Read an Excerpt
ONLY THIS AND ONLY ME
When all cameras were wooden boxes, with a window and a singular eye, it was easy to liken them to a mind with an eye and a consciousness. One might recognize that we see and comprehend our world, with periodic clarity, understanding in great detail, then, closing to darkness, only to open again later, in crystal light. The box opens at times to reveal a nature, a land, a face. Reality rushes in, a tide to a small pool, with its nourishment. Some of its richness accreting on the sensitives places inside. Much of the reality is never deposited, perhaps drifting out on the next tide. The “inhabitant” of this periodically open and aware mind, gleans what he can with this net. Like fishermen and sifting miners, we troll and rake the world, seeking those silvery shards of nourishment, glinting in the dark.
We each find our nourishment in different places. We have, after all, different hungers. Few of us hunger for what we already have in abundance. We hunger for fulfillment, often seeking what is missing in our own sense of ourselves, or what we feel will fill our emotional cupboard. We are often drawn to the mysterious calling of places we don’t know, people whose lives we cannot fathom, or a body unlike our own. Our hope is to learn from that mystery, to be nourished, filled and changed by it.
Some great teachers prod their students to look for these mysteries very close to home. Find them in the face of your child, the morning light in your bedroom, the soft hairs on the back of your own wrist. Certainly these can be as mysterious as the wildlife on the Zambezi River.
Some hunger for a different repast. Fred Roberts needs to travel. He needs to examine life that appears far different from his own. He hungers for understanding of the realities of people whose experiences he can barely imagine. Yet, as he encounters them, he creates a sense of intimacy with them. He makes a deep connection that seems to see far beneath their skin. How can this be?
Fred Roberts is a man of prodigious passion. He drove himself to great success in business. He moved quickly and decisively toward goals and learned to spot opportunities where others saw nothing. These are transferable skills. This book of images identifies how passionate and decisive he has been in his art. Long before he began seriously photographing, he was a “serious” traveler. Roberts has spent most of his adult life exploring very far from home. He is not a shy man and has had made it a point to get far beyond the brief contacts that mark casual travel. He has been in the homes, the classrooms, the religious ceremonies of people throughout the world. He has been hosted in the homes of villagers who have no possibility for material success. But their spiritual life makes them rich. For a man like Roberts, who has seen many wealthy people who seem spiritually bereft, this is an essential and life changing recognition. Wealth comes from the inside. But photography generally sees only surface. Roberts task, then, is to work for the intimacy that opens our view to a deeper, more essential vision of his subjects.
Roberts seeks a kind of equilibrium. He seeks something in his subjects that a musician might define as resonance. He has recognized much of himself in the people he photographs. He sees them as his equal or even as his teachers. It is common for traveling photographers to “shoot down the social ladder.” We have all seen the sad eyed children, the breastfeeding mother sitting in the dust of some underdeveloped, hopeless place. The photographer often feels he has in some way helped that individual by recognizing their plight. It is easier to see “the other” as victim than it is to see beyond the cliche. Roberts, however, uses the camera as a sort of scale. The subject, in the balance, is equal to the photographer and by extension to the viewer. What we see in the end is not something exotic as we might expect, but rather another version of someone not unlike ourselves. The old man in the saffron turban and long white beard, has a life substantially distinct from my own, but I recognize his expression. It is a dignified, penetrating gaze, as curious and hungry as the one I imagine to have been on the photographer’s face; and perhaps, if I had a mirror on hand now as I confront the image, I have on my own face. The postures, the occupations, the expressions seen in his images are consistently dignified. He is drawn to people who seem self-possessed and project a sense of wholeness. There has never been a more important time for us to look with dignity and respect on people in the places that Roberts visits.
Fred Roberts is also a sensualist. The way light kneads into the ripples of a draped sari, the manner that light stutters over the follicles of a newly shaved monk’s head, or how golden honeyed light pours into a classroom, causing the backs of the students to emerge from the dark. Dense wet wooly fog on boats, sunlight seeping through the smoke of village dung fires as women bear their headlands and cows browse, symphonic billows of cloud wrestle vainly to shroud the declining sun over the ocean. Roberts’ passions are triggered by these phenomena as surely as he is engaged by the people he encounters. He understands that the endless vocabulary of light can ignite the most mundane object, transforming it into a glowing sacred icon and as quickly extinguishing it to worthlessness. Readiness is all and Fred Roberts is ready.
Walker Evans said, in an interview with Leslie Katz in 1971, “It’s as though there’s a wonderful secret in a certain place and I can capture it. Only I can do it at this moment, only this and only me. That’s a hell of a thing to believe, but I believe it or I couldn’t act.”
It seems that Fred Roberts feels the same. As he trolls through the world seeking resonance, we are fortunate that he is now sharing his secrets with us.
Arthur Ollman, Director, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, California 2004