Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of Robin Robinson , her work as a sense of mystery. It helps us to appreciate the wonder of the ocean.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a 5th generation native central coast Californian. My Mother’s family came to Santa Cruz in the gold rush, and lived in what was and still is an exceptional natural region. I was raised in San Luis Obispo, and graduated in engineering and music from Cal Poly, then Stanford for a Masters. I wasn’t satisfied with corporate life, so after a 15 year career mostly in the airline industry, I switched up my life to focus on the arts and ocean advocacy. I’ve been in the Carmel community of photographers for 13 years, and enjoy the natural world with a great group of artists, past and present.
Most of my photographic training has come through private workshops and mentoring, and various community college courses. I share a darkroom in Sand City, an artistic community nearby. For me, the experimental nature of darkroom chemistry leads to pathways which are magical, alchemical in feeling, and transformational in the end. I like to experiment with alternative processes and remain low-tech.
Most of my work is about being in or on the water, the mystery, and the metaphors which surface about the way we look at the planet and ourselves. I like the idea of seeing Mbut not knowing, the feeling you get when you are looking at something which you can’t possibly know everything about, and so your mind fills in the blanks with blind reasoning and unconscious associations. I leave a certain amount of ambiguity in my images to achieve that feeling. Although sometimes it’s uncomfortable, I think we learn something new when presented with this type of image.
In addition, my land-based photos are stacking up. I’ve used plastic cameras for 15 years, and continue to photograph whatever oddities and narratives I see in the world through the plastic lens. The Holga is my “land” camera.
How did you get started in photography?
My family had a Kodak Instamatic which we were not allowed to over-use, due to the cost of film and processing. I managed to use it to create stories with my brother and pets (think flying cats with capes). When I was about 12, I got caught up in the frenzy of early morning photographing in nature. My parents’ close friends, who were serious amateur photographers, would hand me a loaded camera and we’d find a waterfall at 6am. It was very exciting to me. By 16 I had saved enough money to buy my first SLR, a Olympus OM2. Soon after, I learned darkroom printing. I’ve been photographing all along.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
I am attracted to the work of Bill Brandt, Ted Orland, Sandy Skoglund, Cindy Sherman, the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists and the Surrealists, the films of Hitchcock and David Lynch, and Electronic and live music. Yes, I have a taste for both the noir and humor. I admire the writing and thinking of people like Rebecca Solnit and David Bayles. Recently, I discovered the work of Bruce Mozert, a pioneer underwater photographer who made b/w photos in a clear spring which are (although sexist in today’s mind) quite hilarious. People on a magic carpet flying through the water, someone mowing the underwater grass with a lawn mower. He had great ideas and technique back in the mid 20th century.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
I saw a simple drawing in Portland at a little church fundraiser. It depicted a man looking desperately under a rock. It was titled “Man Looking for God Under a Rock.” I love that the artist had an idea, tells a story, and projects the emotion and power of that situation with one image. It set a bar for me.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
Absolutely. I make work all the time that no one else sees. It’s about the process and journey for me. If I forget to load film, that’s ok too, it’s still an experience.
Please tell us about underwater photography, your process, and what is the perfect day for you.
Underwater photography is relatively young. I think it’s the Wild West. We are coming to appreciate a place that is unknown and happens to cover the majority of the planet’s surface. It’s kind of like the early land photographers, when exploration and expression of the landscape was vital and led to protection, but this time the ocean is desperately in need of our attention. There are a number of us in the Monterey area who have moved into the fine art world and shown different aspects of the underwater environment with new ideas and through the abstraction that is inherent in black and white. There is plenty of room for more underwater images, just as there are lots of interpretations of terra firma.
Photographing underwater heightens my awareness of the visual world down under, it makes me present and on during that short trip. You can’t afford to get distracted. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I admit I’ve used the same camera for 25 years, the Nikonos V, which Nikon made for underwater use. No housing, awesome lenses, really simple. I have one roll of film for a dive of about an hour, which is conservative in the digital world. But like with my early use of the Instamatic, I am good at using very little film. I’m in the less-is-more camp. Over time, I started seeing things differently underwater. I got away from documentary style photos of fish, and started to see space, light, and figures. I know it when I see an alignment of elements that I consider film-worthy, and it’s not a technical thing, it’s a feeling or impulse. I feel very fortunate to make images in this way.
