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If you spend time with Fred Roberts, you are immediately aware of his energetic magnetism. He seems to wrap everyone around him in a genial, alert, and playful air. He is genuinely interested in peopleperhaps even you. He is fascinated by the wide variety of ways to be human, and by the diverse conditions under which members of the human family live. In fact Mr. Roberts has had an interesting trajectory of his own. As an exceptionally successful businessman, he saw wealth and power at close range. He was courted, wined and dined, and had opportunities reserved for an elite few. In these circumstances, he did what the people around him seemed unable or unwilling to do: He preserved his objectivity. He did not assume that he was naturally entitled to such luxuries, or in fact that they were the pure indices of success. He was aware that the world contained other dynamics, other lives. And he has never assumed that his life has any greater intrinsic value than any of the people he has met in his travels. This is perhaps the rarest of his characteristics.
Fred Roberts is a photographer. What, then is he identifying as significant? Faces of individuals, the architecture and pastimes of rural Indian life, textures of light, atmospheric moments, those passing instants when the complex choreography of random people, each engaged in their own errands, comes together, first in an artist’s mind and then a fraction of a second later in the camera, these are his subjects. Through Roberts’ skill and effort, we are given close access to people who we would otherwise never encounter. We can visit the glint in a villager’s eye, the individual curled hairs of a fakir’s beard, the acrid plume of smoke from a monastery’s dung fire. Such access is not a given. Mr. Roberts’ open face, his engaging smile, his great interest in their story make him as interesting to the subjects as they are to him. No one seems fearful of this foreigner with a camera. Their interested and interesting expressions disarm us. They are looking at Roberts but by extension they are inviting us into their lives.
Most artists of note make their work look easy and in fact the great photographer Robert Adams has suggested that only images that look as if they are easily made can communicate the idea that beauty is commonplace. Fred Roberts has accomplished this. But those among us who have attempted related kinds of work, realize that he is thriving under difficult conditions, making his compositions seductively sophisticated. He wants his ideas to be visible through the image and not as a caption under it. He seeks images that function as pieces of this observed world transferred directly to our minds.
Fred Roberts has made much of the idea that the people he encounters are spiritually wealthy. He does not argue that they are necessarily content living with little material comfort. Many of them have no hope for a material salvation. In most cases they have never known anyone with any substantial wealth. He is not portraying the noble savage or the untouched primitive. He is identifying these people have something very few of us, in our western culture, have. They have a spiritually based contentment. And they recognize that striving to be something other than what they are born to be is generally foolish. Western effort to do something of note, and all of the attendant stress and fear that goes with this, is counter to the natural order in their lives. We are systematically taught to be unsatisfied with our condition. Our culture turns on our desire, our need to be something more than what we are. Fred Roberts’ peregrinations have showed him the contrast between these cultural dispositions.
How can such a thing be visible in a photograph? Look at the expressions on the faces. Look at the intelligence in the eyes, the knowing stare into the lens. Note the peaceful mien and the sense of belonging in their place and their time. I suspect that if Mr. Roberts were to attempt to make similar photographs in downtown Los Angeles, the expressions of the businessman and women, the homeless families, the skateboarders, the menials cleaning up after everyone would not be quite so resolved.
It is common that westerners traveling to isolated communities in hard-to-reach countries find the indigenous cultures they encounter to be incomprehensible. They make the intellectual leap that since they themselves cannot fathom the practices and dispositions of their hosts, that these cultures must be vestigial, they must be about to disappear, that they contradict the march of modernity and thus are doomed. This is ethnocentrism of the worst kind. It is western bias to assume that dirt floors, lack of roads or electricity, or the use of traditional healing arts indicate the onset of death for a tribal group. In fact, these things might insulate or even inoculate the group from some other negative influence. In most instances, the lifestyles seen in such places have taken hundreds if not thousands of years to evolve. They are sophisticated and adaptive to their place and time. No less so than our own.
Fred Roberts pictures people as thriving and successful. He does not heroicize them. He indicates that their way of living works; producing strong and successful people, who are sustained by their traditions and also embrace the future. Roberts identifies a strain of optimism that he hopes will be instructive for all of us.