In conjunction with Houston’s FotoFest 2012 Biennial celebration, William Reeves Fine Art is showing an extraordinary collection of tintypes by National Geographic photographer Robb Kendrick. The exhibition, The Cowboy Spirit: Faces of the American West (running through April 21) presents more than 100 cowboys and cowgirls, all in their remarkable, rightful place.
Kendrick’s handmade images do more than portray a person. You see a soul and a world. A world, thanks to Robb and the cowboys, we can view with even greater admiration and appreciation. Time is involved. Lots. In more ways than one.
Robb traveled more than 41,000 miles to 68 ranches and every state west of the Mississippi River except North Dakota and Washington State. Canada too. Behind his truck, he pulled a six foot by 12 foot vented trailer, loaded with dark room chemistry, eighty gallons of water, heater, AC, an iPod and more. To most, this might feel like pulling a load. To Robb, pure passion’s at the wheel. Joy too.
There is no styling involved in Robb’s tintypes. Kendrick captures his subjects as he found them. No makeup, no dress up.
When he climbs into his truck every morning, he puts it in gear with a “Wagon Ho!” and heads out.
There is no styling involved in Robb’s tintypes. Kendrick captures his subjects as he found them. No makeup, no dress up. The images show character, grit, mystique and perhaps more importantly, the legacy of their work. All are soulful.
Image after image conveys a connectedness between photographer and cowboy. Intimacy. In fact, if you were to give Robb any one name, he might launch into their story providing rich details, including the name of their horse, dog and family members.
To make one tintype, it takes from 45 minutes to four hours, sometimes longer. The process requires patience and talent. Robb brings more. He has genuine interest in learning about each ranch hand. Like tintyping, he learns, one cowboy at a time. Lovely. The end result is more than an image. Relationships are made.
“Many of those seen in the tintypes,” Robb says, “I still have friendships with and that is a special thing for me.”
The tintype seems as perfectly suited to the cowboys as Kendrick is to both. He bought his first tintype at a flea market when he was 19 years old and has always been attracted to the cowboy lifestyle. In an interview with National Geographic, he explained that “Cowboys love what they do . . . they look forward to every day . . . they define happiness by what they do . . . not by material wealth acquired.”
Similarly, Robb was drawn to making tintypes. “It was an experience that was very tactile,” he explains. “It smelled like photography. Your fingers got wet, they got dirty.”
I asked Robb how he would compare this body of work to his others. “My previous work has been more about capturing moments as an observer as opposed to engaging closely with the subjects. That is what is more fulfilling for me. The tintype process has allowed me into people’s lives like never before.”
In Kendrick’s book Still: Cowboys at the Start of the 21st Century, Marianne Wiggins describes Robb in her accompanying essay, Purely American: " . . . he is an artist, first and foremost, and is not satisfied with making dull or ordinary pictures. Both his reflexes and his eye for beauty can’t wait and won’t respond until the image that he sees through his lens is something that lights up his heart.”
I have known Robb for many years and he is just as reserved and self-effacing today as he was when we first met in 1985. After watching the National Geographic interview, I emailed Robb saying how GREAT I thought it was. Of course he remembered giving the interview back in August of 2011, but he never saw it. I emailed him the link.
Robb and the cowboy share similar lives. A connectedness runs through them like a river flows. They are all driven by their passion for work, and for excellence. Doing the job right.
William Reeves Fine Art is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and at other times by appointment. Kendrick will give an artist talk from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday and a book signing April 21 from 2 to 4 p.m.