April 05, 2006

Ken Robbins: In Love with Landscape

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When you fall in love, the object of your affection is imbued with an almost unreal allure. Pale white skin transforms to porcelain, blue eyes compare to twilight sky, brown curls spring and delight like no other before. He's not overweight; he's majestic. His smile isn't crooked; it has the power to induce weak knees. Suffice to say, ardor's illusion distorts perception most exquisitely.

Working from that premise, one can only deduce that photographer Ken Robbins looks at local landscapes with a lover's eye. Images enhanced through hand coloring in The Hamptons Suite and digitally hued in his latest book 100 Views of the Hamptons, don't simply show how luscious East End scenery looks; they show how it feels. "By manipulating the photograph, you get the essence of a place that isn't so literal. I want to reflect how people remember it, a mood people carry away from a moment or a particular scene," he explained.

"No one I think has seen the East End better or more deeply or has loved it with his eyes quite so much," author Anthony Brandt writes in the introduction to Suite. The Sag Harbor habitué describes 100 Views as "a breakthrough." Robbins blazed a new creative trail, transitioning from Suite's shooting and printing scenes in black and white, then hand coloring them with water based dyes to hand coloring them on the computer.

A veteran children's book author and illustrator, for years Robbins made use of the computer to print out drafts publishers could use to lay out pages in correct sequence. The photos in Hamptons Suite were non-digitized, but in the process of scanning the pieces for the publication in the book, "I realized how powerful it was to work on the computer," he recalled. For subsequent work, Robbins decided to "skip the darkroom part and hand color on the computer."

Robbins's first professional darkroom was located upstairs from the Old Post Office Theater. Back in the '70s he and his wife, Maria, along with another couple purchased and ran the theater on Newtown Lane in East Hampton Village for about three years.

"It was a different time," Robbins remembered. Upstairs space in the building went wanting for an occupant, so he claimed it and after an earlier stint as an editor for Double Day books, began his career in photography in earnest. At Double Day, Robbins published books for several "premier photographers." Those relationships served as a part of the catalyst for a new professional direction. Hamptons resident Saul Steinberg, whose watercolors of Louse Point awe him to this day, was a source of inspiration. "How can you take a bad picture in a place like this?" he said at the point on Friday during a brief tour of Springs scenes from 100 Views.

Louse Point is the locale most often represented in his work "When you photograph a place over and over it becomes clear, it's not just the place, it's the light," he asserted. One can endlessly revisit favorite places and still be surprised and entranced by subtle changes.

In 100 Views it is, as Brandt extols, difficult to find just one favorite photograph. It's an apt assessment, easily applicable for anyone whose eyes rest daily on any variety of lovely local locales. How can any Hamptonite pick just one view and dub it the most gorgeous? There are so very many.

To compile 100 Views, Robbins made an effort to depict a panoply of East End scenes including landscapes, seascapes, bayscapes, and even townscapes. Is there any area he would have liked to include but didn't? "I always feel that right around the corner, every moment, there's another photograph," he replied.

Living among such beauty a Bonacker can become inured, take it all for granted. Robbins doesn't let you. Dune fences tilt with grace, the footbridge at Pussy's Pond in Springs seems a pathway to a magical glen, ubiquitous tire tracks in the sand blush pink.

The varied permutations of sky and water are, again, outdoor attributes we all see every day, and only sometimes note consciously. Robbins's sky and seascapes astonish and evoke deep sighs of appreciation and recollection of the romance that lured so many of us here in the first place. There's a little embarrassment, too: How could we forget that every day we're blessed to live in such beauty? Robbins seems pleased at the notion that his work reminds.

He likes, too, the idea of bringing a lover's eye to the lens, and carries it further, describing his art, sometimes, as "landscapes seen erotically." For anyone who has ever experienced a verdant vista as an entity capable of eliciting the stereotypical orgasmic outcry: Yes. YES! Robbins captures what your insides feel about outside.

An exhibition of original prints from 100 Views of the Hamptons is underway at Pamela Williams Gallery on Main Street in Amagansett through April 30. For those who prefer to do their moaning in private, the book is available for purchase at Book Hampton and on Amazon.com.

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