Behind The Lens: An Interview with Bob Kolbrener
View Bob Kolbrener photographs in The Ansel Adams Gallery Exhibition “Yosemite and The West”
Join us in an interview with Bob Kolbrener, fine art photographer, explorer, and creative optimist. More than forty-five years ago Bob made a commitment to continue in the Ansel Adams tradition of “straight” photography.
Says Bob, “There is no use of computers or multiple imagery. There is no print or negative enhancement such as bleaching or intensification. All of my photographs are made in the Great American West using 2 ¼” and 8 x 10” cameras. I print up to 40 x 50” inches the “old fashioned way” using fiber based paper, tray processing and selenium toner. My goal is to produce prints which truly celebrate those most exciting photographic moments!”
(AAG) What draws you to photographing Yosemite?
BK: When I go to Yosemite, I don’t even have to think about photography. My camera equipment demands coming out. It is my favorite place to photograph.
After many years exploring the Park, I have a sense of where to go, and because it is a favorite place, I always have something [to photograph] in my mind as a possibility, I always have a chance.
(AAG) What was your first introduction to Ansel Adams and his work?
BK: It was 1968. I wandered into Best’s studio in Yosemite Valley. Best’s Studio was changed to The Ansel Adams Gallery in the 1970’s. In front of me were six or eight of the most amazing photographs I had ever seen.
It was my first trip west from Missouri. I saw Ansel’s pictures on the wall, there was incense burning, classical music playing, and it left an impression on me. I can hear it, smell it and see it to this day. I returned to St. Louis at the end of the trip and several months later I picked up one of the monthly photography magazines and saw that Ansel Adams offered workshops in Yosemite.
You could go in the Spring and work with him. You had to send in your portfolio, which I did, and I was accepted. During the Spring of 1969 I was a student at Ansel’s Spring Yosemite Workshop.
(AAG) How was the workshop? Did it inspire your photography practice?
BK: Mind Blowing! To be in the presence of Ansel Adams, with his instructors who were very interesting and giving people. I made fast friends with other photographers in the workshop. It was an epiphany, a turning point.
The workshop inspired me to work that much harder at doing photography. I kept thinking, “How can I do this all day long?” After the workshop, I started out as a sports photographer in St. Louis, two of my clients being the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, as well as the St. Louis Blues.
I kept that up for a few years, and then transitioned to advertising photography. Then every Spring and every Fall, my wife Sharon and I would jump in our van and come out into the Great American West, which we’ve been doing now for over 50 years.
Bob Kolbrener on one his trips throughout the American West
(AAG) When you take trips throughout the American West, how long do you travel for? What are they like?
BK: It’s my favorite thing to do. We go for three to four weeks at a time. We don’t go to campgrounds or restaurants. We’re on dirt roads, public land, living like children. We let the trip take us.
I know basically the direction I want to go in, then we let chance be our guide. From Yosemite to Mono Lake, maybe Lone Pine, then east, maybe through Nevada and South Eastern Utah. Nowadays, parks have become selfie amusements and are so overrun that we bypass most of them.
The result is that we spend the majority of our time on public land. There may be a sign that says “Please Close Gate” but the gates are not locked. We love the freedom of being out and not dealing with all that craziness in more crowded places.
We don’t have to go to Bryce, Zion, and Arches. There’s more to photograph out there. If I’m within 50-100 miles of them, I’m happy.
(AAG) You worked at The Ansel Adams Gallery while Ansel was teaching summer workshops in the 1970s. What was it like being part of the Gallery back then?
BK: I was an assistant at Ansel’s workshop in 1973 with Alan Ross, Ted Orland, Sally Mann, amongst others. The next summer in 1974, [when the Gallery was owned and operated by Ansel’s son Michael and his wife Jeanne Adams] I was hired to take visitors on photo walks out of the gallery.
I took park visitors on walks four or five days a week, and a couple nights a week I taught park employees processing and printing in Ansel’s darkroom. People signed up to join me in the darkroom, and I had anywhere from three to six to eight people showing up for two weeks at a time. We met a couple times a week and it was a lot of fun.
(AAG) What were the photo walks like back then?
BK: Back then, I’d have the mornings off, so I’d show up at the gallery right after lunch and there would be anywhere from 3-15 people signed up. I would march off with all of these people behind me and take them on a nice photo walk.
I’d share with them how to shoot waterfalls at different shutter speeds and portraits in soft light instead of hard light. We would do hour and a half long photo walks five days a week, which I did April through September.
(AAG) Did you spend a lot of time in Ansel’s presence when you worked at the Gallery? Did he come around a lot outside of those workshop dates?
BK: My recollection, and I didn’t spend that much time around him, is that he was not always present. It wasn’t like every week I saw him, but I remember one morning walking into the Ahwahnee dining room for breakfast and there he was, sitting with Virginia and [Bill] Turnage.
I remember being so ecstatic, thinking “here I am in Yosemite with my cameras, and here is Ansel Adams eating breakfast!” I was so amused and overwhelmed by his presence.
For his workshops, of course he was here in Yosemite. He would also come up to the park for something special, like to meet Beaumont or Nancy Newhall. I think when he wasn’t leading a workshop, he was at home in Carmel making prints. I remember him as a big man with a big camera and a big personality.
A once a century kind of guy, it’s just that simple. People like that just don’t happen all that often. I always felt very lucky to have been in his presence. Ansel was bigger than life and everyone appreciated that and felt it.
(AAG) Do you have any other memories with Ansel you’d like to share?
BK: I can tell you a quick story; there was one time I really pissed him off! There was a printing workshop at his house in Carmel, with 8 or 10 people in his darkroom. Ansel did a printing demonstration. In his darkroom, he didn’t use an electric metronome.
He used a pianist metronome where the arm went back and forth…tick tick tick… At any rate, he had finished his demonstration and all the white lights were back on. I was standing in the back and this pianist metronome is five feet from me going tick tick tick tick…I just reached over and I shut it off.
That thing wasn’t off for a quarter of a second when he whipped his head over and said “Who did that?” I said “Oh! I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry!” And I turned it back on. That’s a wonderful story, isn’t it? I got myself in trouble there.
(AAG) How has the evolution of camera technology and digital cameras affected your practice? Have you adapted to it or stayed true to more traditional methods of creating?
BK: That’s a good question. A lot of photographers went over to digital technology in the last ten or fifteen years. I never did that. I never even thought about it honestly. And how do I justify that? Partly, my age. Fifteen years ago I was almost 65 years old. So, I had been doing traditional black and whtie analog photography for forty years at that point.
I’d spent all these years to perfect this, so why go sideways now? On top of that, I love the process. I love film; I love loading my cameras and processing and just the whole thing. I’ve never ever gone into my darkroom and thought, “Oh what a drudge this is going to be!” It’s always been an inspiration to go into the darkroom. I just love it, and I have never felt like I’ve used myself up.
All I have to do is go out. There are so many secrets in the natural world, or anywhere, in any town. If your eyes are open and you’re sensitive, something’s going to say, “Hey, photograph me!” Or at least think about it.
I’ve never walked into my studio, so to speak, like a sculptor or painter would and looked at a blank canvas or a hunk of clay and thought, “What do I do today?” All I do is go out and something will happen. So I just keep doing it…I have an insatiable need to make photographs.
Not every minute, not every day, but after a few weeks if I haven’t made a negative, I find myself looking harder, trying to find something to photograph. I just keep doing it, it’s fun, I love it, and there you are.
Explore Yosemite and The West: Photographs by Bob Kolbrener