I am a cam­era

Pho­tog­ra­pher Rocky Schenck

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Rocky Schenck’s “The Re­cur­ring Dream” was pub­lished by Univer­sity of Texas Press in March; im­ages cour­tesy the pub­lisher.

The im­ages in Rocky Schenck’s sec­ond book of fine-art pho­to­graphs may pos­sess a com­mon­al­ity in the feel­ing of enigma that they evoke in the viewer, and they cer­tainly demon­strate a wide-rang­ing vi­sion. It feels like Schenck and the cam­era are one, as if he’s an ex­plorer, al­ways ready to cap­ture what’s in front of him — and it ap­pears that he fre­quents un­usual places. “I’d say that I’m blessed with cu­rios­ity; that’s what gets me through life,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view about The Re­cur­ring

Dream (Univer­sity of Texas Press). In the book’s af­ter­word, he says pho­tog­ra­phy has been “such a refuge for me — my es­cape, my best friend, and my shrink — for so many years.” He told

Pasatiempo, “I al­ways have a cam­era. You just never know what’s going to hap­pen, what you’re going to see, what you’re going to en­counter, or what’s going to un­fold in front of you, or what you’re going to feel like pur­su­ing.”

Schenck grew up in the Texas Hill Coun­try, near the town of Drip­ping Springs. Two of his Ger­man an­ces­tors, who moved to the Hill Coun­try in 1851, cre­ated ro­man­tic land­scape paint­ings and por­traits that were an in­flu­ence on the boy. When he was

Rocky Schenck,

twelve years old, he be­gan a study of oil paint­ing and was soon teach­ing him­self pho­tog­ra­phy and mak­ing ex­per­i­men­tal films. He has been a fan of old movies for­ever. “I live for Turner Clas­sic Movies,” he said. “I lis­ten to TCM when I’m work­ing on these pho­to­graphs at home.”

To­day, Schenck, a long­time res­i­dent of Los An­ge­les, has writ­ten and di­rected more than 150 mu­sic videos and has pho­tographed hun­dreds of al­bum cov­ers. Di­rec­tor Wil­liam Fried­kin used Schenck’s pho­to­graphs in sets for pro­duc­tions of the op­eras The Makrop­u­los Af­fair and Duke Blue­beard’s Cas­tle. In the fore­word of The Re­cur­ring Dream, Fried­kin says, “If these pic­tures by Rocky Schenck are ‘about’ any­thing, it is mood, at­mos­phere, and the art of see­ing. They demon­strate that mys­tery is at the heart of ex­is­tence.”

The pho­to­graph ti­tled Anthill presents an im­age that looks like some­thing myth­i­cal or some­thing from a child’s book. It also ex­hibits Schenck’s affin­ity for paint­ing. “That’s a real place, and it has shapes and land­scapes un­like any­thing I’d ever seen. It was really ex­tra­or­di­nary,” he said. The land­scape is dra­matic and strange, but so is a zigzag­ging stair­way

that climbs up the fore­most hill. “That was there. It’s just a blackand-white, and I tinted it with black and brown oils. Even the black-and-whites are all tinted. I’ve done this for decades. I used not to share that, but I don’t mind peo­ple know­ing. Ev­ery print in this body of work has hands-on work.” And so ev­ery pho­to­graph is as­suredly one of a kind.

He was a film-only hold­out at one time, but to­day he shoots with his smart­phone, a dig­i­tal cam­era, and a film cam­era. “I still love film. You have to be de­lib­er­ate; it’s very thought­ful. You have to know your ex­po­sures and the ef­fect you’re going for. You can’t just shoot and hope. And it’s ex­pen­sive. I love the fact that I grew up learn­ing pho­tog­ra­phy with film.” Bring­ing in oil paint­ing as the last step of mak­ing a pho­to­graph al­lows him to ex­er­cise an­other of his fa­cil­i­ties and to ac­cen­tu­ate the feel­ing of the piece. “That’s what I love about ma­nip­u­lat­ing blackand-white im­ages. You can com­pletely control your color pal­ette and make the im­age rep­re­sent what you wanted to con­vey — and some­times what I’m feel­ing on the day I’m work­ing on the im­age. If I’m in a blue mood, that gets rep­re­sented.”

