Bob Witkowski: Rust Never Sleeps
“Straight” or “realistic” photography in some way or another usually points to the passage of time, either subtly or overtly. Not so with abstract photography, which generally has little connection to the real world. This is just fine with Bob Witkowski, who has a passion for shooting macro images of rusting junkyard automobiles that evoke both physical and metaphysical metamorphoses. A one-time law student and Yale graduate, Witkowski also studied at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and began taking photographs in the early seventies. A chance opportunity to photograph an oil refinery led to a flourishing freelance career, during which he has worked for major news magazines, film studios, television networks, tourist boards, corporations and record labels. As fulfilling as this work continues to be, his real joy is making personal images where the only client he has to satisfy is himself.
Bob Witkowski (Photo by Hannah Witkowski)
Where were you born?
I was born in January 1948 in New Britain, Connecticut.
Was there room for creative aspiration during your formative years?
New Britain in the 1950s was a prosperous industrial city with three distinct social classes: upper middle (professional, management); blue collar/lower middle (factory workers, union); and lower (the rest). My Dad was a factory worker. I was a bright and precocious kid, and because of that my family pushed relentlessly for school success and a career as a lawyer. Creative development? Dad was a prodigy musician, but left it all behind for the security of a factory job, marriage and a kid. I went to prep school on a scholarship and was lucky enough to attend Yale on a scholarship as well—all the time geared for a law career and being my family’s great white hope. I played piano, but I had no idea I would ever be a photographer or any sort of artist. Go figure. What I did know early on was that I never was comfortable living in the East. I would be depressed from November until Ash Wednesday, when I felt the hope that warm weather and the colors of spring were not far away.
Rust Macro 6, Missouri, 1974
How did you become interested in photography?
I was unhappy at Yale, although I did okay academically. It was 1966-1970, so I learned to drink and enjoy pot, acid, etc. I still did the shuffle to a law career, but I was completely disconnected. I got so many concussions playing rugby that I was 4-F, so Vietnam wasn’t looming on the horizon. I applied to law schools but don’t even remember or care if I got accepted. But what did happen in May of 1970 was the May Day Riots in New Haven. My suite mate was a stringer for Time magazine, and when the gassing came one night, he tossed me a Pentax Spotmatic, showed me how to load Tri-X and how to focus, set the camera at 125th at f5.6 and said, “Go shoot!” That was it for me. For the first time in my life I felt alive and connected. My head and my heart finally worked together, and my life made sense. The next day I called my poor Dad and told him that I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and it wasn’t law.
Rust Macro 2, New Mexico, 2007
Do you find any points of intersection between your commercial and fine art work?
When I arrived in DC after a year’s graduate work in photojournalism at the
University of Missouri, I found myself in the position of having to survive while trying to stay committed to my “art” at the time. My first break was to get access to the Gulf Oil Refinery in Philadelphia through the aegis of the American Petroleum Institute and its Director of PR, Robert Goralski, one-time correspondent for NBC News. I was paid nothing! I had little money at the time as well. I spent everything I had on several bricks of Kodachrome 25 and drove up to Philly and spent six days in paradise shooting 20 hours a day. It was at the refinery that I discovered I could be true to making images I loved while making industrial images that were sensuous, beautiful and a complete sellout. So I finally had something to drag around in a slide projector to show to industry trade groups and corporations around the DC, Baltimore and Richmond areas. It wasn’t an easy sell at first, and I paid my dues like anyone else for several years, but eventually it paid off for me professionally. I was fortunate to shoot in the golden days of corporate annual reports before Reaganomics altered everything.
Early Rust Abstract
Aside from your “Roses” series, the “Rust” images are your most abstract work. Do you enjoy pushing further into non-representational imagery?
Yes. Actually, I took a long hiatus from shooting rust abstracts. For some reason I couldn’t “find” any great junk cars or I just was no longer able to “see” the patterns any longer. I don’t know what happened. But in the past three years, I began looking again…and I began seeing again. I believe it has to do with the depth of my grief over the death of my wife and the resulting realignment of my relationship with my two young children. I didn’t expect to be a single dad at age 62. Yet, something very powerful has happened to me, and some of it has been reflected in the resurgence in my work. It’s all equal, however, with my suddenly intense and close relationship with my daughters.
Was your decision to shoot these in color in part to provoke a warmer emotional tone?
Yes. When I came home from France earlier this year with a vast number of new abstracts of both rust and chipped paint, I actually converted some images into black and white just to see how they would look. Didn’t work at all. Not even when I used the Alien Exposure plug-in and toyed with infrared, Rodinal developer, Tri-X, etc. Grayscale just didn’t convey the emotions I experienced when I saw and made the original images.
Are these colors as you find them, or do you modify them any in Photoshop?
Since I’m slightly color blind on the low end of the spectrum, I’ve found that a little tweak for me in Photoshop is a good thing. When I feel comfortable with the final colors, I find that viewers like you respond very positively to them.
