Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Focus On: rrobertsphoto

Angel in a Dark World

I've been putting this feature together for about 3 months now, and in all that time, all of my subjects have been women.  That’s only right, when you think about it, because most of the people here on Etsy are women.  But there are men about, and with that in mind, it seemed like the time had come to “Focus On” someone with a “Y” chromosome, but who should be the first?  As you might expect, I had an idea about that.

I look at a lot of photographs by POE members, and there was one guy that immediately came to mind.  Most of his images are landscapes, and between the composition and tonality, his work is striking.  If you’ve been looking at the work of your fellow POE team members, you’ve probably seen his images; if you’ve visited my personal blog, you’ve certainly seen them.

Randall Roberts of rrobertsphoto is the man I’m talking about.  He joined Etsy last November, but he’s been taking photographs for several years.  I recently had an opportunity to visit with Randy; here’s how it went:

Avalon Salt Cedar No. 5

Steve:  When I encounter a photographer whose work I admire, many questions come to mind; not the least of which is, "Who is this person and where is he or she coming from?" So, Randy, tell us about yourself; where do you come from? What is your family like? What do you do when you're not taking photographs? Just who is Randy and what makes him tick?

Randy:  I was born and raised in central North Dakota – my hometown population was about 1000 people. You only had to dial the last 4 digits of anybody’s phone number to call them, and from first grade (where I first met my wife) through high school graduation, I remember only one day when the schools closed because of snow, and that was in late April. We had just won the State Class B basketball tournament, so it wasn’t really the snow that got us out of a day of school.

The wind blows incessantly from the northwest, and both trees in the state do little to block it. It’s a song that I dearly miss when I’m somewhere else (as I have been for some time). Summer days are long; winter days are short; blizzards are a call to go outside and dive from snow banks.

Corrals and Tires

The Missouri River wanders out of Montana and disappears into South Dakota as it bisects the state, separating glacial terrain in the east from buttes and badlands in the west; I’ll take the west. The Cohen brothers made Fargo famous (lived there for about 7 years). Some people do sound like that.

My children have wandered away from home, but not so far that my granddaughter can’t visit when she wants. My wife was, without question, the world’s best preschool teacher until she recently retired after 30+ years to be more available to her granddaughter. I get the youth perspective on my photography from my daughters and son, and along with my wife, the whole bunch has a great eye for lighting and composition.

We left North Dakota when my daughters were six and four and my son was two so that I could attend graduate school in New Mexico, the state where we all reside to this day. They have all grown up in New Mexico and don’t hesitate when asked “red or green?” However, when the Christmas holiday arrives, it’s lefse instead of tortillas: rumagrout instead of pesole. Our northern visitors don’t quite know what to make of black beans and green chile on a tortilla, all topped with a fried egg when we serve them breakfast. We’re a happy mixture.

When I’m not taking photographs, I’m looking at stuff I should be photographing, sometimes to the point where I don’t quite stay on the road. Usually when I finally arrive somewhere, I’m a hydrogeologist, busily engaged in groundwater studies for this reason or that. This endeavor has taken me to far-flung places around the globe, always with my camera in tow. It has its upside.

Inca Dove No. 1

And your next question: who is Randy and what makes him tick? I squandered my youth as a musician, picked up a geology degree, and then a hydrology degree. When I bought my son a digital camera for Christmas some years later, I “borrowed” it so much that my wife politely suggested I get my own. I did just that and eventually sold off my last guitar. Who knows what they want to be when they grow up when they haven’t even passed their mid 50’s?

S:  Talk about your "long and winding road"; had you been interested in photography before the serendipitous gift to your son? What was it, do you suppose, that lit your "photography fuse"?

R:  I remember running around with a small camera when I was young, trying to photograph birds. I'd sneak oh so carefully until I thought I was close enough to get a shot. In those pictures, once the long wait had passed and they were finally delivered to the house, the bird was never more than a speck in the photo. I kept trying, but lost track of the camera somewhere along the way.

Cassiopeia and Thor II

Jump ahead 35 years. I had read an article about photographing the moon through a telescope by simply holding a digital camera up to the eyepiece. I was setting up my telescope before dinner, getting ready for some stargazing after dark, when I decided to point the 'scope at a starling in a nearby tree and try photographing it through the eyepiece with my son's new digital camera. It worked! The bird in the image was BIG, at least relative to my youthful attempts. I was hooked. Visions of National Geographic flashed through my mind. I still have that photo.

S:  The first time I ever saw a digital camera was 19 years ago in the Persian Gulf; I'm guessing it was some time after 1991 that you first started borrowing your son's digital camera. When did you get your start? Have you had any formal training, or are you, as they say, "self-taught"?

