By Janet Alexander
For our photographer of the week, Gretchen Robinette, it was love at first sight through the lens of a camera, as she describes, “as soon as I got behind a camera, I knew that was where I should be.” After trying out other creative pursuits, such as painting and guitar, Gretchen quickly succumbed to her short attention span and gravitated towards how the camera seizes, “the quick moments that never repeat.” Beginning in the dark room of her high school, Gretchen describes that she learned photography the hard way by reading every book on photography she could find at her local public library, building darkrooms in bathrooms, and studying the Ansel Adam’s Zone System, “which no one does anymore,” she laughs. Ironically, it wasn’t until she attended photojournalism school that Gretchen learned that the most valuable learning comes from, “just doing, messing up a lot, and eventually finding where you should be.” However, Gretchen admits that she fell into her live-show performance niche, already attending shows for years as a fan, and then, “one day started, and just pursued every angle I could take from there.” Gretchen has since moved out of the dark room, using a wide array of cameras–Canon 5D Mark II primarily, Holgas, Lomo, and iPhone just for fun, and a 35mm or 120mm film camera for some personal projects. Ultimately, Gretchen says, “I just do what I love and hope it means something in the end.”
What defines a Gretchen Robinette photograph? Is there a distinctive aesthetic that seems to repeatedly characterize your images?
Colorful,character driven, believable, real, quiet and loud, and from the gut. I photograph what I want people to remember, or consider for the first time. I can only hope to touch people in the way that my subjects touch me. I try to show people’s vulnerabilities as well as strengths, what makes them relatable, admirable, touchable, and inspirational.
Do you have a preference between shooting editorial, live-show performance, and portraiture?
Not really. I go through phases where I think I’m ready to stop live music photography, but then I get this itch in my bones; its the rush of doing the best I can that I can’t stop doing. I can apply that anywhere to anything I photograph. In all cases, you have to be good at communicating with people, after all, photography is a form of communication. I’m always searching for realness, and this exists in all subjects.
What is most challenging about photographing musical performances? And what do you enjoy most about it?
Shooting live music is mainly learning to predict what will happen and knowing how to already be in the right place when it does. Learning how to “see” music only comes from experience . I enjoy the challenges the most, as well as all the talented people I meet. I only show about 10% of what i actually shoot, being a perfectionist, but I am working on this.
Which of your photo stories has been your favorite to produce and why?
The series on punks in Mexico and the Pwagwah event in Queens are some of my favorites – I gravitate to any event that is potentially messy and dirty, with colorful characters. Most any time I’m at risk of getting kicked in the face, knocked over, shoved or sprayed with something, I tend to enjoy shooting the most. I have many stories in the works though, that are nothing like this.
The series Five Years Old is quite different too. It mainly involves a girl named Chloe, and her friends. I took these while working as a preschool teacher a while back, which taught me a lot about shooting moving subjects and gaining trust. I was mainly drawn to capturing how adult-like 5 year olds can be, while also so purely innocent. I shot these all on 35mm cheap Kodak color film I bought in bulk from Costco! All I could afford at the time was processing the negatives without prints, so I printed these in a drum in my bathtub late at night. I switched them to black and white to keep the focus on the subjects emotions, although they are actually extremely colorful. I have probably 50 more rolls of these kids I have still yet to print.
What was it like photographing Occupy Wall Street?
I was shoved and pushed by cops a lot over the year i covered OWS. I saw a lot of unwarranted violence and behavior from NYPD early on, and since main stream media outlets either entirely ignored OWS or misreported its purpose shortly after it’s inception, I felt a great need to document and report on this. My most memorable time though was getting arrested while shooting an OWS event. The jail part wasn’t all that exciting, but my cellmate ended up becoming one of my best most inspiring friends. Also the footage I shot that day was for a film called the 99% The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, which made it to the Sundance Film Festival that premiere’s in January.
How has it been photographing Hurricane Sandy? Were you yourself affected by the storm?
Photographing during the blackout was scary and heart-wrenching. Feeling helpless as an individual in the face of a disaster of that magnitude. I initially photographed to document what I saw, when I went out volunteering in several areas that were badly hit . Seeing so many photographers walking around snapping shots of people throwing their destroyed belongings on the sidewalk, then walking away, felt wrong to me. Since I’m not a skilled electrician or plumber, I decided to use the skills I do have to help, rather than being a “ruin gazer” to make photos. I started The Photo Rescue Project with the non profit global photo organization Shoot 4 Change, where we go out to houses and help recover photos that were damaged from the hurricane flooding, as well as educate people on how to make a digital archive of their photos using smartphones. NBC aired a story on it, which was quite an honor, which I hope enables our efforts to spread to a broader audience that can offer their help to those who need it.
Is social media an effective form of self-promotion for your photography? How are you using social media?
The most effective way to spread my photography to a variety of people has been through social media. I use Twitter Facebook, and Instagram to spread my work and find out about other peoples work. I tweeted about the Photo Rescue Project at 2am, then a few hours later, NBC contacted me to do a story on it. I’d say it’s highly effective !
What advice do you have for those aspiring to be documentary photographers and/or live-show performance photographers?
The same advice anyone would give for success – do what you love and don’t listen to anyone who tells you you’re not good enough, or it can’t be done -even if you really are not the best or an idea sounds ridiculous. Buy the best equipment you can afford and be willing to live off rice and beans if it helps you afford and do what you want- couch surf, borrow, be nice to those who help you. You have to really want it more than anything. Put yourself out there, at the risk of looking dumb. The only dumb thing you can do is keep an idea in your head and not pursue it. Don’t stay where you are comfortable. The best documentary stories can be found in your own neighborhood and within your community. You don’t need to travel to some far off country to photograph starving children to make a good photo story. To shoot live music, you have to really love the music. If you want to make lots of money though, live music might not be the easiest route. But if your trying to make lots of money, you should probably talk to someone else about that.