Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of photographer Bob Cornelis. Our guest juror Catherine Couturier of the Catherine Couturier Gallery chose Bob’s work as her 1st choice in our call INPrint. Thank you Catherine for your time.
His work is meticulous and beautiful. Thank you Bob for sharing your work with us.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a fine art photographer living in Sonoma County in Northern California. After getting a degree in philosophy, I embarked on a 20+ year career in the computer industry writing software and managing engineering teams. In 1998, I left the corporate world to start a digital fine art printing studio (Color Folio), one of the first of its kind in the country at that time. It was a nice blend of my technical background and interest in photography and art. My day job since then has been producing large format fine art digital prints for artists of all kinds. My wife is a professional painter and art teacher, so my life is pretty well immersed in the arts.
During that time I’ve pursued my own work as a photographer. I also spent a number of years painting, a time which has had a profound influence on my current work.
I loved the tactile feeling painting afforded and began experimenting with how I could introduce that in photography. I began trying different methods of making one-of-a-kind prints that required more involvement on my part. This, in turn, led to my current focus on producing handmade books as the vehicle for my photography. Doing my own handset letterpress work allows me to be responsible for virtually every aspect of the completed product, a challenge I find most rewarding.
How did you get started photography?
While I was still working in the computer industry, I signed up for a B&W darkroom class at UC Berkeley. The alchemy of the darkroom was mesmerizing and I was hooked. Without any guidance on how to take a good photograph, with great zeal I began taking a lot of bad ones. All this time I continued printing B&W in my tiny darkroom and I also started printing Cibachromes in a local rental darkroom.
While I have been interested in many subjects a consistent thread is that I always did all of my own printing. I’ve always considered myself as much a printer as a photographer. I like the Ansel Adams quote: “The film is the score, the print is the performance”.
Where did you get your photographic training?
My training is a combination of self-teaching, selected workshops and learning a fair amount from some of my photography clients. Being around the work of photographers on a daily basis for 20 years has definitely opened my eyes to how others see. I was almost 40 years old when I got into photography seriously so it was too late for training such as art school. I took a few workshops that were focused on shooting but didn’t find many teachers who actually taught you how to make a good image – not sure that’s even possible. My most useful workshops have been in the area of alternative process printing, letterpress and bookmaking where it’s more about technique than image making.
Did you have a mentor?
I haven’t had a single overall mentor but have had several people who have helped me progress in specific areas. I’m a big believer in finding someone with expertise in an area I’m interest in and finding a way to work with them, either as a student or a collaborator.
Kerik Kouklis was instrumental in getting me going with alternative process printing and taught me how to make digital negatives and do platinum/palladium printing. I took a workshop from Keith Carter a few years ago that changed my approach to photography completely. I became much more interested in the history of photography and began working on long-term projects rather than random image collecting. He showed me the need and benefits of immersing yourself in the broader world of photography past and present.
Diana Bloomfield has been offering guidance in navigating the world of alternative process work where she has a wealth of knowledge.
Eric Johnson ofIota Press got me started with letterpress work and has continued to help me with that part of my work.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
In the photography world I have been influenced by a lot of work in the first half of the 20th century dating back even as far as the Pictorialists. I love the work of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, Man Ray and others who were exploring the concept of a photograph as a thing rather than as a representation. This fits in well with my own focus on making handmade art objects rather than just prints.
Andre Kertesz and Josef Sudek are also favorites whose work I’ve studied. I’ve done some portrait work and that was heavily influenced by Irving Penn’s Small Trades and the decades of work Arnold Newman did photographing artists in their studios.
I look at a lot of painting as well and have been most affected by the work of the Bay Area Figurative painters like David Park, Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn. Some of the Abstract Expressionists like Motherwell and de Kooning are also long-standing favorites.
What hangs on your own walls?
I’ve focused my art collecting on monographs rather than wall art and have a pretty extensive collection of both individual works and history of photography tomes. I find books a great way to accumulate more work in a way that can be viewed and shared. Much of the wall space allocated to artwork in our home has my wife’s work on it. I find being surrounded by a medium other than my own to be very stimulating.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time and why?