R:  My son got his camera for Christmas 2001. By the spring of 2002, I had bought myself a Nikon Coolpix 5000. I also bought a Pentax 80mm spotting scope and had a machinist make an adapter that allowed me to attach the Coolpix directly to the Pentax eyepiece. A friend of mine ran the numbers and the setup was roughly the equivalent of an 1800 mm lens. I did a LOT of bird photography in those early days. Swore I would never shoot landscapes because it was too difficult to make them interesting. Once I discovered that I could shoot IR with the Coolpix, I very quickly shot almost nothing but landscapes. For a while, I shot almost nothing in color. Unfortunately, I can't shoot IR with either of my current bodies (D80 and D90), but I'm looking into having my D80 modified to shoot IR. I miss it.

High Plains Storm

I've had no formal training. Looking back though my very early shots, I think my eye has improved somewhat, but that has simply come from shooting, and shooting, and shooting. However, I have lots of early images captured with my Coolpix 5000 that I couldn't improve now if I stood in the same place again. For example, my shots titled "Light," "Open," "Idyll Time," and "Time" were all from my early days when I was still trying to figure out which way was up, so to speak; they’re still some of my very favorite images.

S:  Of all the things that you shoot, landscapes, cloudscapes, wildlife, architectural studies, etc., what is your favorite to shoot? Do you find you go on planned shoots, or do you pretty much take it as it comes?

R:  What is my favorite to shoot…?

People have asked me that question before and I’ve decided I don’t have a favorite, at least I don’t yet. Whenever I can get it all to come together – the subject, supporting cast, light, and composition – I’m thrilled every time, regardless of whether it is a panoramic landscape or a mushroom under a pine tree.

Do I go out on planned shoots…

North Dakota Homestead No. 2

I rarely have this luxury – maybe three times a year I get to go out on half-planned shoots. I almost always have my camera handy and try to capture shots as they appear. I’ll often see something with potential as I’m out and about. If it’s relatively close, I might study it for a few days or weeks and decide what time of day, what sort of conditions, etc., might make for the optimal photo and then come back and give it a try. I’ve photographed scenes that I might pass only a few times a year, always watching to see if conditions were right when I drove by. Some of these targets have waited for a long time. “Down the Road” and “Dirt Road” are examples of scenes that I would drive past when traveling from Carlsbad to Albuquerque, NM. I watched both locations for years before I finally stopped.

S:  When you view photographs, and I assume, as a photographer, you do look at photographs, what do you go for? Color? Black and white? Landscapes? Cityscapes? Flora? Fauna? Or is it a certain style? What catches your eye?

R:  The first things I notice about a photo are the composition and lighting, regardless of the subject matter. Color and b&w are equally interesting – each has its appeal. I am drawn to certain styles, although I find that trying to explain the differences between my likes and dislikes quickly becomes complicated. Photographers whose work I enjoy include Steve McCurry, Nick Brandt, Ansel Adams, George Steinmetz, Thomas Mangelsen, and Annie Leibovitz, to name a few. There are a number of Etsy photographers whose work I follow (yours, for example), and some other less-than-famous folks like Chuck Kimmerle, a wonderful North Dakota photographer. One particular preference of mine is anything with a painterly look.

Old versus New

S:  How would you describe your perfect photographic day?

R:  A perfect day: The backlog of my day job is reasonably in check. The weather promises great clouds, maybe scattered storms. Somebody in my family is able to break away and experience the day with me -- the hunt for the next wonderful photo. The hunt starts early and ends late. Somewhere between sunrise and sunset, I found a shot that made me smile. Only need one to make it a perfect day.

S:    What does the future hold for you and photography? Where is photography taking you, or where are you taking it?

R:  Ah, the future. I'd love to do photography full time, but I don't see that happening any time soon, and that's okay. I still have a lot to learn about the whole business, particularly the marketing aspect. Selling is work -- hard work -- and I don't have the time to devote to it that I should, so I go forward in small steps. Along the way, I still get to work on the photography aspect, and that just gets more and more enjoyable. A few perfect photography days a year and I'm a very happy photographer. My photography path forward is hazy at best, but not all those who wander are lost.

Road to the Storm

S:  Not lost, indeed! Especially if one is more concerned with the journey rather than the destination.

Thank you for taking time to do this, Randy! I've enjoyed getting to know more about the man behind those fantastic images.

Randy's shop can be found at


PhotoGrunt is Steve Raley, a photographic documentarian from Seattle, Washington.  He captures images wherever he goes, and he  frequently even uses a camera.  His work can be seen on his websiteblog and his Etsy shop.


Jay Wilson said...

This is really impressive work. I absolutely love "Angel in a Dark World" and some of the Dakota landscapes are stunning.

PhotoGrunt said...

Quite right, Jay. That's the thing about many of Randy's images; they're so striking and compelling, it's almost impossible NOT to look at them. Almost makes you want to move to New Mexico...or North Dakota, doesn't it?

- Steve

Jay Wilson said...

Amost, Steve! NYC has so much to photograph I couldn't even begin to cover it all in this lifetime. I do love visiting the Southwest and Midwest, although I've never been to NoDak!

Nakedeye17 said...

Steve, I'm so glad you featured Randy's work! He's one photographer whose work catches my breath over and over again. Brilliant images, and a lively, articulate interview.

Kudos to you both!
Su Harrington

Anika said...

Wow! Beautiful!!