Born in Los Angeles, Stephen Robeck grew up outside New York City where he learned the basics of photography, developing and printing black and white images in a small darkroom. His early work focused on traditional landscapes , but as his knowledge of the camera became second nature, he also captured the close-up abstract forms, vivid colors, and textures so abundant in nature. From one glance at some of his promising pieces like waterscapes of various colors, they may appear to look like jewelry while the landscapes may look like wet paintings. He takes pictures of moments that can make you feel like time is standing still. If you traveled where he traveled, you would see that he can capture the most detailed moments in a way that still makes you feel like you've missed out on something special. His pictures are treasured.
In 2019, Stephen and his wife, Susan, started a new life adventure. After approximately twenty-five years in California they moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now settled, Stephen is anxious to explore the new landscapes throughout the southwest. A first backpack to the Pecos Wilderness in 2019 yielded a number of images from lovely alpine Lake Katherine.
All of Stephen’s work, from image editing, printing, mounting and framing, is done in his studio with quality that’ll last over a century. I am fortunate enough that Stephen took the time out of his schedule, so that I can interview him today. Now, lets get down to the nitty-gritty.
Whose work has interested you the most as a photographer?
Early on, I saw a lot of work by journalistic photographers like Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Margaret Bourke-White. Through Aperture and other books I saw work by Eliot Porter, Edward Weston, Joel Meyerowitz and, of course, Ansel Adams. Today I am a big fan of Cindy Sherman.
What type of camera do you shoot with? What type of gear do you use?
For years I used Nikon and Canon film cameras and stayed with Canon when digital grew up with the 5D and 5D-MkII. But for a backpacker, these were bulky and heavy cameras, so I experimented with the early Sony NEX mirrorless cameras. For the past six years I have been using the Sony A7R and A7RII cameras. For the kind of work I tend to do, it’s an outstanding camera in a small package, especially with Zeiss Loxia lenses (all manual).
What’s the one traveling experience that you’ll never forget?
All trips are memorable. We were in Asia for six weeks in 2007 and then took an around-the-world trip (Bhutan, Dubai, Greece, Spain and Switzerland) in 2013. But the travel I have loved the most has been our ten-day backpacks in and around Yosemite National Park. Something happens to you after you’ve been outside for a week.
Do you have any dream locations to take pictures?
Least favorite are tourist locations, with exceptions for found images like the Marina series from Riga, Latvia. One dream location (we’ve been there at least a half dozen times) is Breeze Lake in southeast Yosemite National Park.
Most of us have cell phones. Do you ever find yourself taking more pictures with your cell phone?
There’s an old story: in a seminar with a great landscape photographer, someone asks, “What is the best camera for capturing sunsets in the mountains?” The pro answers, “The one you have with you.” The cell phone cameras are getting better and better, but if your goal is to capture files printable at large sizes, they can’t measure up.
Do you use any post-processing tools after you focus on still images?
I do, shamelessly, because I’m an artist, not a journalist. There is an enormous amount of nonsense floating around out there about image “manipulation,” much of it from people who really do not understand how digital imaging (or film for that matter) works, particularly RAW files. When you shoot a JPEG image, a tiny computer in your camera makes all the decisions about exposure, white balance, contrast, etc. If you capture RAW files, you HAVE to do post-processing or your images will look like crap. For arguably good reasons, Reuters issued a ban on RAW files in 2015. But none of these reasons should have anything to do with photographic art.
How long have you been a photographer?
On and off since I was about 10-years-old.
Strata 1, Edition of 5, 24 x 46 inches Pictured Rocks National Lakshore, Munising, MI © 2019 All Rights Reserved.
What’s your favorite subject to photograph?
The one I’m working with at any given moment.
Did you go to school to study photography? Are you self-taught?
No school, though I did work with several digital pioneers like John Paul Caponigro and Mac Holbert in advanced seminars. But with or without a degree, photography is something you learn by doing over an extended period of time. The key steps are:
Take lots of pictures;
Really look and evaluate your results;
Repeat steps 1 and 2 for a lifetime,
Ponderosa Pine 370°, Edition of 5, 24 x 68 inches Groveland, CA, 2015 © 2015 All Rights Reserved.
Do customers usually prefer their images in a glass or glass less framing?
I usually don’t offer a choice. But the people who purchase my work usually see it in a gallery or my studio so they understand the benefits of NOT hiding images behind glass. Many say my photographs look like paintings.