I can’t really select a single image because what comes to mind is actually a series by Josef Sudek, “From the Window of My Atelier”. I don’t believe the images are given individual names but the whole series is beautiful. It combines the everyday with the abstract in a way that is mysterious yet comforting. I admire someone who can be so inventive with their familiar environment, which most of us pay little attention to.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
The first image in my Karesansui (Zen garden) series taught me a couple of important lessons. This series consists of photographs of geometric objects placed in small spaces. I photographed these for a long time feeling that there was potential but something critical missing from them. They were very analytical and needed an organic element to bring them to life. The simplicity of the subject matter was a nice fit with the Zen style theme of the project but lacked the element of nature found in Zen gardens.
At some point it dawned on me to try printing these as image transfers. The unpredictable and random artifacts this process introduces created the balance of static and organic I was looking for. It showed me that process could inform content but that it had to be done with purpose, not for it’s own sake. It was also my first experience making images into one-of-kind objects rather than mere reproductions.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
My ideal creative time takes place in my studio and, these days, consists of the act of producing handmade books for my photography. I find that shooting is hard work for me and not that rewarding in itself because it is only the first step in a longer process of printing and bookmaking.
To begin my ideal creative day I’d turn on the music (always jazz!). I’d start by making palladium prints so they could be drying while I prepare the rest of the book materials. Next I would handset some type for the tilting and text in the book. This is a very meditative process, selecting each small cast lead letter from a type case and placing it in a composing stick. I’d run several sheets through my press for use in a small edition of books. Next I’d prepare all the materials for the book itself. This is detailed precision work requiring concentration and care.
Once all the parts are ready, the construction of the finished product can go quickly. I find my greatest pleasure to be in this stage of assembling everything and watching the final book emerge.
How did the book Carta l come to be?
The Carta series came about by happenstance. For my day job I run a fine art digital printing studio so I’m surrounded by paper and constantly trimming out prints. One day I noticed that the resulting scraps had fallen to the floor in a visually interesting way. A lightbulb went off and I realized that these innocent paper scraps of different shapes, folded, curved and overlaid, could be a rich subject for a photography project. And I certainly had all the raw materials at hand! In an attempt at keeping the project as simple as it’s subject, I lit everything with small flashlights. The project became about the shapes, shadows and lines that I either composed or discovered. It’s one of my favorite project because I consider an homage to a material that I work with every day and has such significance in my career.
What was the process of developing the Carta project?
Parallel to the work of shooting the Carta project, which took place over an 18 month period, I became interested in bookmaking. I had done some handset letterpress work for my previous project, Karesansui, and it seemed a natural next step to be able to put handmade prints and handset letterpress together into a handmade book. I’m fortunate to live only an hour away from the San Francisco Center for the Book, probably the leading book arts center on the West Coast. I took a workshop on a binding method called a presentation album, which was characterized by each page being a pocket, open in the middle between the two sides, which allows you to make a hand-debossed window on each page face. I liked this because it allowed me to tip in my palladium prints into that window for a nice effect. I made my first book, By Hand, using this method. The subject of By Hand is the objects of the letterpress world, so it was a fitting subject for my first book.
A few months later I took another workshop at SF Center for the Book on a different method called Drum Leaf Binding. It is similar to the presentation album, with a pocket between the page faces and a hand-debossed window. I decided this was going to be my go-to binding structure and decided to take the Carta project, which by now was fairly evolved, into book form.
The actual process of making a book like Carta I consists of many steps. They broadly fit into two phases – preparing all of the content and materials, and then the construction phase. The first part takes much longer, the latter can be done in a day. Carta I has 16 palladium prints in it, which takes 2-3 full days in the darkroom to print. Hand-setting and printing all of the letterpress is another 2-3 days of work. Most of that time is setting the type and proofing the text on the paper I use on the cover and the inside pages. I typically then run all of the pages I’ll need for the full edition, which doesn’t take much time once the press is set up and the proofing complete. All of the paper and book board for the cover needs to be cut to size and the inside pages all need to be cut. The hand-debossed windows on the pages that will contain prints have to be made using a template that positions the window correctly on the page. Once all this is done, the materials are ready for construction.