Rust Macro, Arizona, 2003
Your colors are beautiful and sensual, never harsh. Is this a philosophic as well as aesthetic choice?
No matter how I “see” the original colors, I’m responding to them on some deep emotional level. It’s all relative. Throughout my professional career I was known for the almost Technicolor intensity of my color work. And that was way before Photoshop. I always bracketed like crazy, I shot under all sorts of lighting conditions, and I used 81A and Polarizer filters exclusively.
One characteristic of abstract imagery is the way it challenges people to reassess their visual environments.
I’ve never really thought like that, Dean. I have never thought in terms of having an “objective” when making abstract images…or more precisely, while searching for these little pieces of abstractions found in rust patterns. I crawl over junk autos on bright sunny days and cold overcast days, totally absorbed by the infinite intricacies I see in the viewfinder. The process of the shoot is a source of intense joy for me. And it’s quite simple, although if someone’s watching me I must be quite a sight. If I’m shooting analog, it’s just me and my Leica R4 with a motor drive, a Leitz 60mm macro with a Leitz extension tube fully racked out, and Provia Pro 100. The meter is usually set to aperture priority at f8.0. I don’t manually focus the lens; I move myself. I hold my breath while I shoot and then end up gasping for air in between takes. This goes on for hours and many rolls of film. The process is the same in digital, where I use a Nikon D-300 and D-300s and a Nikkor 105 macro with and without the extension tube. Not only do I experience the joy of seeing and making these images at the location and in the moment; I get to feel the same joy and intensity again when I scan the slides or work the RAW images on my computer. In what other art form do you get to experience that creative discovery moment over and over?
Rose, Portland, Oregon, 2004
Are you more interested in stirring the emotions or the intellect?
Either one. If my work elicits an emotional or an intellectual reaction, I’m honored. I don’t shoot with that in mind. My greatest mentor was my high school English teacher, Thomas Chaffee. He taught me many things that shaped me then and influence me to this day. First among them is this quote from D.H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller; trust the tale.”
Would it be fair to say that your work is primarily concerned with the transformative effects of time?
Yes. But again, that’s a verbal concept that I would not have come up with.
Okay, so do you find beauty in decay?
I see beauty in evolution, in growth, in aging, in change, in transformation. There is the same beauty of transformation in my portrait of a street chef in Borneo. The drop of perspiration on his upper lip will transform to nothingness if we just wait a little bit. The petals in one of my flower still lifes will fall or wilt naturally through age if we just wait a little bit. Or maybe they won’t if they’re artificial. Who knows? In the end, does it matter?
Rust Macro 1, New Mexico, 2007
Although rust is a state of deterioration, the feeling I get from these images is one of organic growth or rebirth. Which state do you try to evoke?
Rebirth. And from that, hope.
One might almost take these photographs for life forms evocative of other planes or dimensions of existence. Do you get any feedback along these lines?
I do. There are several other Rust images that invite all kinds of interesting, wild and imaginative—comments. I love that. Again, these images provoke mostly emotional responses that range from whimsical to serious to the vintage yet valid “Oh, wow!” syndrome.
Is this an ongoing series?
Yes…as long as there’s rust, junk cars, peeling paint, rotting textures, and surly yet lovable junkyard owners who aren’t threatened at what I’m doing when I show them samples of my work and ask permission to shoot on their property, I’ll do it as long as I can hold a camera. The process and the results are a source of continuing joy and fulfillment for me.
Rust Macro 4, Missouri, 1974
Your work is wonderfully varied—you can’t be pinned down to a particular genre or approach. How do you see your photography developing in the future?
This is the highest compliment I’ve received about the breadth of my work. This comment is one of the first that shows someone gets what I do and what I see. For my entire career clients have seen me only as a corporate shooter; gallery owners, museum photo directors have seen this “varied” style as a weakness rather than a strength. The feedback I’ve always received from the art side has mostly been one of frustration because I haven’t been able to be “pinned down to a particular genre or approach.” It used to hurt and frustrate me.
Now it no longer matters. No matter the image I see and create, whether it’s a color rust abstract, a stunning black-and-white portrait, a portfolio of boxers in gyms in Watts, street photography, architecture, whatever I shoot….it’s all processed by the same brain, seen by the same eye, felt by the same heart, embraced by the same soul. At age 62 I feel like I’m more alive and more attuned to my world visually and emotionally than I ever have been. I feel that I’m at a newer and different stage in my life. I can be awed and excited and moved by the images of the life around me in a much different way today than I was 10, 20 years ago. I never expected this to happen quite this way. Actually, I never expected any of this to happen. So, yes, my photography is evolving and growing in ways I could never have imagined. Most of my friends are retired. I’m just hitting my stride…I never planned any of this. I’m having a ball and I’m very grateful.
Street Chef, Borneo, 1990
(I profiled Witkowski for the July 2010 issue of COLOR magazine. You can check out more of his intriguing color imagery here: http://atwitsend.org.)