Interview conducted by Theresa Bembnister, Akron Art Museum Associate Curator
Akron Art Museum: Can you explain to me your interest in photographing the American West, specifically the national parks?
Bob Herbst: In 1993 I decided to take a photography workshop in southern Utah which involved camping out in the desert and photographing for a week. My wife and I were raised in camping-oriented families and had done canoeing expeditions for the 10 years prior in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, so it sounded like something I would enjoy. I added a few extra days on the front end of the trip and stopped at Zion and Bryce National Parks on my way from Las Vegas to the location of the workshop in what is now known as the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument. I was hooked immediately. I had seen the Smoky Mountains and Yosemite, but nothing like the canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It was grand, peaceful, unlike anything I had ever seen, and like another planet in some cases. It was a beautiful place to photograph but just being there was enough for me. I camped out in the desert in a small tent under the stars, occasionally staying at a motel for a break, a soft bed, and a good hearty meal.
Jane went with me in 1994. I did solo trips in 1995 and 1996, and two trips with my best friend in 1997 and 1999. I returned in 2005 and 2006 with a different friend who had also explored some of the same areas himself for a number of years. With two four-wheel-drive vehicles, we could go places where it wouldn’t be safe for just one…and we did. Health and day job issues kept me away for a while but I returned in 2012 for what I considered my last “hurrah!” It was time to move on. I have years of printing ahead.
Your question caused me to reminisce a little and I found a picture that another workshop student took of me on the canyon country exploratory in 1993. I could carry that camera pack and tripod all day back then. This is where the 20-year odyssey started. The canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona is a very special place for me. Many of the national parks and national monuments are not well known which made exploring them all the more special over 20 years.
At least one of the scenes you captured in your photographs in Our Land is no longer accessible to the general public, correct? How did you reach that overlook and why is it no longer available to park visitors?
Actually, both images are taken at standard viewpoints in the parks easily accessible by car. The image at Bryce Point is gone because split rail fences have been erected in the foreground in an attempt to restrict tourists from getting too close to the edge. The areas I mentioned that are no longer accessible are typically land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal government branch. They have fewer resources than the National Park Service and manage far more land so they sometimes have to close areas due to funding issues. The National Park Service does an absolutely wonderful job of keeping the parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona accessible. In this country, it is not unusual for numerous dirt and gravel roads to be washed out completely several times a year. A single thunderstorm in Canyonlands National Park can change everybody’s plans on the White Rim Road. I have had that experience. Our trip out from Toroweep in the Grand Canyon National Park was similar after a major thunderstorm that wiped out roads all over the area. We made it out with a National Forest Service fire truck behind us if we got stuck – an angel on our shoulders! The park service has regular ranger patrols to help broken down or stuck visitors and to report road conditions. They repair the roads as quickly as conditions allow. I have been very impressed during my travels throughout the parks and have nothing but praise for the National Park Service.
Your photographs of the American West are remarkable, but you’ve also taken pictures of national park scenery closer to home. What can you tell me about your photographs of the Ohio Turnpike bridges in Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
I began photographing the turnpike bridges in 2002 when I started working with a 12×20 inch view camera. Digital negatives were in their infancy at that time so you still needed a big negative for big prints. Because of the size and weight of all of the associated equipment, I needed local subjects for working with the camera. My wife and I had spent a lot of time in the Cuyahoga Valley on towpath trails walking our dog and when I was chasing the Cuyahoga Valley Line steam train up and down the valley in the late 1980s. The scale of the new bridges captivated me, especially when viewed from below. They were part way through the construction of the second bridge at the time. Some of the very first 12×20 negatives I shot were of the bridges.
A 12×20 camera made from brass and mahogany with a red bellows tends to attract attention where ever you are. One Saturday I was shooting the bridges from Riverview Road and a man stopped by out of curiosity. He saw the camera and we chatted for a while. He turned out to be the supervisor of the entire turnpike bridge construction project for the main contractor. He gave me permission to photograph on the construction site on the weekends when they weren’t working and gave me one of his business cards for any questions I might get from others. I returned periodically until both bridges were complete and the last of the old bridges was dynamited and demolished.
I would also like for you to see an iconic image from 1989 in what was then the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, still administered by the National Park Service. The “National Park” designation came in 2000. The train was pulled by a steam locomotive, No. 4070, and known as the Cuyahoga Valley Line. It ran between Howard Street in Akron and Cleveland. The next year I spent the winter photographing the refurbishment of the locomotive in the old B&O roundhouse in the flats of Cleveland. After chasing it up and down the river valley all summer and fall, I captured the attached image at the Ira Road crossing near Hale Farm. A catastrophic mechanical failure early the following year sidelined the locomotive forever. Diesel locomotives have pulled the CVSR excursion train ever since.
What type of camera do you use?
I have used a variety of camera formats over the years progressing through 35mm, 2-1/4” square, 4×5, 8×10, 12×20, and digital. Bryce Point, Snowy October Morning was shot with a 4×5 camera. The print is from a digitally enlarged negative made on an Epson ink jet printer. Green River Overlook, After the Storm was shot with a 12×20 camera, so the print is a contact print from the original 12×20 film negative. Platinum/palladium printing is a contact printing process so you need a negative the size of the print you want. Up until about 13 years ago when digital negatives became a viable option, the other options for creating large negatives was to either shoot with a large format camera, or employ a tedious multi-step wet darkroom process to create enlarged film negatives from smaller negatives. In 2002 I wrote an article in View Camera magazine about that process. I now print almost entirely from digital negatives made on an Epson ink jet printer. The source of the image can be a scan of any size of film, b&w or color negatives or color transparencies, or from direct digital capture from a phone, digital camera, or scanner.
Why do you print your work using the platinum/palladium method?
I started printing black and white silver gelatin in the camera club darkroom at Goodyear Jr. High School in Akron in 1970. I was the quintessential high school yearbook and newspaper photographer at Akron East High School from 1971-1974 and did senior pictures in college after that. In 1991, at the urging of a friend, I took an evening class on platinum/palladium printing at Kent State University. I fell in love with the process. It renders images so much more beautifully than what I could get from silver gelatin. Platinum prints have a subtle tonal rendering, a smoother scale, an inner luminescence, and ability to represent a greater scale of light than is possible in traditional silver gelatin papers or ink jet prints. The images appear to have more depth because the coating solution soaks deep into the paper. A traditional silver gelatin print has an emulsion that sits on top of the paper making the image look more two-dimensional. Ink jet prints are mostly ink on the surface of the paper.
But as much as anything, for me, platinum/palladium printing is about the handmade print…made one at a time, coated with a brush, processed in trays, and placed on screens to dry, all by my hand.
Our Land, an exhibition of photographs of areas under the management of the National Park Service, is on view through February 12, 2017 in the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Gallery. The exhibition includes the photographs Bryce Point, Snowy October Morning and Green River Overlook, After the Storm by Bob Herbst, along with photographs by Richard Misrach, Ansel Adams, Masumi Hayashi, Ricky Rhodes, Marilyn Bridges and others.