Confessions of a Life-long Street Photographer
Chatting with Orville Robertson about his work
Orville Robertson sometimes acts tough. For 37 years, he has been a student of humanity, centering lately on the four corners of New York City. With his own work exhibited in several private and museum collections, he co-curated the Brooklyn Museum’s 2001 exhibit “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers,” and edited and published the photography journal Fotophile from 1993–2007. He’s now retired, save for his spontaneous “walkabouts,” during which he sometimes snaps pictures. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Robertson about his work and what he’s been up to lately.
Emily von Hoffmann: You have been a photographer for 37 years and had quite a large life it seems like — if possible, can you recall for me the first image you took or project you worked on when you knew this was to be your craft? What got you hooked?
Orville Robertson: What first got me interested I think was by default becoming the family photographer because no one else wanted that task. Then I developed a real interest in photographing family and close friends outside of our house. For some odd reason I bought a cheap 110 Instamatic then a no-name 35mm SLR. Film and processing were always too expensive, so from then until now I learned to be economical in shooting. In late 1982 I stopped shooting for about a year because I hated my color work.
Then sometime in 1983 I read about photographer André Kertesz. By then I was haunting the old Olden Camera and a bunch other stores to mostly play with Leicas. They were so small and cool and wildly unaffordable. One day my guy at Olden showed me a recently discontinued camera ignored by his paying customers. It was the Minolta CLE with a 40mm/2.0 lens. He gave me the favorite son price, so I snapped it up. Still have it but no longer use it. I’d never tried black & white film before and faced the same dilemma as when I had given up on color negative then color slide film. However I persisted partly because I really loved what I was doing, loved the camera, and had spent too much money to admit defeat. It wasn’t until late 1984 that I began getting consistent results mostly by imitating Kertesz.
EvH: You mentioned that you’re retired now, save for the street photography — can you tell us about a few of your favorite spots in the city to people watch? How did you find these spots?
OR: I have so many favorite corners! This is a big city. I love Broadway and Houston; all four corners. Broadway and Prince; all four corners. Northeast corner Broadway and Spring. Love love love the Flatiron plaza corners! Thing is that I periodically forget about them and go check out someplace else. Several times a year my wife and I’ll hit the road and go driving to nowhere in particular and stop in small towns. She loves photographing just as much as me! This is one reason why I still feel fresh after all these years. We were both born in small towns; her in New Philadelphia, Ohio and me in Kingston, Jamaica.
EvH: In the short documentary about you by Patrick Pearse — I thought that was a really beautiful portrait — you talk a bit about the need for a street photographer to “act tough.” I’d love for you to tell me about your experience with this. It’s a little counterintuitive compared to the relationship between photographer and subject in, say, a documentary or portrait session. Would you say that that slightly veiled aggression, or conveying the potential for aggression, is essential to street photography?
OR: Patrick Pearse is an amazing filmmaker! He emailed me and asked to follow me around for a film he was making about creative folks. I agreed with the only condition that I would be myself and actually shooting. I warned him that 99% of my time was spent wandering about aimlessly and might be boring. And that’s what we did!
Somehow he made that interesting. I helped by speaking my mind about shooting in the city. I come from a background of living in tough neighborhoods where the way to survive was to act and be tough enough. That’s all. I can’t change me. When I go on my walkabouts I’m alone and never talk to anyone. I go to see things. Occasionally I take a picture. The idea is to see stuff and learn and enrich my life. I don’t go out to take pictures. I grab two cameras and have fun.
EvH: If you had to choose one or two (or a few), what are the images that you treasure most right now, from over the course of your career?
OR: I’d hate for it to happen, but I could lose all the pictures I’ve ever taken as long as I can still see interesting things. All I care about is the next picture. I enjoy looking at my old work but so what? This is where I’m headed.
EvH: Can you share a little about co-curating the “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers” exhibit at the Brooklyn museum? What was that experience like, and how did the idea arise?
OR: This exhibit came as a total surprise. I first met the curator Barbara Head Millstein in 1987. We had a bond almost immediately because even though she was a very tough cookie she treated me like a regular guy and acted like a regular girl. She kept encouraging me to keep showing her work until finally one day she totally shocked me by buying a piece. That meant everything to me. One day she told me that she was putting together a major exhibit on black photographers that she’d tried doing once before but failed. I nodded and wished her luck.
Then she floored me by saying that not only did she want me in it she wanted me to help curate. I thought she was nuts! I said Barbara I have no qualifications or weight to handle something like this. After all, I‘d never even curated a camera club exhibit. At the time, however, I had been publishing a photography journal named Fotophile for a few years. she came back at me with that and said she needed me as balance. Later I understood what she meant. I knew most of the other black photographers who would be in the exhibit but was not clubby with them. It was a tough and rewarding experience up until the opening when ugly politics nearly ruined the whole thing. I spent the entire opening hanging out with friends and avoided the press, not that they were hunting me down anyway. I even got on to an elevator with a bunch of them at one point. None of them knew me, thankfully. To tell the truth I don’t remember any images from the exhibit. On the other hand I’d do it all over again. Barbara was special. We used to hang out and go to dinner and just be buds. I get upset knowing she’s no longer around, but in a way she always will be.
EvH: Do you have any advice for the up-and-coming photographers among our readers?
OR: No advice at all. That’s dime a dozen. Maybe they’ve got advice for me!
EvH: What is some artifact or piece of culture that gives you joy or inspiration right now?
OR: I shoot with a good sized collection of vintage film cameras. They keep me going and bring meaning and simplicity as well as complexity and frustration to my work. The only other artifacts I love are my photography books and odd pieces of folk art I’ve bought over the years, mostly in small towns whose names I can’t remember. I’ve got a rusty trowel painted on the bottom with a stunning winter landscape of a small farmhouse and trees and surrounding fields.