What ran through your head when you used your first ever giclée printer?
I was stunned. At a seminar in around 2004, we had a chance to print on an early Epson wide format. I remember making a poster-size print from a 5mpx camera. The result wasn’t great, but I could see where things were headed.
What do you like most about being a photographer?
As a kid I enjoyed tinkering with things to see how they worked. So instead of reading about ancient civilizations, I would take my wind-up alarm clock apart. I can get lost in the process of making photographs for hours/days on end. I like the solitude.
As far as once in a lifetime photographs go, do you have a once in a lifetime image you took you’re hiding from us? Or are you waiting for that perfect moment?
I’m not sure there is such a thing. I recently entered work in a juried exhibition with the theme, “Poetry of the Ordinary.” In going through files and folders with the theme in mind, I ended up selecting images that I’ve never mounted, framed and exhibited before. Context is huge. Also, not sure there is any such thing as a perfect moment.
When you first started taking pictures, what’s the one thing you’d like to have known?
The question is just a stumper, for a few reasons:
-There’s an old wisdom that the key to good judgement is “knowing what you don’t know.”
-Not sure I ever knew early on that photography would always be there for me. It just was.
-In terms of the path, there is no guide or map that you can look back to as the journey unfolds. As with any creative endeavor (writing, making music, painting, etc.) the only path is to keep doing the work and follow where it leads. Of course the path is iterative and every step along the way brings new options and ideas.
Dunes 3, First Light, Edition of 5, 24 x 68 inches Death Valley National Park, CA, 2008 © 2008 All Rights Reserved.
Are you a morning person?
Yes, all day long. I had a close friend years ago who was a night person. At some point I realized we were incompatible and that was that.
Do you enjoy taking pictures of yourself?
No. But I should probably work on exercises to channel Cindy Sherman!
Marina 3, Edition of 10, 36 x 36 inches Riga, Latvia © 2016 All Rights Reserved.
Why did you choose to shoot photos and not films?
Stephen: I actually did both. I worked in commercial photography for a bit after college, then decided to get into the film and television business. But making films is a much more complicated process involving lots of other people. Some thrive in that environment, but not me.
Do you shoot raw or Jpeg?
If you want to get the most out of your best captures, you shoot RAW. When you shoot a JPEG, about half the data seen by your camera’s sensor gets thrown away. Gone forever.
Finish the sentence. Photography makes me want to ____.
…find more hours in the day to work.
Any advice for inexperienced photographers risking their life to take selfies to post on social media?
First is, don’t bother, the selfie is a truly low (the lowest?) form of photographic art. Second is, no one really cares.
Flash photography has been banned in many museums. If you’re at a museum and see flash photography, how does that make you feel?
Sorry for those who don’t know how to turn off their flash.
Have your emotions ever changed the longer you’ve looked at your pictures?
Of course. One great thing about having decades of images carefully organized in a library if the process of rediscovery. It’s context once again. I often go back to photos from a given location and see things I totally missed.
Lake Katherine 4, Edition of 5, 24 x 24 inches Lake Katherine, Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico 2019 © 2016 All Rights Reserved.
Your father worked for Time Inc., which gave you access to many books about photographers. You also expressed how Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith was an early hero. Where do you think you’d be without photography?
Impossible to say of course. I learned long ago that one’s “career path” is more a function of serendipity than design. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Much of my work life was spent doing things that had nothing to do with photography, but it was always there. The timing of my ability to escape my business career coincided nicely with the explosive growth of digital imaging starting in the early 2000’s.
Strata 3, Edition of 5, 24 x 46 inches Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising, MI © 2020 All Rights Reserved.
During the sixties, school was overshadowed by the Vietnam War. How’d you manage to focus on your studies and still have time to improve your photography skills? Was there ever any pressure for you to join the war?
Focus on studies was intermittent, but somehow got better after the Draft Lottery on 12/1/69. The draft was always a threat until…it wasn’t. With a year and a half to go before graduation, my birthday drew 331, a very safe number. Photography was hit or miss in those days.
All of us have cell phones. You’re obviously a professional photographer. What motivates you to take the best shot?
As said before, the best camera is the one you have with you. I’m learning to make better images with an iPhone 11 Pro which now can capture RAW files and a very smart App called Halide that makes the phone a much more sophisticated camera.
BUT, iPhone sensors are still quite small compared to the Sony A7RII (12mpx vs 42mpx). In much of my work I want to make bigger prints that are sharp and snappy (or not if by design), so for many subjects …the Sony is my go-to choice.