I like the chance nature of the ocean, the wildness, the idea that anything could come out of the blue and surprise you. By the time you are 30 feet down, you have lost most color and the light is soft. I love natural light and the abstracted nature of black and white, both of which are faithful to the feeling of . The final step is creating a print in the darkroom that echoes that feeling.
The perfect day is sunny and calm in Cabo Pulmo, Baja. I’m on a dive with my long-time dive guides and friends in a marine reserve in the Sea of Cortez, and there are tons of schooling fish, preferably silver, swimming over interesting sandy bottom features. My camera is working, my body is cooperating, and oh, we are hearing whale songs the whole time! Later, we eat nachos.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
My artistic process is not linear. I work on multiple types of projects at the same time, and sometimes that confuses my organization and ability to present and package the work. I didn’t want to be a businessperson, but you get forced into that aspect of being an artist.
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or in the art world?
I think we need to get back to the intuitive image, making art for whatever it is in ourselves that resonates, not for the audience or with our heads. The result will be a universal image, even so.
If you could spend the day with another photographer living or passed who would it be?
My ten-year-old self. I would like to observe the imagination and impulses that I held in order to understand my natural artistic leanings and process. It might inform my current direction.
How do you view this time in the history of photography?
I feel like I’m standing in place and everyone is running circles around me. Hurray for digital, it’s amazing and accessible. I was an early adopter but quickly swung back into analog because at the time, printing was lacking. I’m lucky to be in one of the last generations who learned photography on film, with no other option. I learned from generous west coast mentors, and plan to carry that on as long as possible and pass it on. Even so, the perspective we film people grew up with will probably never exist again, and I find that loss sad.
How do you over come a creative block?
I take on other art forms. Right now I’m learning video and taking a creative writing workshop. I also carry around plastic toy figures and place them in scenes that I photograph. These images really stir up my imagination.
Would you like to share a story about one of your images?
I have a few images titled Moorish Idols and Sandscape. I was diving in Kiribati in the Pacific, and was lucky to be the only diver that week, so I had the guide and boat to myself. I asked the guide if we could just sit on the bottom on the sand and see what came to us. This was something he had never tried, but he was curious and said OK. So after about 20 minutes of sitting on a bright white sandy bottom at 40 feet, I had the feeling I was sitting on a sunny beach above water, in the air. Soon after, a small school of comical Moorish Idols came up to us, very close, and swam around us. I pulled out my camera of course. That dive stays with me, like a surreal meditation.
It also connected the dots between seeing in the water versus on land, and how the two relate, metaphorically. When people view an underwater landscape, it brings visions of dry landscape, I think it’s unavoidable. And maybe that landscape connection will give people feelings about the underwater environment, and perhaps that is a new way for people to relate to the ocean (which I believe is hard to relate to if you don’t spend time with it or in it).
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
In an attempt to understand my images, I study depth psychology, the ideas of Jung and the unconscious. It helped me to look at art differently, non-literally, making space for broad interpretation, like analyzing a dream. I started seeing life this way, noticing scenes or stories as if they were slow-moving images. Some of them I’d like to record or re-create, so I make mental notes.
Where can we see your work, and would you like to share any upcoming projects?
You can ask to see my work in person at Rayko in San Francisco, at Photography West gallery in Carmel, and in various group shows in the Monterey area. I am part of a fantastic Monterey portfolio exhibit this August at the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia. I’m also open to sharing at my studio. You can check my website for images and current news.
I spent a week on a raft on a wild river last year, and will start printing that series soon. It is about the water line, the energy and disorienting feeling of the rapids, both above and below the water, and perhaps a metaphor for our lives in some way.
Thank you Robin for sharing your work and your words.
To learn more about the work of Robin Robinson please visit her site at, Robin V. Robinson Photography.
Thank you to the photographers that share their work with us.
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4 thoughts on “Mystery in the Deep, Photographer Robin Robinson”
Thanks for the wonderful interview! I have enjoyed and respected Robin and her work for many years – and this interview has deepened my appreciation.
Thank you Barbara.
Robin is a good friend and I LOVE her work—a great feature, Connie! Gitta