Exhibitions, Interviews, PHOTOGRAPHY

Interview with fine art photographer David Roberts

A SENSE OF PRESENCE

David Roberts uses a view camera with a 1.6 metre bellows and a 21¼-inch lens to make richly detailed, hand-crafted images. In 2007 he was granted the rare privilege of a portrait session with the Dalai Lama during one of His Holiness’ regular visits to Australia. The photographs, enlarged to greater than life size from 20″ x 24″ negatives, have been on show at the Customs House in Sydney for the last three months. Angus McDonald caught up with David in Melbourne to ask him about his approach, and about the experience of photographing His Holiness. 

How did you come to large format photography?

Large negatives give you the technical underpinnings to be able to support whatever vision it is that you have. If you’re starting off with a really small piece of film and you enlarge that, or if you’re starting off with a very small digital file on a sensor, and you enlarge that to very grand proportions, it doesn’t take long before technically it falls apart. Basically I think a sense of presence comes out of the prints that doesn’t come out of an enlargement. So that’s why I bother with a lot of the cumbersome, slow stuff.

Because of that detail that’s available?

It’s not just detail. There are basically three things in a technical way. You have tonality, you have resolution and you have detail. You have smoother tonality and the detail is endless – you can put your nose right up to them and you don’t lose detail, and the resolution kind of speaks for itself.

What’s the procedure of working with one of these cameras?

I have a card that gives me the sense of what I’ll be seeing through the camera. It’s a card with a hole in it, and I’ll hold that at a distance from my face so that I’ll see what the lens is seeing, I’ll find what it is that interests me to photograph, and then I’ll get the camera and I’ll set it up. The whole setup procedure takes probably around ten minutes – nothing is quick in that way. Then you just do your focusing and your composing. There’s nothing automatic about these cameras so you have to manually measure the light, then you set your speed – your shutter, if you will, except on this old lens there is no shutter. In this case I was using a type of shutter that’s about 100 years old, it’s called a Packard shutter. You have a little bulb that you squeeze in your hand and it opens up and closes.

What was the shutter speed?

The shutter speed in that case was about half a second.

So it’s not exact?

No. You get it as close as you can, but you have to have some latitude with those old kinds of measurements.

You adjust the exposure in the printing?

In the printing as well as the developing of the negative. When I develop the negatives I actually have a light that I can inspect them by a little bit, so I can get an idea of how much development it needs, and I can either extend it or cut it back. When you’re about three fourths of the way through normal development, I have an old Kodak bullet light, they call it, it has a round, very dark green filter with a 15 watt globe in it, so it’s very dim. Then I can look through it, hold the film up with the light maybe two metres away, then I just run my hand back behind the film and that gives me sort of a shadow, and if I can see the highlight details through there, I know approximately where they need to be, so I can tailor the negative. Time and temperature is the traditional method, but this gives you a bit more control. Photography is a visual thing, I don’t think it necessarily stops with just making the photograph. If I can visually gauge where the negative is during developing, that’s another nice thing. Like in this case with the old shutter, it’s a bit inexact. Even if you have a whole bunch of really beautiful equipment, does everybody calibrate their shutters ahead of time? No. There are variables. Maybe a cloud passed over since the time when you measured the light to see what you needed. You have those kinds of incidental unknowns, this allows you to compensate for that kind of thing. And then when you print it  you also have some control over that end as well.

How long have you been doing this style of photography?

Just about ten years.

And how did you learn it?

Self taught. Read lots, made lots of mistakes.

Where did you get the camera from?

Most of them I’ve gotten off eBay. Several of them are 80 to 90 years old.

Do you find that film has a visual advantage over digital – do you find there’s a different look to it? 

There is a different aesthetic to it. I don’t think you can really say one’s better than the other, you can say they’re different. They have different purposes, different uses.

How would you describe that difference?

I find that film has more of a modelling effect to it. If you’re looking at a portrait for example, those silver halides that are embedded in that gelatin, it’s almost like there’s a three dimensional quality to it.