Do you feel as though captioning takes away from what the aesthetic imagery is telling viewers?
Good question. I’m trying to add more of a “story” component to some image collections on my website. Here is an example.
This is a way to give context to the whole collection without trying to come up with individual captions. My preference is to label images as if they were in a gallery.
What do you feel you love the most? Is it documentary photography, abstract photography, or landscape photography?
Much of my work over the past twenty years got kick-started by long backpacks in the Sierras, Canadian Rockies, etc., so landscapes were an obvious focus. But over time I found myself drawn to more abstract treatments. The natural world is so full of forms, patterns, colors, textures, reflections, refractions, etc., so I began to let myself lean this way. Documentary (pictures of known things) is my least favorite genre.
Did you always feel like you had a promising career in an artistic field?
Stephen: In just about every job I ever had there was a creative component, though I never thought of myself as “artistic” until I committed to making photographic art, at the time a very scary proposition. An inspiration was “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland that starts with a quote from Hippocrates, “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult.”
Are there any future projects you’re going to work on that you’d like to fill us in on?
Stephen: A bit more on this below, but I have numerous unfinished tree surrounds waiting to be edited and assembled, including some lovely Eucalyptus trees from Santa Cruz Island, CA. These and a couple others from Central Park in NYC and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden are on the short list. Also more abstract interpretations from White Sands National Monument.
Eucalyptus 370°, Edition of 5, 30 x 70 inches with the caption Santa Barbara, CA, 2015 © 2015 All Rights Reserved.
Are there any print presentations that customers overlook? If so, feel free to explain why they shouldn’t.
I think I may be inverting your question but here goes:
Many photographers offer unframed prints in a variety of sizes, leaving buyers to deal with framing. Others offer finishes like “metal prints and gallery-wrap canvas” as ready-to hang options, mostly because they don’t have the skill or equipment to truly finish their work themselves. So they turn to third-party labs (which now proliferate widely) to do the work.
Because most of my finished work has been made for customers or for gallery exhibition, my focus has been to develop a consistent presentation that looks good, is archival (100-year-plus prints), reflection free, relatively light weight, etc. So that is all I do other than offering a few options in terms of frame molding color. I’m working on my site to better explain/demonstrate this process.
Where exactly do you create your art prints and picture frames? Is this all done in your home or an office?
I have a great working studio at home (in years past I did all my mounting and framing in a garage bay with no AC or heat) with a high counter for computer work and a large heavy work table for mounting and framing. There is a smaller room attached for dusty work like cutting moulding. Maybe I should send you a photo?
I’d like to see that.
Robeck Studio. ©. 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Obviously, you’ve sold many pictures before, but regardless of how many sells you’ve gotten for a picture, is there one picture in particular that wants you to retake it?
Most of my work is limited to editions of 5 or 10 prints. Eucalyptus 370° was the first full tree surround I did and there is just one copy left before the image is retired. But as I mentioned above, I have a few other Eucs in the pipeline.
When you look at the picture, called, “Strata 1”, what do you see? “Strata 1” looks like a wet picture, but is not. What do you see when you look at it?
The look of wetness is partly a function of the light which was soft and diffuse. But to me it’s also in the water-like motion of the blue-green rocks above the red thrust element. For a stone formation that is certainly hard, I love the apparent softness which is gentle and relaxing.
If you would like to contact Stephen Robeck for inquiries, his contact information is below:
Stephen Robeck - Photographs. https://www.sprimages.com. 2021.
Stephen Robeck - Linkedin. “Stephen Robeck. https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-robeck-34a76019/. 2021.
Stephen Robeck - Facebook. “Stephen Robeck.” https://www.facebook.com/stephen.robeck.7. 2021.
Landi, Ann. Vasari21. “Stephen Robeck: Up Close and Abstract.” https://vasari21.com/stephen-robeck-up-close-and-abstract/. 17, Jan. 2021.
Stephen Robeck. Redwood Art Group. “Stephen Robeck.” https://redwoodartgroup.com/store/stephenrobeck/. 2021.
Abatemarco, Michael. Santa Fe New Mexican. “Stephen Robeck at Plan B Arts.” https://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/art/exhibitionism/stephen-robeck-at-plan-b-arts/article_9e373a28-28d1-11ea-94c7-8f1c0fb346d7.html. 10, Jan. 2020.