by Rob Williamson
Rob Williamson took some great pictures for our last issue. He's the type of guy that you can count on to make you look like you know what you're doing, which we always appreciate. He's also the type of guy that makes you feel welcome and comfortable: he's no snob, no pretentious dude, no bummer. He's also very tall and a redhead with glasses who drives a motorcycle. But most importantly, he's a photographer who isn't as terrified for photography as I am. Here's to optimism looking more like casual realism. -Jen Snyder + YYY YesYesYes: So photography, huh? And you have a degree in photography. Does that mean you knew when you were 19 that you wanted to do this and are still doing it? Are you one of those people who are actually using their BA? You are an elusive breed. Rob Williamson: Yeah, pretty much. When I was young, I remember really wanting to take photos, but that would involve me handling a camera, and everything I touched as a kid would end up broken. My parents kept the camera away from me, and it became a mechanical wonder to me that I shouldn’t touch, like the garbage disposal. I took photography in high school. My teacher was a complete asshole, and I just tried to not fail the class. Then he had a heart attack. After I found out he didn’t die, I was stoked because I knew he wouldn’t be around anymore, at least while I was there. In that time, I got to mess around and figure out the darkroom and camera on my own. It ruled. One day I walked into class and the jerk was back. I thought the party was over. As it turns out the heart attack killed the asshole, burnt-out, public school teacher and kept the real-deal awesome Mr. Miyagi that was always there. From that point on, there was never a question of me doing anything else. After graduating from the standard “art school” experience in Indiana, I floated out to San Francisco. With the exception of a couple of jobs (selling guitars and killing mosquitoes on my bicycle), I’ve been fortunate to work based in photography. I know loads of folks don’t do what they've loved since they were 15. I guess I just never got bored.
YYY: I feel like photography is a particularly dangerous art form these days, more than other art forms. I worry about it. When digital cameras became available/affordable we saw flickr and photobucket turn everyone into an amateur photographer. Now with instagram and smart phones it's getting to be ridiculous. How do you weed out the good from the bad? Doesn't it seem like some of the original craft of having to have a good eye and skills in the darkroom was one of the things that kept photography on an elevated level, art-wise? Maybe this is due to the fact that pretty much anyone can press a button and call themselves a photographer. It literally takes no effort (although the result is not usually amazing). Whereas learning to play an instrument, paint a picture, sew, or write something down actually takes some time and effort of varying degrees. RW: The good will always be good, and the bad will be bad. I know that those are totally subjective terms, but history shows that the good shit sticks with us. Bad art does not inspire us to ask questions about the universe, express ourselves, or use our hands to make something beautiful. On an individual level, you can argue forever what good and bad art is, but collectively as a human beings, we are drawn to beauty. This collective agreement sifts out the bad (and naturally, some of the good are casualties) and in time the good remains. I don’t think it matters if you’re making images with a vintage Polaroid camera, a super expensive digital camera, or a burner flip phone. If something is good, then it’s good. Why should I dislike a photo because of the contraption it was taken with? Doesn’t that sound stupid? If you don’t like the results a certain camera produces that’s fine, but don’t blind yourself to something that may move you on principle alone. As far as the craft, yes, it’s dying, and that’s horribly tragic (because I love traditional photography). The same reason why everyone is now a photographer is the exact same reason why we hate to see traditional photography decline. We are all incredibly sentimental. We are sentimental about our meals, our cats, our lovers, and especially tradition and the past. I’m terrified of losing the things I love due to time. This is very true for photography, but I’m also terrified of becoming static and not evolving. I wanna understand the new “NEW” and try and find that good shit that will stick with me. When the camera first came out, painters were shitting all over it, and now we’re having a conversation about something that replaced something else and what a bummer it is. Our current experience of losing something to the past is not unique. The old GOOD is good and the new GOOD can be good too.
