Robbie Bedell: A Humanist “Daunted By Reality,” Part 2

His magnificent obsession: exploring the human experience with compassion, dispassion and ironic empathy.

Robbie Bedell takes photographs for the best of all possible reasons—he lives, breathes, and dreams photography, takes pictures practically every day, and is driven to record the human drama from a humanist perspective. An old school traditionalist, he shoots with a classic Leica M3 and M2 on black-and-white film, but his work conveys a contemporary feel along with the timeless quality of the great photojournalists of the past.

Bedell was born on Long Island, New York, son of a test pilot for Grumman Aircraft and an interior designer. He became seriously interested in photography as an undergraduate at Loyola University in New Orleans. After graduation he attended Apeiron Photographic Workshops in Millerton, New York, where he studied under the legendary Bruce Davidson and Charles Harbutt.

Subsequently, Bedell has held staff positions on Florida newspapers, including The Miami Herald (incubator of so many notable photojournalists) and The Tampa Tribune, and was Chief Photographer for The Palm Beach Daily News and Palm Beach Life Magazine. During that time he continued to build on the personal body of work that defines his ongoing creative quest. A number of his photographs are held in private and museum collections. In addition to his abiding passion for photography Bedell is an avid painter, fiction writer and cook. Here in his eloquent and revealing words is Part 2 of his extraordinary and heartfelt story.

Q: Elliot Erwitt may have been the inspiration for your savagely humorous image, “The Argument,” which shows an elderly couple facing off in an art gallery or museum hung with “post-expressionist” paintings. The body language of the couple—he with cane off the ground tilting forward to confront his wife—is priceless, and the realistic sadomasochistic painting of a well-dressed man spanking a semi-nude woman in the foreground takes the confrontation in the background to another symbolic level entirely. How did you manage to get this shot, and were you actually aware of all these elements when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This photograph was taken in the early 1990s at The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. The painting is by Larry Rivers, and it is a fantasized self-portrait of him beating a woman dressed as a sort of Fascist dictator or military officer. The irony here is that the day I took this I had actually been at the museum for an interview with Rivers, which is why I was able to be in the museum with a camera, as photography is not allowed there. It is an absolute coincidence that the Rivers painting is in my photograph…and I certainly was not thinking of Elliot Erwitt when I took the photo. I had earlier seen the old couple together in the museum and they just had that look, the one that rings a little bell in my head that says ‘I sure would like them in a photograph.’ But I had to go to the press conference. After that ended, as I was leaving, I came across the couple a second time and they unwittingly cooperated by getting into an argument in just the right place. That is a very rare occurrence. And yes, I was aware of all of the elements. The Rivers painting makes the couple’s row seem vicious, almost violent. The cane certainly helps.

Q: “At Amici” manages to define a social environment with a few telling details—an ornate marble-topped table, fresh flowers in a vase, a tiled floor—but the jacket hung over a chair and the disembodied female legs emerging from beyond the wall on the right give this image an enigmatic quality. What was going through your mind when you shot this image?

A: This was taken at the old Amici Restaurant in Palm Beach. I was having a late lunch and the staff was cleaning up the restaurant. There was a vacuum cleaner running and a waitress was taking a break and reading. One of the waiters had taken off his jacket and hung it, I suppose for safekeeping, on the chair. I turned from the chair I was sitting on and saw the woman’s leg from the corner of my eye. I just had to stand and move a few inches to get it right. It just happened to be right there juxtaposed with the jacket. The flower is a very lucky and very nice feminine touch. This is another device I like to use. The chair is empty, but it hints of something there, or what was just there. It hints that the reality of the scene is something other than what it actually is. As a point of interest, I had just been loaned a brand new black Leica M6 with a 35mm Summicron ASPH by the Leica photo dealer, Ken Hansen, who at the time had a shop in West Palm Beach. He wanted me to try it out. It is a great combination and that day it certainly lived up to the task.

Q: The picture of a shirtless buff dude wearing a cap and holding an extended black snake out over what looks like a pool table is beautifully lit and has the iconic quality of an Edward Hopper painting. Why did you entitle it “The Highwayman” and can you tell us something about it?

A: The fact is I just changed the title of this photograph from ‘The Highwayman’ to ‘The Pool Hall.’ It was taken in the early 1980s in a roadside tavern on U.S. 41 north of the town of Brooksville, Florida. That day I was whiling away a Sunday afternoon shooting pool with a friend. The guy with the snake, who was a local and very ‘country’, saw me with my Leica and asked me if I ‘was a shooter.’ He had just seen a show on TV the previous night, which I had also seen, about globetrotting photojournalists. The show was titled ‘The Shooters’ and the guy was fascinated with the war photographers. I told him I was a photographer for The Tampa Tribune, hardly a globetrotter, and he was nevertheless very impressed. He asked if I wanted to see his snake and I said yes. He went outside to his pickup truck where he had this beautiful indigo snake. He brought it inside the rear door of the pool hall and stood with it in the bright sunlight coming through the door. I deliberately printed his face dark so he cannot be recognized, as the indigo is a protected species and being in possession of one is against the law, which is why I named it the Highwayman. I am sure the fellow is still around and I would rather not refer to him in any negative way, so I have changed the title. Somebody might recognize him. I would add that the local people in that part of Florida were wary of newspaper people and I tend to think that if it had not been for the TV show, that photograph might never have come to be.

