Portrait of the Attorney as a Fine Art Photographer: Paul Roark

by Arthur H. Bleich

Paul Roark

January 01, 2010 — Throughout Paul Roark’s high school and college days, a large, very menacing tarantula was usually on a nearby wall; one of the first images in a series of close-ups he had taken with an old turn-of-the-century 4x5 Graflex camera fitted with an enlarging lens.

At 16x20 inches, it commanded attention and Roark, now 61, knew that photography would play an important role in his life, especially when he began to win awards for his work while still attending Hoover High in Glendale, CA. There was just one problem: how to make a living at it. His father, an attorney with a love of ham radio and photography, thought it would be a difficult avocation. His mother, a teacher and art major, encouraged him to go for it.

Arthur Bleich: So how did you reconcile the two?
Paul Roark: I decided to split my working life into two segments—one “practical” (money-making) and one where I could pursue photography as an art and not have to worry about starving. I was lucky to receive a scholarship to attend UCLA Law School and after graduating worked as an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission doing antitrust and consumer protection law. It offered excellent benefits as well as an opportunity to exit that career early.

AB: When did you begin to move into full-time photography?
PR: I transitioned into it during the last 15 years of my legal career. My first big break was a one-man show at the Solvang Gallery in 1981 that turned into a traveling show around Southern California. It convinced me that black-and-white fine art landscape display prints would be my main target, although people also responded well to the color work I was doing. I suppose the strongest feedback was at a show in downtown Los Angeles where all the black-and-white prints were stolen but none of the color ones.

AB: What cameras were you shooting with at that time?
PR: I had stopped using 35mm and bought a Rollei SL66 outfit and started to acquire the best medium format negatives I could, mostly saving them for printing after I was able to transition into my photo “second life,” which happened in 1996. Currently, my main camera is a Bronica RF 645.

AB: Do you have a favorite film?
PR: I use Technical Pan (TP) film in medium format developed in Kodak’s Technidol developer, but I’ve experimented with all kinds of developers for it. I have a freezer full of TP and enough developer to last a few more years.

AB: And when that’s gone, is digital in the future?
PR: The convenience is terrific, but I wonder about the psychology of shooting thousands of handheld shots as opposed to the careful and slow use of the tripod. On outings such as the Golden Trout workshops, I’ll also take an 8MP Canon Rebel XT digital camera with a medium telephoto because I feel I need to be in touch with the digital shooters, even though I don’t think the technology is quite there for what I do.

AB: In what respects?
PR: The number of pixels is too limited, fringing is still a problem with wide-angle lenses, and the dynamic range of the sensors is too limited. I doubt DSLRs will be able to match the quality level for 16x20 prints I’m looking for in the near future, especially for images shot with wide-angle lenses.

AB: I think the future may be nearer than you think.
PR: Well, if Leica or others make dedicated wide-angle digital cameras that have specialized sensors with, perhaps, micro lenses aimed at the nodal points of symmetrical wide-angle lenses, then we might be looking at something very interesting. I just hope the wide-angle issues are solved before I run out of Tech Pan.

AB: And if not?
PR: I expect to compromise and buy a body for my Canon 90 TS medium telephoto lens once they reach 16 MP with a full-frame sensor at a reasonable price– which I expect soon. I can live with this combo and bracket exposures for higher dynamic range but that still does not completely solve the wide-angle problem.

AB: You mentioned the Golden Trout workshops. What are they about?
PR: They are nonprofit workshops held in a wilderness camp in the High Sierras originally geared to natural history. I started teaching a session for black-and-white photographers several years ago and now Roy Harrington, developer of Quadtone RIP, has become a partner. We have a solar electric system and can do the full range of black-and-white digital work. On most days we take short to medium distance hikes to great shooting locations. Since it’s a full week with room and board included, there is rather non-stop talking about virtually every aspect of photography.

AB: Let’s say I’m at your workshop and I ask you how you go about making a great image?
PR: I go through a two-step analysis. First, the image must have impact. With color, a bright red or other color might do it. With no color to do the job, the image should have what I call a ‘macro pattern’ that catches the viewer’s attention. We don’t notice things we don’t ‘attend’ to. Second, once drawn to the photo, the image must keep the viewer’s interest as long as possible. I sometimes call this the ‘micro pattern.’ Here, using relative lightness and lots of other tools, I try to keep the eye in the picture and flowing from one interesting part to another. I like a lot of information to be in the shot so there is a lot for the viewer’s brain to study and play with.

