Glass Cyanotype 5 © Robert Schaefer

Robert Schaefer’s work was selected as a Work of Merit in the 2019 Denis Roussel Award.

“This photographer has perfected the technique of printing cyanotype on glass.” Jesseca Ferguson

We are pleased to feature his work here on Rfotofolio.

Would you please tell us a little about yourself?

In 1951 I was born in Cullman, a small town in North Alabama settled by Germans in 1873.  I attended Auburn University studying Architecture and Photography from 1970 to 1975 and earned a BA of Architecture Degree. Then I moved in 1975 to Munich, Germany to study City Planning and continue my studies in Photography at the Technische Universitaet of Munich.  I earned the equivalent of an MA of Architecture Degree there and began exhibiting my gelatin silver photographs in Germany, Austria, France and the United States.

In 1981 I moved to New York City where I worked as an architect as well as produced new gelatin silver photographs which were exhibited in galleries and museums in New York City, Amsterdam, Munich, Paris and Vienna.

I also took workshops to learn 19th Century Photography printing processes such as Cyanotype and Van Dyke. In 2000 the Huntsville Museum of Art produced a 25-year retrospective of my photography as well as a catalog. In 2002 I began teaching at New York University’s School of Professional Studies teaching such classes as The Business of Photography. I began instructing workshops in the Cyanotype Process for the Penumbra Foundation – Center for Alternative Photography in 2008.

In 2010 the Goethe Institute of India in Delhi produced two exhibitions of images taken in 2009 of Le Corbusier’s government buildings in Chandigarh, capital of the Punjab, as well as images of ancient Mogul Architecture in Northern India. These were printed with the Cyanotype Process and the exhibitions titled “Architectural Blue.” The exhibitions had a catalog, and I was brought back to India to speak at both openings.

In 2015 I moved to New Orleans, LA, and though I had to leave my teaching position at  NYU, I continue to instruct workshops in Cyanotype and Van Dyke at Penumbra Foundation on selected weekends during the year. In New Orleans I was one of the instructors for World Cyanotype Day held on September 29, 2018, and in the same year instructed a week of Cyanotype and Van Dyke Workshops for the New Orleans Museum of Art. In January of 2019, I was a guest instructor/artist at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA Institute). This week included an exhibition of my latest Cyanotypes – including one on glass – at the Kirschman Art Center located in the NOCCA Institute.

Where did you get your photographic training?

At Auburn University, I took elective courses in B/W photography with Professor Bill Gwin.  In Munich I took several workshops, which focused on street photography, and in New York City I took Cyanotype, Van Dyke and Gum Bichromate Workshops at the Soho Photo Gallery. Also in New York, I took workshops at Penumbra Foundation, Center for Alternative Photography: 19th and early 20th Century Cameras with Eric Taubman and Geoffrey Berliner, wet plate collodion with Eric Taubman, Carbon Printing with Lisa Elmaleh and Albumin as well as uranotype printing with Morgan Post.

Why do you create?

Creating – especially in the realm of visual art – has always been an integral part of my life. As I was growing up, drawing and photographing were major aspects of my creativity, and later architectural design was added to the mix. I am not really sure “why” I create, but I know that my mind constantly puts me in motion to create in some way.

Who has had an influence on your creative process? 

My parents always encouraged my various art endeavors, and my aunt and her husband, who lived in Chicago, IL gave me books on art and architecture such as The Bauhaus. Professor Bill Gwin in the School of Architecture at Auburn University taught me so much about framing an image before taking a photograph as well as producing a high-quality gelatin silver print.

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time. 

“Chez Mondrian” (At Mondrian’s Apartment) by André Kertész.This image is a view from Mondrian’s apartment in Paris, France to the staircase outside it. I love its composition, spatial definition, juxtaposition of forms and black/white interplay.

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?

“The Statue of Liberty Ferry” (Image: 1977, Cyanotype Print: 1997)

Before I became heavily involved with photography, I drew with ink pens
Rapidographs on white canvas, and these drawings were greatly influenced by surrealism.  So, in seeking my vision in photography, I looked for ways to implement the aspect of surrealism in my imagery  and used darkroom manipulations such as image layering and solarization – a post-visualization approach.

After moving to Munich in 1975, I embarked on a new direction with my photography – pre-visualization.  This meant no darkroom manipulation and the need to find a way to the surreal effects I wanted without it. Mirrors and layers of glass were my solution.  In 1977 I was on vacation and traveled from Munich to New York City and while there took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty.  On the ferry I photographed people reflected in the glass window of the boat , and thus they became transparent.  When I printed “Statue of Liberty Ferry” I clearly saw that my decision to change my direction in imagery to pre-visualization was working.

What makes a good day for you creatively speaking? 

A good day for me is developing  new concepts with my imagery and printing them well – perhaps with a new process.

Glass Cyanotype 4 © Robert Schaefer

Please tell us about the work you submitted for the Denis Roussel Award.

Having made ambrotypes with collodion, I became interested in finding a way to print cyanotypes on glass and found a method. It uses non-flavored gelatin in place of collodion, and the liquid gelatin is mixed with the synthesizer (the collodion is poured on the glass plate before it is dipped into the silver nitrate to make an ambrotype).  Printing cyanotypes on glass is a rather involved process, but I am extremely pleased with its results.  The series of cyanotypes I submitted for the Denis Roussel Award is printed on glass.  An evolution, my series starts with organic forms and becomes more complex with the use of negatives (cityscapes and portraits) added to the plants before exposure to UV light.

If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?

I would like to spend a day with Alfred Stieglitz and ask him about the ways in which living and studying in Berlin, Germany changed his life. I know how living six years in Munich, Germany changed mine, and I would like to compare experiences. Also,I would like to know just what prompted him to end his studies of Mechanical Engineering and devote himself to photography as well as the promotion of other art mediums in his 291 Gallery after he returned to the United States.

How important is the photographic community to you?

A nurturing community is very important to me. Such a positive environment allows me to expand my vision and work with other photographers to do the same.

What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?

Cameras of  various formats (both digital and analog) – including the one in my iPhone; a UV light box (20” x 24”) for exposing synthesized paper, cloth and glass in the production of specific 19th Century Processes like Cyanotype on overcast or rainy days or at night; a Mac Computer to adjust my images using Photoshop before printing them on my Epson Printer using archival inks – I also make my own digital negatives printing them on Transparency Film ( I use Ink Press) – imbedded with a density curve via Layers in Photoshop for making a digital negative with best density for printing 19th Century processes like Cyanotype.

Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future? 

Now that I have printed Cyanotypes on glass, I want to print Van Dykes on glass which I have read is possible.  I would also like to see if the Palladium Process could be printed on glass. Additionally, I would like to make Tintypes using an enlarger and some of my favorite 35mm negatives.

What’s on the horizon?

I am working with another photographer to produce a two-person exhibition of various Cyanotypes; dates and location to be announced, so stay tuned.

To learn more about the work of Robert Schaefer please visit his site at Robert Schaefer.

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