When Robert Asman was growing up in Cincinnati some 50 years ago, photography was simply a way to earn spending money. “Some kids in the neighborhood started a newspaper and I wanted to put photos in it,” Robert remembers. “To save money having prints made at the drugstore, I started researching how to make them myself and had my first rudimentary darkroom. I’ve had one ever since.”
Half-a-century on, Robert’s still making his own prints the old-fashioned way, but long ago expanded far beyond simple snapshots to a career’s worth of distinguished and versatile art photography, washed in silken black-and-white and disseminated in the exquisite silver gelatin prints which have won Robert not only the respect of his peers but of the collecting world. His manipulated images, each one handmade in the darkroom, are worlds apart from the digitally burnished. The images can be gritty and rough or ethereally beautiful and delicate, sometimes even shocking in their rawness. Robert uses the term “excavated” to describe his figures drawn out from the interaction of chemicals and silver, a process he’s manipulated in a multitude of ways over the years.
“I started playing with paper negatives and sometimes collaged them with real negatives,” Robert says of his earlier work. “By tearing, peeling layers, scratching the paper before putting it in the enlarger, I found I could create my own vocabulary for texture.” Much of this early work is represented in his series of female nudes, produced in Robert’s studio in Philadelphia, where he lived and taught photography for 30 years before moving to Asheville in 2007. Some of his unusual printing techniques were developed in collaboration with Joel Peter Witkin, the New Mexico photographer known for his still-life meditations on death and impermanence, some of them disturbing in their use of models considered as grotesques by society-at-large. Witkin was working on a project in Philadelphia at the time and used Robert’s studio to photograph. “We joked that we needed to call in an exorcist after he left,” Robert notes. “But his prints are masterful and he’s one of the few artist/photographers who still insists on making his own prints, which I totally admire.”
A new stage in Robert’s artistic development opened when he began manipulating, not the negative, but the chemical solution in which it was immersed, a process Robert calls “redevelopment,” in which the composition of the silver compound is altered. The results can be seen particularly dramatically in Robert’s “Clouds” series, enigmatic skyscapes radiating a brooding, sentient energy. “The literal alchemical transformation of the silver print fascinates me even today with the serendipity and realistic beauty possible with the medium,” Robert says.
The chemical manipulation is equally forceful in his series of Philadelphia cityscapes, part of a project Robert produced over ten years, starting in 2000, with funding from a Pew Foundation fellowship. The negatives, Robert explains in a description that sounds like a chemistry lab assignment, are “printed with diffusion and after processing, selenium toned and then bleached and brushed with sulfur.” The project was the inspiration for Robert’s current series of Asheville cityscapes, begun soon after Robert settled in the mountains six years ago. “Philadelphia had become a Pharma/Bankster Corporate haven and the creative energy that brought me there wasn’t the same,” Robert says of his decision to leave. “I always remembered Asheville and going with my family at holiday time to the Grove Park Inn.”
Robert’s expertise in the darkroom has brought him a host of processing work from fellow photographers and filmmakers. He works with the official photographers of musicians like Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen and, at one point during his Philadelphia years, with the director John Landis in developing and printing dailies for Landis’ film Trading Places, shot in the city and starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd.
Digital photography, the processing of which lacks the sensual and material pleasures of the traditional darkroom, remains a strictly commercial technology for Robert. “It’s great for reproduction and illustration, but I haven’t done anything with it artistically,” he explains. For him, the magic of real film remains as strong as when he first lifted a camera to his eye. “I was constantly taking pictures,” he says of those early days. “I thought it was like taking poems.”