Blurred vi­sions


In his latest book of pho­to­graphs, The Art of Ruin, Robert Stivers presents works in which he ex­plores his con­tin­u­ing in­ter­est in dark­room ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Stivers’ gelatin sil­ver prints are ghostly im­ages whose sub­jects are ob­scured by de­lib­er­ate blur­ring. He en­hances the an­tique qual­ity of his pho­to­graphs by “paint­ing” with the dark­room chem­i­cals, re­sult­ing in one-of-a-kind prints. Stivers presents im­ages from the book and other bod­ies of work in an ex­hibit at the Stan­dard Art and An­tiques open­ing on Satur­day, Aug. 29. On the cover is Stivers’ Hands from 2001.

The im­ages in pho­tog­ra­pher Robert Stivers’ X se­ries were made with­out us­ing a cam­era. He cre­ated the X-shaped pic­tures us­ing a chem­i­cal process but with­out the use of film neg­a­tives. “I end up paint­ing a lot with the chem­istry,” he told Pasatiempo. “I start with a black, ex­posed sheet of pa­per. Then I re­move the emul­sion from the pa­per us­ing bleach.” Works from the se­ries are of­ten mis­taken for pho­tograms, which are also cam­era­less im­ages, made by plac­ing an ob­ject on light­sen­si­tive pa­per and then ex­pos­ing the pa­per to a light source. But the X se­ries was made with­out ob­jects of any kind. In­stead, re­mov­ing the emul­sion from cer­tain parts of the pa­per re­sulted in ar­eas of light and dark that de­fined the im­age. Works from the se­ries are in­cluded in an ex­hibit of Stivers’ pho­to­graphs at the Stan­dard Art and An­tiques Com­pany, pri­mar­ily a show of re­cent im­ages from his book The Art of Ruin, pub­lished by Twin Palms.

The X se­ries gives some in­di­ca­tion of Stivers’ dark­room prac­tice; even his more tra­di­tional pho­to­graphs (shot by cam­era) are part of an ex­per­i­men­tal process in the dark­room. “It’s the best way for me to re­al­ize my vi­sion or ex­plore and ex­press what I’m about,” he said. “I try to work on the com­puter, and I don’t con­nect with it very well, but I do con­nect re­ally well in the dark­room. I have a very hard time trans­lat­ing my vi­sion dig­i­tally. There was a time when it was tough for me be­cause the dig­i­tal era was com­ing of age, and I couldn’t get a show for the life of me. But now, there’s an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the gelatin sil­ver print again and peo­ple are em­brac­ing it.”

Stivers’ pro­cesses af­fect the ap­pear­ance of his gelatin prints. His Por­trait of a Young Woman, for in­stance, has an un­even, painterly tex­ture cre­ated by bleach­ing the sur­face of the print. The toner, used to en­hance the greyscale pho­to­graph by giv­ing it a sepia fin­ish, doesn’t take well to the bleach, a fact Stivers dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent. The sur­face looks worn — like an an­tique photo. The blurred fo­cus seen in much of his work over the years was also the re­sult of dark­room ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, not, as one might ex­pect, the re­sult of a shoot. “It was serendip­i­tous. I was get­ting tired of mak­ing ev­ery­thing in fo­cus and per­fect and so I started ex­plor­ing.”

Many im­ages in Stivers’ oeu­vre are rem­i­nis­cent of late 19th- and early-20th-cen­tury Sym­bol­ist pho­tog­ra­phy. They have a time­less qual­ity, en­hanced by his use of tra­di­tional pro­cesses and pref­er­ence for black and white, but their uni­ver­sal ap­peal is in their lack of

tem­po­ral speci­ficity. He of­ten soft­ens the fo­cus of his pic­tures to the point where the sub­jects seem un­sub­stan­tial, like mere echoes of them­selves. More­over, the photos are dra­matic: fig­ures — some­times hu­man or an­i­mal and some­times inan­i­mate — seem to dis­solve into sur­round­ing dark­ness. In Af­ter De­laroche, on view in the show, a woman drifts like the drowned Ophe­lia on the sur­face of black wa­ter. The im­age was based on French pain­ter Paul De­laroche’s The Young

Mar­tyr from 1855. In his Self-Por­trait in Wa­ter, also on ex­hibit, Stivers rests fe­tal-like, half-sub­merged in a rip­pling lake, pool, or pond. The viewer is left to de­ter­mine whether he, too, is drowned or if he is emerg­ing, like a child be­ing born.