YYY: What about those Instagram filters? Isn't that kinda the most ridiculous shit ever? Making a photo look weathered is the same as buying jeans with pre-ripped holes in them right? Or a fake vintage Ozzy shirt from Urban Outfitters. Or am I being too sensitive? RW: I think it is true that shortcuts will never beat out the real deal. Posers are gunna pose and replication is, and will always be, cheesy. But shit man, sometimes things are here to be fun. If I was trying to be cool all the time, I’d be exhausted, and I’m already pretty tired from trying as it is. Instagram is fun as hell. As a photographer getting instant feedback by way of comments and likes is very satisfying. I am a photographer that desperately wants people to see my photography and discuss it. It’s undeniable that there is something in about Instagram that artists crave: an audience. To a large degree, it’s also approval. People LIKE your photos with a goddamned heart, which is traditionally the symbol of love. PEOPLE LOVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPH AND TELL YOU. On top of this, there is a public forum to discuss the photo and engage. I know we're not usually getting philosophical about your cat's asshole, but at least people are discussing something that you captured. As I discussed above, I have little to no interest in letting photographic medium dictate what I like visually and have seen some of the best photos of my life in all their horse-shit-filter glory on Instagram. If someone feels threatened by Instagram and Flickr and the Internet and 14 year old girls with Tumblrs, then do better and stop complaining. At the very least, try to have some fun.
YYY: Doesn't it seem like party photographers (who take the attractive-people-getting-wasted/shock-value pictures) are getting a little too much cred lately? I was trying to think of what really makes a great photograph and I feel like it's got to be more than just pop subject matter. Richard Avedon wasn't just a fashion photographer, and there was more to Diane Arbus' work than the abnormal people and situations that she shot. I'm not saying there's no value in street-photography and the like, but something's amiss with sites where people are interested in photos just to see pictures of themselves and their friends as opposed to looking at an objectively interesting photo. RW: Party photographers have a very important place for people because, as I mentioned earlier, we are incredibly sentimental. We love photographs of our happiest or memorable moments because we can relive the experience, remember and spark the feelings we had at that moment in time (like when you find a former lover's something or other and it smells like them. And you remember that before you hated them, you loved them.) The photographers who can successfully document these events have a skill all their own and have had to put time and work for it to look effortless. They have incredible timing and knowledge of their equipment. It’s not something I’m interested in, but as soon as the patina of time has washed over them, then we will have an incredible library of trends, fashions, culture, places, events and experiences. Even if people are trying to out-party each other in these photos, we still have a document of the ridiculous trend of everyone trying to out-party everyone else. Surely if you would look through a photo album of a 20’s flapper party, you wouldn’t have the same feelings that you do about current party photography because you’re disconnected from it. You’d be like “Holy shit! Look at that dress! Look at the dude’s haircut! Is that chick making duck lips?” Documentation always has relevance, but none more so than in the future.
YYY: How has your photography changed since you moved from Indiana? I imaging the subject matter is quit different (corn-fields to redwoods/corn-fields to party people, haha) I'm just kidding. I love all Hoosiers. But seriously, even as I write this question there is a crazy lady walking in circles, screaming at no one outside my window and I don’t even feel affected by it. San Francisco just is a larger, more "traditionally weird” city than Muncie, Indiana. RW: The biggest change to my photography since I moved from Indiana has been to let my concept exist within my photograph instead of trying to photograph my concept. My school was heavily focused on fine art in all departments and especially in photography. I was ready for this, fit right in and thrived, but when I left, I was so totally burnt out on fine art rhetoric and had to fall in love with image-making all over. It became impossible for me to raise my camera without asking myself a flood of questions as to why I was doing what I was doing, why I was shooting what I was shooting, and what each element involved in the photo (including my medium, choice of lens, film, so on and so on) implicated in my overarching concept (because everything has meaning whether it’s meaningless to you. "Just because” don’t cut the mustard). It can drive you crazy. So the for the past 8 years, I’ve been trying to find a decent balance. I’ve mostly let go of the feeling that my work had to be overtly conceptual. Now, often times, my deep philosophical concept that I want to convey might only be apparent to me. As far as my physical location having influence over my work, the biggest difference is light. Indiana does not have the dynamic quality of light compared to San Francisco. Indiana is flat soil that stretches out in every direction with little to no variation. The weather is hot and humid or cold and grey (save for 6 weeks out of the year we call Fall and Spring). The wilderness is like a thick dense block of the same color of green. San Francisco has hills, valleys, tall close-together buildings, a fucking ocean next door, microclimates, and incredibly diverse wilderness. All these things have influence on the ever-changing light. The “weirdness” hasn’t had too much effect on me. Although I really enjoy it, I’ve never been a street photographer.