The construction phase starts by binding all of the inside pages into a codex, or bound block of paper. I use only PVA adhesive for this step, not stitching. Once this is dry, the edges of the block are trimmed to create clean sides. The book boards and spine are then covered with paper or cloth. Then the codex is joined to the cover and spine, completing the binding. While these steps sound simple, they require a lot of concentration and care. Small errors along the way can ruin the final product. It’s actually fairly stressful to do the construction because the further along you go, the more you will have to redo if a mistake is made! Once the codex and the cover/spine are complete, all that remains is to take all of the palladium prints and tip them into the windows on each page.
What equipment have you found essential in making of your work?
I’m not a camera gear type of photographer – I have a an excellent DSLR and a couple of lenses that I do all my shooting with. But I don’t obsess about chasing the latest and greatest on that front. Having a high quality inkjet printer and a Nuarcs 26-1K UV exposure unit are essential for my production of digital negatives for my alternative process prints.
I recently purchased an etching press and modified it to handle letterpress work so that is the critical piece of equipment that I use for printing all of my text in books. And I’ve acquired a few pieces of very useful equipment for bookmaking – a finishing press, a book press and a plough.
Lastly, I discovered the tremendous utility of surgical scalpels in the studio. I find them useful for all sorts of work on paper.
How has being a printer affected your photography and vice versa?
Being a printer has been inseparable from my activity as a photographer. The physical object is all important to me. I’ve always done my own printing and can’t imagine ceding control of that to someone else, though I do understand why many people must or choose do so. I’ve always felt that the creative process consists of all the steps leading up to the final product, with opportunities for personal expression at each stage. This has opened many doors for me that I would not have understood had I not done my own printing. For example, it has made the transition to bookmaking a very natural one.
Being a photographer has also influenced my printing for others. My own artistic pursuits allow me to be more of a collaborator with my printing clients than just a service provider.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
I would probably pick Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, for several reasons. To begin with I love his work, it’s very inventive and you can almost feel how he is exploring the boundaries of photography. He lived at such an interesting time in the art world and his work with the Bauhaus was not only influential but gave him an opportunity to work with a wide range of diverse artists. He worked across disciplines and could lay claim to being a painter, sculptor and designer as well as a photographer. To talk about what it was like to be so involved with further defining the vocabulary of not only photography but other mediums as well would be fascinating!
Is there one thing that you wish people would stop doing when it comes to the creative process or the photographic world?
That is a tough question. It is easy to develop a chip on your shoulder as a photographer in today’s world. Photography as an art form has gone through dramatic and profound changes in the last 20 years that have proven confusing to both photographers and their audience. Because photography is so technology intensive, there will continue to be innovation and redefinition going forward and it will not always be clear what constitutes a “good” photograph. Ubiquity of cameras in phones, improvements in digital post processing, easier access to affordable printers have all made it less apparent what the role of craft is in photography. For me craft is central to art making because it is what let’s me put my personal stamp on the work, making it uniquely mine.
So perhaps my answer would have not so much to do with what I’d like people to stop doing, but more about the fact that I wish they would focus more on improving their craft. The ease and convenience of technology and automation may not serve us well in the long run.
What is on the horizon?
I definitely plan on continuing my focus on creating handmade art objects. I’ve still got a lot to learn about bookmaking and letterpress. I’d like to become comfortable with a couple of additional alternative printing processes. I’ve started to do some gum over palladium and I can see that the whole world of gum offers a lot of potential, so that will be my focus in the near term. And I need to continue to conceive and execute on new photography ideas. It can be easy to get too focused on production techniques and forget to go out and take some pictures!
Thank you Bob,
To learn more about the work of Bob Cornelis please visit his site at,Bob Cornelis.