John Orolin’s dad thought his son had lost his mind.
“I started out in the printing business,” John says. “But I decided I didn’t want to be a printer for the rest of my life, so I made up my mind to go to college. My father could not understand that. I was making as much money as a printer as he was and he’d worked all of his life. Why would I want to leave a good-paying job to go off to the University to take a chance? It just boggled his mind.”
Fortunately, the University (Illinois State at Bloomington) was where Orolin got turned on to photography, a calling he’s followed faithfully for nearly 60 years. While at school, Orolin met Nelson Smith, a photographer and educator who would become his mentor and one of the most profound influences on his art.
In addition to the guidance of Professor Smith, the young Orolin devoured books on photography and studied the works of others in the field. “The people who influenced me the most,” he recalls, “were the ones working in industrial photography, architectural photography, and that sort of thing. To tell you the truth, I was never into what you might call street photography.”
To illustrate the difference between “street photography” and the kind of shots he takes, Orolin points out a photo he took in college of a cross-country race. A street photographer, he insists, would go for the drama of the finish, snapping his photo just as the winner and the runner up cross the line locked in their battle. His photo, on the other hand, shows the runners in the middle of the race, strung out over the course with some of them crossing a bridge over a small river. To Orolin, the juxtaposition of the racers, the bridge, the river and the overhanging trees form a much more appealing piece of art.
There is an element of discovery in Orolin’s photography, a sense that you’re seeing something that’s always been there, but somehow you never really noticed it before. One of his earlier photos — a construction worker on some bridge pilings — demonstrates the point. We’ve all seen construction work, but the photo isolates the man in an environment of angles and plane in a way that gives the photo an almost surreal feeling. “I think that a photographer,” he says, “or any artist really, looks at life differently. They see details and the intricacies that most people just overlook.”
This discovery component has always been a part of his work. “There was this friend of my father’s,” he says. “This was back in 1960 when I had my first show. I had 50 or 60 prints laid out on the dining room table. Charlie Jeffries was his name. My father and he were both working men. I would not describe them cultured or well-read or as having any interest in the arts. Charlie saw the pictures and he asked me about them and looked through all of them. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect of, ‘You make me see what I normally only glance at.’ That has stayed with me a long time because I think that’s primarily what an artist tries to do.”
Found objects and everyday scenes populate Orolin’s work. Take, for example, his photo of a crumbling, dilapidated garage. “It was just out behind an old house,” he says, “dilapidated and falling down. My camera was in the back of the car so I stopped, got out my tripod and took a few pictures. That’s really the kind of work I like to do, more spontaneous.
“What does that photo say to me when I look at it? It makes me wish I could do it again digitally because it’s too light in one place. I’d like to burn it in a little more. You always look back at your work and wish you could change it. But what does it say to me? That’s a hard question…to me, texture is important. When I look at that I’d like to see the texture of the wood and the fence and the grass and the composition…and the juxtaposition of the door and the fence. They shouldn’t be together, but they are. It’s the angles and the roundness together. I like things that don’t look the way they’re supposed to.
“I’m a big fan of irony. If I look at the work I did 50 years ago and compare it to the work I do now, there is so much similarity. I really haven’t changed much in that respect, except in the way I handle stuff.”
One of the big changes in Orolin’s life has been the advent of digital photography. An early computer enthusiast who taught math and science at U.S. military bases around the world for several decades, Orolin is not intimidated by the information age. Instead, he whole-heartedly embraces new technology. This is illustrated most eloquently, perhaps, by the more than 300 cameras — both film and digital — that he’s collected over the years.
“Today,” he says, “I shoot everything in color. The ability to change color to black and white in the digital darkroom is absolutely wonderful…it expands your palette. It’s amazing.”
Like a lot of artists on the high side of 70, Orolin often thinks back to his early days with a tinge of nostalgia. “I have some regrets, I suppose,” he says of his long career behind the lens. “Back when I was first taking pictures there were so many things I saw that now I think, ‘I should have taken a picture of that.”‘