This is the first in a series of interviews where I hope to speak with photographers about their vision, their craft and yes, even their gear. I have titled this new series Depth of Field. ((pun intended.))
Robb Kendrick was born in Spur, Texas in 1963 and currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with his wife, writer Jeannie Ralston, and their two boys. Robb has traveled to more than 75 countries on assignment and has completed more than a dozen stories for National Geographic. National Geographic used his image of a young Nebraska farm girl for the cover the cover of their book “In Focus“. Some years back Robb found a love for all things tintype.
Click on the images to view larger.
Matt: First, I think a little background would be helpful to my readers. How long have you been shooting?
Robb: 24 years professionally
Matt: When did it dawn on you that you could make a living off of photography?
Robb: 26 years ago while at University
Matt: I think many readers assume National Geographic photographers make their sole income off the magazine’s assignments is this true? (if not) What else do you shoot to keep food on the table?
Robb: I shoot a variety of projects, some advertising, some Annual Report, but over the past 18 years I’ve invested in real estate and other areas to where photography is more a supplemental income. This has given me freedom to be more selective with photo projects. It has been a blessing given the current health of the photo industry or lack of it.
Matt: I have already posted an article with links to some of your cowboy images on my blog. The whole tintype thing is fascinating. Growing up I remember being in the darkroom with my Dad, and putting my hands in the chemicals and the slick feeling of the developer and the acid burning in my nose of the fixer, it was all very tactile. But these feelings arel gone today in the digital world. But you seemed to have found them again in your tintype work. Is this important or am I just waxing nostalgic?
Robb: Digital is the reason I went back and found TIntypes. I don’t enjoy the computer and digital has forced many photographers to gather information with a camera and do a lot in post production which as NO interest to me. Tintypes are all one of a kind objects and it really slows you down to where making 4-8 images in a day is a big deal. Unlike the thousands that are made daily by NG digital photogs. That said Digital is a great tool, but one I’m not interested in.
Matt: You use a new box camera with some really old lenses, right? So how much of the end effect is the lens verses the tintype. I love the shallow depth of field, the tack sharp center and how it just drops of quickly to the side of the image.
Robb: For me it is impossible to separate the two. The old lenses in combination with the tintype and shooting contemporary images makes a sum total that all work together. I do not use modern lenses, because I feel the imperfections of the old glass works well with the imperfections of hand made tintypes.
Matt: How many of these old lenses do you have and where do you find them?
Robb: 80 lenses, but I primarily use 4 of them. Ebay is the place to locate them. I have many that will cover 20X24 and I hope to start making 14X17″ tintypes next year so some of the lenses I have will be dusted off and used for the larger images.
Matt: I guess the flaws in a piece of old glass like that help the aged look of a new tintype?
Matt: Do these lenses have fixed apertures? Are your exposures a matter of trial and error?
Robb: They have waterhouse stops, so the range is f 2.5- 32. Trial and error yes, but after the number of images I’ve made I can get pretty close on the first plate.
Matt: The tintype was in many ways the Polaroid of the Old West wasn’t it?
Robb: Yes, because it was nearly instant and the photographers traveled from town to town and shot them, processed and delivered immediately compared to a portrait studio shooting glass plate negs or dags.
Matt: I read somewhere that you learned this technique from someone else, do you every give workshops in tintype?
Robb: I do not. John Coffer was my teacher. www.johncoffer.com is his website and he is a tremendous resource and a very sharing person.
Matt: I know you travel the world shooting with National Geographic, I could imagine some fantastic portraits in India of old shepherds or in Indonesia or Malaysia of some tribal people. Have you done this?
Robb: Not on tintype. The chemicals necessary are not easily transported to foreign countries these days. Silver nitrate, potassium cyanide etc. Showing up to customs with bottles of crushed white powder is not anything I have done. Would love to someday though I have a lot of projects in tintype on going in Mexico and USA.
Matt: In this last issue of National Geographic, you shot images of the Tarahumara people of Northern Mexico. What was your vision going into this assignment?
Robb: I had photographed the Tarahumara in 1997 and found them fascinating and their world is under a lot of pressure these days so I proposed the story using a large format and color negative film. Again, not a very NG approach, but for me I have done 17 stories for NG and these days I want to concentrate on different approaches so I do NOT shoot 35mm digital for them any longer. The Tarahumara are very shy and not trusting of outsiders (they have been abused for 4 + centuries) So my thought was to do portraits with their consent. This proved to be the most productive way to work and the project in the end worked out well.
Matt: The images have some of the same feel of your cowboy shots, yet you shot them with a film camera and what looks like a ring flash.
Robb: These were 4X5 color negative with a ringflash.
Matt: Speaking of vision; do you go into an assignment knowing how you want to shoot it or does that develop once you arrive on site?
Robb: I think it develops to some degree as the project evolves. I have ideas, but want to be open to new possibilities as the project grows.
Matt: How heavily to you rely on a fixer when you’re going into an area or country you don’t know? So how do you find them?
Robb: I use local help of course because of language barriers and their connections, so they are invaluable to produce the most thorough coverage. Having been to 76 countries I have a list I’ve developed, but I use help from my colleagues when going into new areas.
Matt: People are always asking me if I desire to shoot for National Geographic. I tell them, heck yeah, but I would rather have a family. It seems to me covering assignments for the magazine can keep you away from your family for months, and this can’t be good for a marriage and raising kids. I read you moved your family to Mexico for just this reason. How do you balance family and work?
Robb: Prior to kids my travel schedule kept me on the road for 300+ days per year, after having kids I reduced it to 250 the first year and now have it down to about 100 days per year. For me family is the most important thing I have going on in my life today. The other investments I’ve made have given me the freedom to have steady reliable income coming in and moving to Mexico where cost of living is about 1/3 the cost has also contributed to more freedom and now I can focus on my personal work and publishing more books and also get into sculpture and painting.
Matt: Let’s talk Gear: When your on assignment, what kind of gear do you normally take along.
Robb: Digital jobs (commercial in nature) 2 Canon 5D’s, 24-70mm lens, 70-200 lens, no lighting, tripod that is rarely used. Apple MacBOOK Pro.
Matt: Do you do onsite back up while in the field? What do you uses?
Robb: Yes, Lacie Portable HD’s.
Matt: Typically what does your workflow in the field look like?
Robb: Very archaic. Download, edit in bridge, convert to tiff, slight sharpen to all files, deliver in a catalog.
Matt: What does your kit look like on any given assignment?
Robb: Tintype gear, 8X10 camera, 8 lenses, 4, 9, 16 Lens cameras from the 19th Century, 6’X12′ darkroom trailer, Reis tripod, and about 600 lbs of miscellaneous gear, and my Dodge 2500 truck to pull the darkroom trailer.
Matt: In closing, what are you working on now? Any images you can share with us?
Robb: Working on a book of the Tarahumara work that includes my journal pages and some tintypes that I took of the Tarahumara. Also, a personal project on Death in Mexico that is in a new artbook called Changelings.
Matt: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I know you are busy and this kind of thing doesn’t help get the work done.
Be sure and check out the links below. Visit Robb’s personal website HERE. You will find tons of great links to his work around the net and some great audio of the cowboys he’s photographed.
Mummies of Guanajuato: An Interview
New York Times Article