Robert Langham: The camera, kind of a time machine, the darkroom, an alchemist's miracle

Published on Thursday, 3 April 2014 21:57 - Written by Stewart Smith

Photography can alter your perspective. It can act as a time machine. It can stop bullets in mid-air. For some, the act of taking a photograph is as mundane as tapping an iPhone screen. But for seasoned landscape photographer Robert Langham, it’s about so much more.

I spoke with Langham in the lead-up to his departure for a two-week stint from April 14-28 as the artist-in-residence at the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, Ariz. The post is the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Nation (open since 1878) and Langham will have free reign to photograph around the post and the surrounding landscapes.

We talked about his background, his philosophy behind the lens and the challenges of photographing the massive landscapes of Arizona versus East Texas’ more contained locales.

“In East Texas, when you photograph landscapes, there’s not a horizon line. It’s like photographing in a big room. Out there, there’s always a horizon line. You’ve got to handle lots of space. It’s terrific country and I’ve spent lots of time out there photographing,” he said.

Langham, an adjunct professor of photography at Tyler Junior College, will be shooting with actual film and using old-fashioned view cameras (you know, the kind that sit on a tripod and require the photographer to drape a cloth over their head). While Langham isn’t a film purist (he said he teaches digital at TJC and loves the malleability of the form), he said there a deliberateness to using film that makes it more satisfying to use, especially for a project like at the trading post.

“Shooting with a view camera, the image is upside down and backwards. I shoot with big ones. I’ve got a 4 by 5 and a 5 by 7 and I’ll take my 8 by 10 out. So, mentally, when you look at it, your brain has to do a flip to get it. I don’t notice that it’s upside down and backwards anymore. Then you have to set the composition mechanically. You’ve got to look at something and think, ‘This is the spot and this is light and this is the time’ and set it up, put it on a tripod. There’s so much more image management,” he said.

“It really does slow you down and make you pay attention, even if I am pretty quick with those cameras. You’ve got to pick lens, raise and lower the front to handle the perspective. It’s layered. Film is just a wholly different palette than digital. Film you’ve gotta know what you’re doing.”

The act of watching a photograph take form on a blank piece of paper? Akin to magic, Langham said.

“The whole dark room process is kind of an alchemist’s miracle to see this image emerge. To know what a latent image is, an image that’s been exposed but not processed, to see them come up it’s like magic to people who only do electronic stuff,” he said.

Langham, a 1975 graduate from Sam Houston State University (with a degree in photography and art, of course) said he first became fascinated with the process since his days spent on the TJC campus in 1971 and it has, quite literally, changed his perception of the world.

“It’s such an unusual (thing). If you’re a plumber, you have a heightened awareness of where the water goes, where it comes from that people don’t appreciate. Photography, human beings assume they see what’s in front of their eyes because they open their eyes at birth, but that’s not necessarily so. It turns out there’s a lot more to see in what’s in front of your face that what most people assume,” he said. “We’re all visual animals, but to be a visual artist and to have practiced looking at things with an eye for managing a camera and making a two-dimensional piece of art with it, just kind of changes your whole visual perception.”

Channeling and honing that perception is one of the first lessons he teaches his students.

“They quickly pick up what I’m doing. One of my first assignments is, I have them go look for chairs. I want you to go look at chairs and think about the lives of chairs. Do the ones that roll around that are made of plastics and synthetics, do they look down on the ones made of wood and don’t have any wheels and stay in one place? You’ll notice that there will be whole rooms of just one kind of chair. Are there secret societies of chairs? What are they doing hanging out in the hallways? They just start freaking out. They start imagining a subject,” he said.

Photographers, more than anything, have to learn to look at a subject, understand it and discover what story is being told.

“Photography confronts the physical world in such a way, and the physical world is not very manageable, and you’ve got to manage it. You’ve got to see through the cracks and subject matter. You’ve got to react to it more than any other art. In art, there is no confrontation with the physical world like there is with photography,” he said. “It’s a fascinating thing and it changes the way you relate to the world in a very heightened way. You don’t need drugs if you’ve got a camera.”

A photograph can be and do many things, Langham said. It can capture moments. It can reveal truths. It can alter perception. It’s all dependent on the user and how they think to use their camera.

“A photograph can stop a bullet in the air. None of us can see a bullet in the air, but a camera can see that and make it to where you can see that,” he said. “A photograph can also get the moon coming up and streaking through the air all night. You can’t see that, but the camera can see that. It’s kind of a time machine.”