the potential of this meditative or alpha state…or dare I suggest,  state of prayer.

How does photography influence the way you see the world?

Photographers observe at a hyper level…all artists do.  It is overwhelming at times.  I cannot walk down my driveway without marveling over the detail of a fallen and decayed sycamore leaf.  The exquisite grace of its veins, the micro tonal separation, the textures, the colors.  You want to capture every moment of light as it shifts throughout the day.  Color, tone, texture, shape and light.  It is all around us all the time.  Indoors or out, inanimate or animate.  The same holds true with music: color, tone, texture, shape, and light.  I listen to music and I try to separate the “tones” of the arrangement, the individual parts and instruments or associate a color with the vibration of each part.  You begin to feel the material the instrument is made of.  It is an exhaustingly rich human experience.

Photography has given me a connection to the world I did not have before.  When you get up prior the first light, hike out to a location, set up and wait, life begins to reveal itself to you. You become aware of the minute sensuality of the moment.  An awareness that would not exist had you just walked by without stopping your body and mind.  This is that meditation I was talking about.  Photography demands a certain level of awareness.  It is the awareness of what is immediately in front of you, surrounding you, and within you.  The slightest breeze across the hairs on your arm, the slightest change in light or luminescent quality of your subject matter, or the scurry of a mouse through frozen blades of grass. These moments are all around us all the time.  We just do not slow down enough to experience them.  Enter photography.  I will say that the act of photography can be a burden.  You always want your camera with you.  You panic if you do not for fear of missing the sweet light or passing moment.  In 2011, I did a two-week solo backpack trip along the John Muir Trail.  After much internal struggle I chose not to take a camera—no camera in arguably one of the most beautiful and remote places in the U.S.  I wanted to enjoy the light, to know I could enjoy the light without the need to “capture it”.  The idea of being a part of the light and not apart from it.  The act of taking a photograph comes between you and the subject.  Capture that moment of light, breathe it in and then let it go without the fear that it will never happen again.  I repeated that exercise on a backpack trip this year with my wife and have come to the conclusion that I will never NOT take a camera with me again.  Photography is how I communicate.  Having no images from these trips left me with no way to communicate the experience.  A photograph succeeds where words often fail.

Sometime during these years as a photographer I came up with a saying that I am quite proud of, “Seek the beauty that surrounds you and breathe deeply”.  This is how photography continues to influence my life.

Who or what inspires you?

I am struggling with this question.

Camaraderie within the photographic community is inspiring.  It helps me to place one foot on front of the other on a daily basis.  Whether it is a get-together with photography friends up and down the west coast or a monthly print critique with The Image Makers of Monterey, inspiration comes from these relationships.  That camaraderie offers rich rewards.

Almost every photographer I meet or artistic expression I experience inspires me to learn more about creativity as a means of communication and balance.

A beautifully executed print inspires me.  If the print creates its own light I am inspired.  If the image has a strong storyline I am inspired.


Bruce Barnbaum’s print, “Basin Mountain – Approaching Storm,” continues to inspire and affect my sense of fantasy—the strong push and pull of exaggerated space.

Martha Casanave’s Coastal Pinhole series, a masterfully told story and presented with equal skill.

Per Volquartz, he was an amazing printer—traditional in the sense of technique, masterful in his execution and contemporary in his vision.

I am still struggling with this question.

O.k.  I am rephrasing the question—“What takes my breath away?”

I mentioned the work of Bruce, Martha and Per.  I am still taken breathless by their work despite the number of times I have studied it.  The cohesiveness of their vision, masterful storytelling and craftsmanship.  As cliché as it might be, Ansel’s “Clearing Winter Storm,” still takes my breath away.

I worked at a fine art photography gallery in Carmel for two or three years.  I consigned in prints and kept track of the inventory.  One day a Ruth Bernhard “Sand Dune,” came in on consignment.  Ali Wood and I were standing together staring at this print.  We both looked at each other…breathless.  Not only was the image striking, but this particular print was one of the most exquisite prints I had ever seen.  There was so much light coming off of that print.  I have seen other prints from that same negative but this particular one was off the charts.  It was its own source of life.

Walking out into a field at Mission San Miguel last year, I lost my breathe when I came around the east side of an old and stained racquetball court.  What I saw was an abstract image, out of focus and moody…something that gave the illusion of a 30’s era dilapidated city or streetscape.  I was transported into the scene.  I was so excited about that negative and very pleased with the print, “Mass and Shapes One,” 2011. Breathless over a racquetball court for god sake, how do you quantify that?

Photographing with a buddy of mine down south one day, I came across this flat steel sculpture with an intentional sanded texture to it.  I was so excited because I could feel the potential.  The sculpture was quite large but my eye was drawn to a 3 inch by 3 inch section of it.  There were at most, two stops of measurable tones but I knew something was there.  Because it was a flat surface and the macro nature of the shot—bellows fully extended—focusing on my ground glass was difficult.  Metering too was speculative at best because I knew I needed to expand my negative during development,  but was not quite sure where to place the tones so as to not blow out the potential higher densities.  I also had to calculate the possibility of further tonal expansion after development via a selenium bath for the negative, print filtration and localized bleaching of the print.  All this going on inside my head furiously while I waited for the 2 1/2 minute exposure.  I was so excited about the possibilities.  I was thrilled with the final print, “Texture and Light Five,” 2011.

So I guess my answer to what inspires me would be moments.  Moments not calculated nor expected.  Moments of breathless response.  Moments with people, moments in places, moments observing objects, and moments observing light.  Said another way, inspiration comes from subtle moments that help me to place one foot in front of the other, and also from the moments of a pure creative response that surges through your body.  Said yet another way…with more drama, subtle moments that keep me walking through the desert and powerful moments of drinking from the well.  My work is a collaboration of those moments.

Roger will be doing portfolio reviews at The Center for Photographic Art in Carmel , CA .  Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thank you Roger for your thoughtful response and your art. The conversation will continue…

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