Q: Another enigmatic image is “Sam’s Dream” which has a Coney Island feel, but was probably shot in France judging by the architecture and the massive rock formation in the background. The man in the left-hand foreground staring out past the edge of the frame, and the seated elderly couple wearing hats on the right give it a nice tension, but who is Sam and why is this his dream?

A: ‘Sam’s Dream’ was taken someplace along the Normandy Coast of France in 1984.I was walking around the back streets of one of the many small towns and came across this park with children playing in a playground against the backdrop of the enormous looming cliff. I love to make a composition that includes something in the background that pulls the viewer inward. The big rock sure does this. On the right of the picture there is a phone booth with a reflection of some little girls, one with a sort of garland on her head. Above her in the glass is written the word ‘Sam.’ Why is the furtive old couple so soberly present? I don’t know. The young man on the left, facing out of the frame, pulls everything to the left. I doubt he is ‘Sam’, but he looks as if he is daydreaming. But one interesting point is that the literature the old woman is holding has what appears to be Hebrew writing printed on it. The fact that this area was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and that they were later driven out by the Allies on that very spot, is, for me, a chilling detail. The old people seem to be aware of me and they do not appear to be comfortable. Perhaps they were spies.

Q: “The Near Miss,” shows a young girl at the apex of blowing a bubble while standing on a narrow, curving sidewalk in between a road and old stone building. The vertical composition and extended depth of field give a visceral feeling of depth that enhances the image. Aside from the modern cars barely visible in the background, this picture has the timeless, innocent quality of a ‘30s Bresson. Do you agree, and can you tell us where and how you captured it?

A: It does have a timeless quality, but that is not necessarily what I was aiming for. That said, when I was first taking pictures in New Orleans in the 1970s I would try to avoid having any cars in my pictures, not because I wanted to make the photos ‘timeless’, but simply because I thought at the time that cars of the 1970s were ugly. I did not have the beautiful curved lines of the cars of the 1940s and 1950s to work with. But I think what Helen Levitt did with her use of 1970s cars in her color work is magical. Of course today I think the 1970s designs were beautiful compared to those of the present. But this photo was taken in Normandy during that same fruitful trip to France in 1984. Little girls were playing in the street and this girl with the gum saw me with my camera. I never spoke to her but I suppose she was showing me how large a bubble she was able to create. I call it ‘The Near Miss’ because of the big dark tire track on the sidewalk. It implies a careless driver may have endangered the girl’s life by driving off the road and nearly striking her. The track also balances the weight of the dark telephone pole. The water in the gutter leads to where the supposed driver sped away into the distance.

Q: Of the two lenses you use on your Leica Ms, the 35mm f/2.8 Summaron and the 50mm f/2 Summicron, which do you use most often, when do you choose the other one, and have you ever thought about acquiring other Leica lenses, such as a 21mm, 24mm or 75mm?

A: My first lens with my first Leica was the 50mm Summicron. I still use it. I later got a 35mm Summicron and used that combination for a long time. I also acquired a 28mm Elmarit and bought and sold a number of 90mm lenses. The photo of the snake in the pool hall was with a 28 Elmarit. I very much prefer to have no perceivable distortion and a ‘normal’ perspective, which is why I prefer 50mm lenses. I am not implying Leica lenses ‘distort’ but any wide-angle lens must be held squarely to the main plane of the subject.  I sold the 28mm a long time ago and also the 90s. I just rarely used them. Then I sold the 35mm Summicron and used only the 50. Just within the last few years have gone back to using another wide-angle, the 35mm Summaron. I just do not like ultra-wide lenses. They push the background too far away for my taste. Looking back at my photos I am always surprised how many have been taken with 35mm lenses. For some of those I wish I had used a 50 and probably could have carried it off. I just returned from a trip and did not take one single frame with the 35mm. I wish Leica made a combination lens of just 35mm and 50mm, a ‘Bi-Elmar’ so to speak. I think it would be very popular.

Q:  Aside from the fact that Leicas “feel right in the hand” and are compact, quiet, and discreet, what other characteristics do they possess that makes them ideal for your kind of work?

A: To me they are distinctive in their simplicity. It is exceptional that the camera can produce such fine images with just three controls, four if you want to count the film advance. The weight seems about perfect. They feel heavy, but the heaviness acts like a kind of gyro that helps keep the camera steady at slower shutter speeds. And the viewfinders, especially in the M3 and M2s are the cleanest and simplest in existence. I always compose through the viewfinder…always. Many tout their quietness, but sometimes they are not so silent. Sometimes in a quiet room that little click of the shutter sounds pretty loud!

Q: Have you considered exploring other photographic genres such as portraiture, architectural or wildlife photography, abstract photography etc., or other venues, or do you think you will just continue along in the same vein, building your personal body of work? How do you see your work evolving over, say, the next 5 years?

A: On my website I have a gallery of portraiture with many more images to add, and a growing one on wildlife, but not traditional wildlife. I have done architectural and interior work for Palm Beach Life magazine. I have a whole gallery based in an abstract vein I have yet to print and add to the website, but I will always continue to build on my personal work represented here. I really would like to see my photographs in book form, perhaps in an e-book of some sort. A traditional ‘hold in the hand’ book is still a pipe dream.

Thank you for your time, Robbie!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Robbie’s work, visit his website.