Robbie Bedell: A Humanist View Of Human Beings, Part 1

Spurred by magnificent compulsion, he explores the human experience with compassion, dispassion and ironic empathy.

Robbie Bedell takes photographs for the best of all possible reasons—he lives, breathes, and even dreams about photography and he can’t possibly do otherwise! A traditionalist, he shoots with a Leica M3 and M2 on black-and-white film. His work has the timeless quality of the great photojournalists of the 20th century that have taught and inspired him.

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

Subsequently, Bedell held staff positions on Florida newspapers, including The Miami Herald 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 his personal body of work. Today he concentrates solely on his own work. A number of his photographs are held in private and museum collections. In addition to his abiding passion for photography, Bedell is also an avid painter, fiction writer and cook. Here in his eloquent and insightful words is Part 1 of his extraordinary and heartfelt story.

Q: What camera equipment do you use?

A: On a daily basis I use two Leicas, an M2 with a 35mm 2.8 Summaron and an M3 with a 50mm Summicron. I also have a Rolleiflex and a 4×5 camera that don’t get nearly as much use.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I think my work follows the tradition of Humanistic photography. Since much of it has been from streets in various cities some might call it street photography, but that is a label I have never cared for. Some of the work is done in cafés and some in parks and on beaches and even in stores and private homes. It can happen anywhere, even a parking lot. What ties it together is that my photographs all have human beings in them. I think humans are most fascinating to watch and photograph. Positioning them where they fit in a compositionally agreeable manner with their environment is a challenge-virtually none of my photographs are posed, but when it works it’s a grand feeling.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: Photography is and always has been a full-time pursuit and during that time I have also been a serious enthusiast. When I worked for newspapers, photography was a full time job but now I am not on the clock so things like deadlines and assignments are not a consideration. I go out and make photos on a daily basis, but even when I am not taking pictures, I am constantly thinking about and studying photographs and looking at them in books. I even dream of photographing while I’m sleeping.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: When I was a child I once dropped and broke the family Kodak. I felt so awful about it that I wanted nothing to do with cameras.  Later my father bought a more advanced camera and I recalled him working out all his exposures for flash and existing light on a piece of paper. I’m not good at math and I never wanted anything to do with all those numbers, f-stops and shutters speeds, etc. Years later, in about 1970, when I was on summer vacation from college, I took a hitchhiking trip from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Newport, Rhode Island. I was given a ride by a gracious older woman who was a photographer. Along the way she pointed out places she thought might be advantageous for photography. When I told her of my travels she suggested I become a photographer. I decided later that night, during a stormy evening in a spooky old rooming house on the cliff walk in Newport, that once I got back to New Orleans I would get a camera. I vowed to learn all those numbers, and I did.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: When I was at college at Loyola University in New Orleans, I took two basic photography classes. After graduating in 1972 I attended the Apeiron Photo Workshops in Millerton, New York. The workshop was a generous gift from my mother who has always supported my photography. At that workshop I studied under both Bruce Davidson and Charles Harbutt, so I was fortunate to learn firsthand how two great photographers worked. I went to Apeiron after seeing an invitation on a bulletin board at school. On the card was Bruce’s photograph of the young gang couple reflected in the mirror of the cigarette machine. I was stunned. I thought it was one of the most amazing photos I had ever seen and I still do. Other photographers that have influenced me are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Andre Kertesz, among others. I am always flabbergasted how Elliot Erwitt manages to be so consistently humorous.

Q: What genre are your photos? (e.g., fine art, photojournalism, portrait, travel, etc.)?

A: That’s always been difficult for me to answer. I think they are somewhere between fine art and photojournalism. They do not really fit the documentary category and I really don’t care for the term ‘street photography.’ I also don’t like the term ‘fine art.’ The word I prefer is Humanist. I concentrate on shooting in black-and-white because, when I worked for newspapers, I was fortunate enough to have worked during the final years of black-and-white in newspaper publishing. Film cameras and lenses were at their technical zenith. We shot upwards of a half dozen rolls a day and in the darkroom, processed, printed and edited our own photos. There was a lot of control for the photographer. I have never gotten that out of my system. Shortly after I got to Palm Beach in the 1990s we shot nearly everything color, all on transparency film, so I was fortunate to have done both.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: My first camera was a 35mm SLR called a Hanimex Praktica. I didn’t have it very long. I knew a fellow student who carried two Leicas everywhere he went. After he let me play around with them and I saw his negatives and prints I knew it was the camera for me. It’s been said a million times that a Leica feels right in the hand and they do. It was not long before I traded in the Praktica for a used M3 and a 50mm Summicron.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: When I go out I am daunted by reality. I am basically a shy person so photographing strangers has always been a challenge, but over time it has become less so. Working for newspapers helped. There is no better practice for overcoming bashfulness than having to go out and photograph strangers day after day, year after year, for your paycheck. But, for me, reality can present itself in different ways. Sometimes I feel like a sculptor and I am approaching it with a tool like a chisel. I see a subject or a situation and I feel as if I am chipping away at it to get to the core. Sometimes it feels as is if I am sanding it or polishing it, but I am separate from it. There is a distance between it and me. And then there are other times when I go out and I am swallowed by it. Reality engulfs me and I feel as if I am part of it. I have never been able to explain why this is so. But the single image is my goal. I like the lone strong picture. I have done many, many photo essays where the goal is to link in some way a series of photos surrounding a single subject to tell a story. For me personally the aim is to attempt to come home with a photograph that succeeds by itself and not be influenced by the one that is on either side of it. Of course in time, as they accumulate, if the photographs can be edited together in a pleasing sequence for a book or exhibition that’s fine with me.