The im­age Mis­chief shows the sil­hou­et­ted form of a man stand­ing, or trudg­ing, in a snowy grove of trees that must have fallen vic­tim to a wild­fire. Asked about the cir­cum­stance of its cre­ation and why that ti­tle was cho­sen, Schenck said, “I wanted to visit this place, num­ber one. It was a for­est that had burned, and the trees all look like black tooth­picks. Thank­fully, it was snow­ing when I vis­ited. It just did not look like a real land­scape; it looked com­pletely ar­ti­fi­cial. I went with a friend, who was just wan­der­ing through. This print just looked so men­ac­ing, like the per­son was up to no good.”

Bal­loon Man is odd and won­der­ful, re­sem­bling a staged vi­sion from a nurs­ery rhyme, pos­si­bly a dream im­age from Lewis Car­roll: A blond­haired head blow­ing a huge clear bub­ble has a stu­pen­dous bal­loon for a body. Equally fan­ta­sy­like is Bal­loons and Cig­a­rettes. The specter-like im­age that could eas­ily be a mo­ment in a David Lynch film shows a danc­ing woman clad in a mass of bal­loons with a cig­a­rette dan­gling from her lips. And the woman who ap­pears in Sa­van­nah and Lounge

Singer looks like a Fellini char­ac­ter. “I like to go to bur­lesque shows and freak shows and all sorts of al­ter­na­tive en­ter­tain­ment,” Schenck said, laugh­ing, “and there are al­ways char­ac­ters that you come across.” Near

Com­fort is a splen­did, spooky lit­tle land­scape with a lit­tle white house be­yond a field of grasses and pale flow­ers. “That’s in Texas. Peo­ple read sym­bol­ism into it, but it’s a real place.”

His pho­to­graph The Op­ti­mist fea­tures a shad­owy fig­ure look­ing through one of the yel­low-lit slits in a wall of pur­ple cur­tains. It is fas­ci­nat­ing, but isn’t the ti­tle a lit­tle far-fetched? “I am some­times sur­rounded in dark­ness, and I really try to find some­thing pos­i­tive to fo­cus on,” Schenck said. “That pho­to­graph was an ac­ci­dent. It was not staged. It was just some­body look­ing through a cur­tain. I let this one sit for a long time, and when I tinted it I didn’t have a ti­tle. Then I came up with that color com­bi­na­tion and felt like it did rep­re­sent try­ing to find some­thing pos­i­tive to fo­cus on.”

The build­ing pic­tured in Thirty Years is fabulously melan­cholic, even por­ten­tous, and the story be­hind it is apro­pos. “That was a trip I took when I was re­search­ing my grand­mother’s fam­ily. I was vis­it­ing Vir­ginia, where my mother’s mother’s fam­ily came from, and I found out that her fa­ther was locked up in a mental in­sti­tu­tion for 30 years, and this is the build­ing. It was a no­to­ri­ous Vic­to­rian in­sti­tu­tion for the in­sane. I wanted that pic­ture to cap­ture the sad­ness of that mental in­sti­tu­tion. It’s closed now, and they’re chang­ing it into con­do­mini­ums.”

What’s next for Rocky Schenck? “I’m al­ways shoot­ing pho­to­graphs — land­scapes and peo­ple,” he said. “I’ve also done por­traits for decades, and I am at­tempt­ing to work on a book of my por­trait pho­to­graphs. I’ve also done a lot of nudes, so I want to put to­gether a book that’s a lit­tle ec­cen­tric. I’m think­ing of call­ing it Por­traits, Etc. be­cause there will def­i­nitely be some et cetera in it.”

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