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