AB: And I assume you have critiquing sessions in which you identify these elements in detail in the shots your students have taken?
PR: I actually find it more effective to do this when we’re in the field taking shots. I find it easier to tell them what I think will work as opposed to critiquing the shots after the fact, but we do that also.

AB: Who most shaped your photographic vision?
PR: Rembrandt. His use of light and his skill at guiding the eye have always struck me as simply the best. And Brett Weston was an early favorite. And, of course as I got deeper into black-and-white and fine art silver printing, I became very familiar with Ansel Adams’ work.

AB: People have compared your images to those of Ansel Adams.
PR: Yes. This was actually happening well before I appreciated who he was. The fact that we used the same medium in the same place—the Sierras—probably caused there to be an unavoidable similarity in some people’s minds.

AB: You also have some similar shots.
PR: While I try not to copy others, similar shots are sometimes interesting because they show a different view of a well known subject. In 2005 I hiked to the Diving Board in Yosemite, a rock that’s just to the side of Half Dome, about half way up. The view of Half Dome from the Diving Board is the best there is. Ansel Adams took a famous shot of Half Dome called ‘Monolith’ and 80 years later I took the same shot. Changes to the face of Half Dome had occurred and comparing the two shots was a lot of fun.

AB: Moving on, you are an acknowledged pioneer in the field of black-and-white digital printing. How did that evolve?
PR: In the 1990s it became very clear to me that digital was going to take over much of photography. However, achieving a neutral black and white with a color inkset on an inkjet printer with no midtone gray inks was simply impossible. That started my experimenting with ways to control the tone of inkjet prints.

AB: It also sounds like quite a time-consuming challenge.
PR: Having transitioned into my photo life, I had the time and interest to promote this form of printing. Digital prints were, in my view, simply better than silver prints but there was a widespread distrust of digital prints due to the early use of dyes that faded quickly. Fade testing and careful selection of materials was critical.

AB: You obviously solved the problem.
PR: I found that color pigments (rather than color dyes) would do the trick. So I became an inkset designer—not to make money—but to try to achieve a digital carbon pigment print that would be sufficiently archival to be collectible.

AB: And you succeeded in doing that without the inks costing the end-user an arm and a leg?
PR: Yes. Epson is not entirely happy with my making black-and-white inksets that are extremely cheap and more lightfast than their best but, at the same time, photography has meant so much to me over the years that it became a mission of mine to make the medium accessible to everyone regardless of their budget.

AB: And it doesn’t require expensive printers either, does it?
PR: Most older Epson printers are supported. In fact, I use an old Epson 7500 for my display prints and it produces outstanding results. They may not last as long as our enlargers, but these old large format workhorses probably have many years of life in them when it comes to black-and-white printing.

AB: I once heard you say: “The image is king.” What point were you trying to make?
PR: I was probably trying to make the point that while we get caught up in the technology or specific workflows, what makes a great black-and-white photo has not changed. Viewers are usually unaware of whether they are looking at a silver print or a carbon pigment print and most do not care. It’s the image they’re interested in.

AB: Considering your legal background and facility with words, writing would have seemed like a natural possibility for your ‘second life.’ But you held fast to photography. Why?
PR: Communicating to others in words the things I saw with my eyes seemed impossibly inadequate. I wanted to have a connection that was better than that and I felt someone could not really know who I was without seeing my photography.

AB: How do you craft your images to make this connection?
PR: Some of my scenes conjure up totally unrelated associations. I always have some abstraction in my work so the viewer must do at least a little work to fill in the blanks, but beyond this, I often like the abstractions to trigger thoughts that are totally unrelated to the subject matter—like feelings we’ve had from some past experience. One way or the other, I hope to get some involvement out of the viewer.

AB: You’ve given a lot to photography and to photographers and for that we are grateful to you. On top of that, your images are terrific. Any final thoughts?
PR: I went into public service for my first career and I’m still there in some respects. Many, if not most, successful people will get to a point in their lives where giving back is very rewarding. When I was a kid, I rejected all the old sayings but in my life I have learned that many of them are true. You do, it seems, get what you give.

View Paul’s images at www.paulroark.com and for more information on black-and-white inks see www.paulroark.com/BW-Info.

Arthur H. Bleich (arthur@dpcorner.com) is a photographer, writer and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the United States and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at www.dpcorner.com and his workshop cruise site at www.dpcorner.com/cruise.

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