Q: The images in the portfolio you submitted can be broadly be described as art in the photojournalist tradition, but many, such as “The Royal Mile,” also qualify as ironically humorous social commentary. Do you agree, and can you say something about how this fits in with your “humanist” approach?

A: The photo you mention may fit the category of ironically humorous social commentary and if they do I think that is good because they would fit right in with the humanist approach. In ‘The Royal Mile’, taken in Edinburgh, Scotland, the two women stopped on the street to light a cigarette. What makes it ironic is that, though they are clearly adults, they are acting like schoolgirls sneaking a smoke. This feeling is created by the cautious glance of the older woman. There is another frame of this pair, with the same texture of the clothing and the street. It works on its own but does not have the sense that the two are ‘breaking the rules.’ One of the great humanist photographers and one of my favorites is Robert Doisneau. There is certainly plenty of irony and humor in his work.

Q: You mentioned that you shoot “on a daily basis” mostly with a Leica M2 and M3 and 35mm and 50mm lenses, and that you work in black-and-white. Which films do you favor, and what, aside from your background as a newspaper photographer in the film era, draws you to this traditionalist approach? Have you ever considered giving a digital M camera, such as the Leica Monochrom, a try?

A: It’s a coincidence that, when I took my basic photo course in college, I learned to use Kodak Tri-X film and develop it in Kodak D-76, and that newspapers were using the exact same combination. So technically, for quite a long time, what I learned in school and then did professionally were the same. Even though the publishing industry eventually moved to nearly 100% color, and I made the transition to transparency film, I still used the Tri X in D-76 combination for my personal work and have continued to do so. I have strayed and used other films, such as Fuji Acros and some others, but I always go back to Tri-X. I love the simplicity of black-and-white and I also think it is timeless. I think it will always be with us. It is also beautiful. I love printing in my darkroom and striving to make the absolute best prints I am able to achieve. I have two friends who have Leica M9s and I have borrowed an X-1 camera. They are beautiful machines and I would not mind owning one, even the Monochrom, but I am afraid that owning one is a long way off for me.

Q: The statement you made about your photography, “When I go out I am daunted by reality,” is profound and eloquent—the mark of a genuine artist. You go on to say that sometimes you feel like a sculptor with a chisel, at other times you feel separate from the subject, and at other times “reality engulfs me.” How do these various emotions manifest themselves in terms of your creative quest or do you just accept them and go with the flow?

A: I would like to say that I ‘go with the flow’ but some days it is not that simple. There are days I feel completely agoraphobic. I just do not want to leave my house. I don’t want to see people. On those days I do have to force myself go out the door. But once I do everything is fine. It may sound strange for a photographer to be like that but I think it makes me sensitized to what’s going on around me. I am less inclined to take things less for granted than most people. But to get back to your question, on days when I am reticent, perhaps a bit withdrawn, they are the days that I tend to be separated from reality. I am an invisible bystander. I just don’t go up to people and talk to them, at least not often. Yet I still can be jolted and end up becoming part of the crowd, so to speak. When I break the ice, I can be as outgoing and garrulous as the next photographer. I have managed to make successful photos in either frame of mind.

Q: Your image entitled “Picasso” has the random everyday feel of a grab shot, but is masterfully composed and brings together a number of disparate elements including a print of an early Picasso painting, the torsos of police in jackboots with guns in their holsters, a slice of a Harley-Davidson police bike, and the tender, gentle hand of a passerby caressing the frame of the Picasso. It is funny, but also disturbing. Can you tell us how and where you took this shot and what it says to you?

A: This photo was taken on the famous shopping street, Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida. There are a number of art galleries on the street, but I do not think these pictures were headed for any of them. I think the two people whose hands you can see were trying to sell these prints from the back of their car, which is probably not permitted in Palm Beach. That’s why they have drawn the attention of the local police. I just happened to be walking along and I came upon this scene. The police appear to be much more menacing than they actually were. They are not attempting censorship, just enforcing a local ordinance. One just happens to be a motorcycle cop with boots on, which takes it to a different level. But this is one of the things I like to do… to take what is basically a simple scene and make it cross over and become more dramatic than what the reality actually is. One of the cops noticed me photographing and for a moment I thought he might ask what I was up to, but I smiled at him and then he smiled back and he went back to what he was doing. As for the composition, I really didn’t think about that too much. I just frame the photo, and somehow it becomes balanced.

Thank you for your time, Robbie!

- Leica Internet Team

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