Do you ever use digital?

I don’t have a digital camera as such but I use digital to be able to put things on the web. I’m not anti-technology at all – especially if it’s a Mac – but I don’t because part of what I want to do is get good at what I do and I would just find that’s something that’s distracting to what I do. If I were doing different kinds of work I’d grab digital in a moment and not even think about it. If I were doing product photography, why would you bother with film? So it’s not some kind of bashing of digital or claiming the high ground for other stuff, it’s just there are horses for courses.

Is it easy to get hold of the materials?

You can still get it, for example Ilford, for these ultra large format sizes they do a yearly run, so you just have to save your pennies and get your order in on time. There are other companies too that you can still get the stuff from, so it’s around and I think there are some startups in China as well that are starting to produce film.

Do you think it’ll stay around?

It’s hard to predict the future, but I think so.

Do you notice a lot of interest in your work, for example?

I do. In some ways, the more the modern world beats a path to the digital door, it opens up opportunities for these other avenues, so I see it in some ways as an advantage. It’s something that has qualities that are innately worthwhile but the further the photographic world moves away from that stuff, it doesn’t mean that it’s been superseded or bettered. It just means some of the techniques, some of the timings, some of the procedural issues are easier. I guess the point is because there’s still merit and value in film, I think there’s always going to be a demand for it. The voice of individuality I don’t think ever has died out in that way. In photography it’s always been more important how you see rather than what you see. So any of these tools can be used variously, depending on your vision.

How did the session with His Holiness come about?

I heard that he was coming to Australia so I wrote a letter to the organisation that brings him here, the Dalai Lama in Australia, and told them some of the work I’d done and the kind of camera that I hoped to make it with, the advantages of using that camera. The other thing I did was explain to them that, while there were no guarantees, what I hoped to do was to photograph something other than just a person who’s been photographed all over the place. I’d seen lots and lots of photographs of this smiling, wonderful, sometimes impish Dalai Lama, but what I was hoping to photograph was the monk, if you will.   What makes him tick – I’m not speaking disrespectfully, these were the things that were in my mind, and what I expressed to them. So they in time said yes, which I was really pleased with. He’d not granted a private portrait sitting for years, at least in Australia.

What was it that attracted you to photograph him in particular?

Curiosity. I’m not Buddhist but my undergraduate degree was in philosophy and I did a master’s degree in theology so those kinds of ideas he talks about have interested me for a long time. And you see lots of people who say things but not necessarily live them. So I was curious to see the tangible qualities of the person who’s widely regarded as being one of the most noble people in the world.

And what was your impression?

I was completely wowed. He was very gracious, he was very kind. He’s approachable and real. So all of that went well. I expressed to him that I won’t be able to do this alone, but together we’d be able to do something very special and what I hoped to photograph – basically, I wanted to photograph the Dalai Lama but I wanted to photograph something else as well. My understanding is that emptiness forms pretty much close to the heart of Buddhism, so I asked His Holiness, from that place where you reside in emptiness, would you be willing to share that place with the camera, and what would be really good is if you were willing to share that, not with a smile or your mouth, but rather through your eyes. So if you’d be willing to look intently into the lens and share that place with the camera, that’s where I think we could create something really special. This is I think where things began to come together with that 20 by 24 inch camera, that gets exquisite, lush detail.

He’s a humble man, not just in word but in deed. He was willing to give. I’m sure people ask him stuff all the time, to give, to give, to give. And so I guess that’s what I’d asked him to do as well, but the idea wasn’t simply to satisfy curiosity – that’s part of what led me to ask – but it was also knowing that a good portrait can convey much more than an outer appearance. I thought we could create something really special. That specialness was to photograph emptiness.

Obviously he gets photographed all the time. Did you feel that he had a response to the camera in some way?