YYY: One thing that is often a B U M M E R about making any sort of art is feeling like you must cater to the predilections and taste preferences of the rich to make a buck. How is this affecting your photography and design work? Especially as someone who works so closely with the internet in such an internet-dominated city. RW: Recently I was given some great advice. I was talking with a guy who owns his own production company, and I asked him how he keeps his buisness from killing his desire to make good work. His answer was to always try and incorporate a new element into the work. Try something that you’ve never tried before, but of course work just as hard at it as you normally would. It’ll come out great if you put the effort in. And maybe what you try won’t completely succeed, but who cares 'cause it’s not going in the MY GREATEST WORK OF ALL TIME folder anyway. So I bring what I do to the table when I’m hired but I’m also using it as a way to educate myself in preparation for something that I’m personally passionate about. I know it’s easier said than done, and Jesus, does it burn inside when they want you to use THAT font, that horse shit font, but I’m trying. YYY: You are known for being a happy, goofy, fun, good-times, extroverted dude who can be found snapping pictures at parties and events all over town. How do you keep up with yourself? What's the dark, sad side of Rob? Does he take pictures? RW: I know that some people view me as an exhausting individual, but it’s just my reality. I never thought of having to keep up with myself. The sad side motivates me to be exhausting. The sad side is that we have so much when so many have so little. A long time ago, I decided that, personally, to waste time and not appreciate my position in this world was offensive to those who weren’t dealt such great luck. To complain and sit on my ass and not take advantage of our ridiculous amount of leisure time, freedom, health, political stability, mobility, availability of needs and our excess of wants is disgusting. Never in human history has life been so easy as it is now for many of us in America. I think about it every single day, and it moves me to do as much as I can before death comes. That’s so much what my photography is about. I feel like I’ve surrounded myself with friends and a community that has these same feelings. My subjects are the people I see that are really trying hard to live and take advantage of our standings as mostly free people. Sad Rob doesn’t like to take photos, he’s busy being sad.
YYY: So what is your biggest concern as a photographer? RW: That I'm blowing it. YYY: Can you tell me about a really hard or desperate moment you've had recently? RW: A few months back my sister and I went to visit my grandfather. He’s a pretty wealthy man and has himself some primo tropical jungle land. When we got there, we were having the best time and were meeting my grandfather’s friends - all of whom were incredibly interesting. One was a mathematician and another happened to be an author I really admired. So cool to meet him. Anyway, there was a storm that unexpectedly came through and knocked out all the power. All hell broke loose, and almost everyone died - some right in front of my eyes. My sister and I nearly died too, but luckily a T-Rex fucked those raptors up before they could gut us. I’ve never looked at life the same again after that. I do often hold onto my butt though.
YYY: Human beings put a lot of value on and concern for (good and bad) things that are rare. Diamonds. Thrift Store scores. Limited Editions. Love. AIDS. Albinos. Maybe that's why photograph oversaturation is so unnerving and disappointing. Same for garage bands, blogs, start-ups... you name it. And maybe that's why we call people sell-outs and start to devalue their work after they become famous. And maybe that's why we like photographs in the first place; because they catch a singular moment in time that can't ever truly be replicated or returned to. What are we going to do about this? RW: What are we going to do about exclusivity? Nothing, I guess. It’s just part of human nature. It makes us feel like we know something and makes us feel cool. Someone will always have something on vinyl before you knew about it, and that's just the way it goes.
YYY: What responsibility do you have as an artist to involve yourself politically in this modern world? Should we be like, Instagram is owned by Facebook and Mark Zuckerburg is a capitalist scumbag who is anti-immigration? Should we be like Monsanto is poisoning us and withholding valuable information about what we put into our very bodies? RW: I don’t have any responsibility to involve myself politically, nor does anyone who makes art or calls themselves an artist. I believe the only responsibility a showing artist has is to defend their work (of course it’s ok if you don’t, as long as you can defend why you’re not defending your art work). So if you choose to take photos of buttholes, and you’re allowing them to be viewed publicly, be prepared for discussion.