Photography, artistry, life and living from behind the camera with local artist, Arthur Robinson.
by Lisa Talley
“I live in my head. I over think… in this one particular facet of my life, I’m not thinking, I just capture.”
When the lights dim and the crowd cozies up to a thundering stage, voices crash down on the sometimes seedy walls of an iconic local nightclub and live-action photographer, Arthur Robinson, is rapid firing from his camera, freezing moments within moments without ever breaking anyone’s concentration.
It’s not every photographer who can walk into a scenario without the usual faux pas such as an unwarranted flash in someone’s eye or unwittingly blocking someone’s view all in the name of a beautiful shot. Robinson is a familiar face among the local music scene in Fresno, and if you’ve ever seen him work, you know that by the time he lets you see him he’s probably already taken more than 200 photos.
“Photography is the only aspect of my life where it is me living, being a human being.” Robinson shares as he probes the question of why he chooses live-action, and not just live-action, but live music as his subject.
“In overly technical situations, like portraiture, there’s so much time to think, to second guess myself. But in live music [I] don’t get that… [I] have to shoot… or I’ll miss an important moment.”
Robinson elaborates that live-action is an incredibly unpredictable place which requires quick reflexes, the kind of just ’knowing’ what to do rather than a process of analyzing and planning before actually doing. There’s a moment that happens and it’s unclear if it’s going to be the right one, the one that needs to be caught on film, but he’s there any way assessing the light, the angle, the emotion of the subject and suddenly, without thinking, his hands know what to do, the buttons to push and dials to spin. They pull the focus to perfection, and in a burst, the moment is captured. But is it the right one? The one that tells a story in a single frame. It’s a question that bounces around his mind until he’s able to sit down with his photos and take a look, so he continues to fire away until there’s nothing left to capture.
He recalls a Rolling Stones song that seems to encapsulate the nature of this a bit further: ’You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes well, you might find you get what you need.’
“Everything I capture, I get because a person gave it to me,” Robinson states about his work. It’s the notion that his photography is able to tell a story because the subject was in a state of creating or giving when the photo was taken. A singer who belts into the microphone, a poet speaking a powerful stanza, or a person watching the show awash in the message.
It’s almost an intuitive process. As an artist, Robinson knows what he would like to capture but what he ends up with is usually something unexpected, yet wonderful. A pleasant surprise that is both telling of the subject and himself as a photographer. In fact, it’s very much akin to how he discovered his style as an artist. In that it felt remarkably accidental, happening in this serendipitous way that seemed ‘meant-to-be’.
Photography had always been an interest for Robinson, from polaroids to the ever popular point and shoot disposable cameras, but it wasn’t until a cross country road trip for an unnamed documentary project in 2012 that things shifted into a more serious pursuit.
“I was going on the trip in order to help out, but I didn’t know that I was going to assist on camera as well and my friend gave me a camera and said, ‘Go!’ and [for the entire trip] I just took pictures, it was all I really did. … And I had that Malcolm Gladwell quote in my head, what he said about 10,000 hours being the magic number of greatness and I wanted to relate that to photography. Learning photography in 10,000 photos.”
And so the road trip became the training ground, where Robinson’s style was developed.
“Sometimes, I would machine gun my shutter and take 6,7,8 photos of the same thing. But I was seeing a progression, seeing the decisive moment [of something] where [the subject] she’s looking at me and feeling a certain type of way,” Robinson says about understanding his own style in those early days, “…and that’s street photography.”
It was a revelation for Robinson to discover that without conscious effort, there was a name for what he was doing, it was street photography. But should it come as such a surprise for a student of Gordon Parks’ work? Founder of the ‘blaxploitation’ film genre, an advocate for social justice, and prominent photojournalist, Gordon Parks earned a legendary reputation through street photography from the 40s to the 70s.
Yet, as influential as being a student of black history was to Robinson, it was also modern technology that helped him find his footing.
“Digital gives you the freedom to make mistakes and see where you’re going. Whereas film is limited in the ‘I only have 24 shots and that’s it.’ I could burn through a thousand roles a day, so-to-speak, and not worry about it.”
Where some would hail film as the cornerstone of artistry for photographers, Robinson’s sentiments are not entirely the same. To never have to worry about reloading and when to push down the shutter, it leaves one less thing on the table to second guess himself with.
It would be worth noting that at this point he might mention that with the good also comes the bad and the digital age has created a world where everyone is a self-proclaimed photographer. However, Robinson doesn’t seem to share that sentiment either. Photographers are boiled down to their perspective, not their equipment, they each have a style created out of that perspective, neither of which relies on technical know-how. Instead, their ‘eye’ is derived from their unique history, their life and experiences bubbling up in their work which makes it all one-of-a-kind.
“My perspective makes my photography mine.” A response when posed with the question of what makes Robinson’s work unique from all other photographers. It’s not something that can be adequately articulated, only seen or felt. The work pours out of Robinson as-is, distilled through his perspectives as a black, demisexual, feminist, artist.
And the digital age has also provided something incredibly noteworthy for Robinson aside from the ability to burn through thousands of snapshots. It’s the endless possibilities of not only sharing his work but, as he puts it, the image he captures of Fresno with the rest of the world.
“People say ‘there’s nothing to do in Fresno’ which is such a cliche thing to say. And I’m the literal antithesis to that… if there’s nothing to do then why am I here, able to do and show you all of these cool things.” Most all of Robinson’s work is of live-action (musicians, performers, etc.) who are either from the Central Valley or just passing through, making the cool side of the Valley all the more available for the rest of the world to see, not just for those who say ‘there’s nothing to do in Fresno’.
Arthur Robinson’s collection is a compilation of artists as well as those who exist in the peripheral, it’s the people, the vendors… those who create the environment and culture around and along with the artists.
“I feel a responsibility as a witness [to life] to share all of these moments… having a camera not only helped me into a world I never felt part of before by giving me the confidence to live my own life, but it also led to having a deeper connection with the community [I choose to work in]. It expanded what the word ‘community’ means to me and I have more friends and loved ones because of that.”
Arthur Robinson’s work is available online at www.itsartwithwords.com but his most current work can be found on Instagram and Facebook @itsartwithwords where you can stay up to date with where and what he’s up to next.