Two things. One is the response to the camera – there’s only a handful of these cameras in the world, so it’s a unique kind of thing. And I think His Holiness would probably have been intrigued by the camera. But the other side of it was, he took it seriously, and so in that way he was fresh and there was a lot of integrity, and so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh God, another camera’. He may have thought that, but that’s not how he acted. I can’t say what was in his mind. What I can say is that he gave the occasion the dignity of a grand gift which he didn’t have to give, he could have just sat there. But he gave himself into it.

Did he get the idea straight away?

He did. The first thing he said was, ‘translator!’ but then he got it right away, and he went there. I suppose the most remarkable thing for me was – I took eight photographs, that’s all the film holders that I have – and toward the end of it I quit being a photographer for ten or 15 seconds. I’m about a metre away, and the camera’s right here and the lens is about that far away from him so I’m sitting next to the camera and looking at him. I just looked really intently into his eyes, and it was just remarkable, what was remarkable was that he was really present, with everything that was happening in the moment, he was talking to an assistant that I had there, but the thing that was most remarkable was that he was also somewhere else. He wasn’t daydreaming, but he was sitting in that place where he resides in emptiness, he was there, he was sharing that place and it’s a really abstract notion, I suppose, how do you scientifically demonstrate that? You probably don’t. But my experience was that, yeah, it’s the real thing.

What did it feel like to look into his eyes like that?

Looking into his eyes was a profound, even mystical experience.  In them was an enduring illustration of the potential within all of us – the potential for kindness and compassion, not in theory alone but in a life lived well and fully.

Have you ever seen anything like that in anyone else?

No.

Was it what you expected?

Much more than I ever expected.

Do you feel that came across in the photographs?

I do.

So looking at those photographs I could have that same sense that you had in that place?

Yes. There’s one lady who has one of these photographs that I gave to her, and she meditates with it every day, so it is almost like sitting in his presence.

How long did the session take?

We had 15 or 20 minutes. Probably about ten minutes of actual photography. I have four film holders which mean I have eight exposures.

What happened to the eighth one?

As I recall, there was a technical flaw in the film. The only time I’ve ever had that problem!

Are you happy with what you’ve got?

I’m very happy. In part because I think he was so genuine and giving and capable. By capable I mean he knew exactly what he was doing and he was giving something very profound.

What has been the response to the exhibition?

It’s been so immensely popular they want to extend it, so it’s actually going now until the end of August. The exhibition was curated by a woman named Sandy Edwards and her thought behind it was, I thought, really nice – it was the idea of having a conversation, sitting in his presence, so all these photographs, even the way the chairs are arranged in there is that you can sit down, you can be with him. It’s a means to connect, I guess.

His glasses are on in two of them, and they’re off in five of them. Did you ask him to take his glasses off? 

Those glasses are iconic – there’s probably nobody that wears glasses quite like that. And so they’re really wonderful. But again, my purpose was to photograph the monk, the person. In some ways, we have bodies and the bodies are part of who we are, but I wanted to get past all the other stuff to get to him. And since I’d asked him to share it with his eyes, I think there was a more direct route to it if they weren’t there, and because they are so iconic and he’s so recognisable with them, I thought to have them removed was a step closer to seeing the real stuff.

What about the ones where he folds his palms?

I asked him without words, and he did it, and the idea there was, it’s not simply an identifiable cultural thing, it was rather, the hands are blessing. And what he was doing was, he was giving, and so I thought it was appropriate, that lovely gesture that’s imbued with meaning. I’m sure more than I understand was present and part of it.

Did you expect to get seven useable pictures?

I went in there hoping for eight! That’s one of the things about a view camera. Your success rate is actually much higher – these are more deliberate. And when I was there waiting for what I perceived to be the right moment to open the shutter I had set up well before so I knew that my lights, all these kinds of things were placed properly, so it was really just a matter of trying to get the right moment with him. So in that way, if he was willing to participate, which he was, then I thought we’d be OK.

See more of David’s work at camerawork.com.au

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About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.

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