Stivers was a dancer long be­fore he be­came a pho­tog­ra­pher and con­tin­ues to shoot dancers as sub­jects. The dra­matic ges­tures of dance suit the ephemeral, im­pres­sion­is­tic qual­i­ties of his medium. “Danc­ing is my first love,” he said. “I in­jured my­self and wasn’t able to dance. So I went to grad­u­ate school at NYU and got a de­gree in busi­ness spe­cial­iz­ing in arts ad­min­is­tra­tion. I ran a dance com­pany. Then I be­came a fi­nan­cial plan­ner and did that for a few years. Fi­nally, I started work­ing as an agent for pho­tog­ra­phers in Los An­ge­les, and one of the pho­tog­ra­phers taught me how to pho­to­graph and how to light. I was thirty-five years old and took a work­shop at UCLA and started pho­tograph­ing. I quit ev­ery­thing and did what­ever I could do to make a liv­ing. I was a tele­mar­keter. We were selling cour­ses to real es­tate peo­ple on how to be more ef­fec­tive as a sales­per­son.”

In Santa Fe, where he has lived for the past two decades, he showed with Turner Car­roll Gallery, then with Riva Yares, and most re­cently with James Kelly Con­tem­po­rary, but now he rep­re­sents him­self. “I re­ally just want to be in­de­pen­dent. In gal­leries the works sit around in files and maybe ev­ery other year you get a show. I’m reeval­u­at­ing whether that’s right for me.”

Among the pho­to­graphs on view in the ex­hibit is an im­age of bees that cap­tures a sense of re­pul­sion and al­lure. Stivers had gone to as­sist a friend at a bee­keeper’s res­i­dence on Canyon Road. Stivers was in­volved in film­mak­ing at the time, shoot­ing on old su­per 8mm cam­eras. “I brought my old Has­sel­blad, but I only had a 50mm lens so I had to get re­ally close to shoot the bees and my cam­era is very loud.” The re­sult­ing im­age is one he’s printed more than once, but he uses dif­fer­ent amounts of toner and other chem­i­cals so that each can be con­sid­ered a unique print. “This one feels to me, be­cause of what’s go­ing with bees, like they’ve been sort of petrified or em­bed­ded in the hive,” he said of one such print in which a sepia tone gives the im­pres­sion that the bees are en­cased in am­ber.

A num­ber of orig­i­nal im­ages can be pro­duced from a sin­gle neg­a­tive, and such is the case with Stivers’

se­ries. The ovoid shape com­mon to all im­ages in the se­ries was from a shot of an ostrich egg, but it more re­sem­bles a plan­e­tary sphere, or the moon or sun. Stivers ex­hibits them, as he also has with the se­ries, in a grid.

Hands, another im­age on view, is among Stivers’ best­selling works. The in­ti­mate por­trait of a woman, shot from the shoul­ders down, her hands rest­ing on her lap, con­tains a sub­tle use of but­ter­flies that be­come a kind of sym­bol. They’re af­fixed to the woman’s dress. “When I first made it I was very dis­ap­pointed. She showed up at my place, and we were sup­posed to do nudes. Then she changed her mind, and I didn’t re­ally know what to do. For­tu­nately, she had this dress with her. I thought, when I made it, it was too com­mer­cial of an im­age. I made the print about a year or two af­ter the shoot. It ap­peals to a lot of peo­ple — mainly to women. I think there’s some­thing in it about the tran­si­tion from in­no­cence to wom­an­hood. The straps are down. There are but­ter­flies on the dress, yet there’s some sex­u­al­ity go­ing on. There’s a nice sex­ual ten­sion go­ing on. I don’t like to say too much be­cause I dis­cover more about the work when I hear other peo­ple’s re­sponses, and maybe I dis­cover more about the per­son, and maybe I dis­cover a lot about me.”

Robert Stivers: X Se­ries, No. 4, 2005, unique gelatin sil­ver print; top,

Lau­ren, 2014; page 28, High Heels, 2006; page 29, Back of Rose, 2011; all gelatin sil­ver prints un­less oth­er­wise noted

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