Ron Evans ARPS - He's in the Dark
I grew up in the southern part of America in Arkansas, and the photographs you are viewing today are reflective of the area in which I lived. The images were all made using a 35mm camera and Tri-X film, and were developed in my darkroom using D-76 one to one.
For this submission to the RPS I have scanned the negatives and then made prints on Hahnemühle baryta paper, which closely resemble my larger silver gelatin prints.
The word intent, as defined by The Oxford English Dictionary is ‘intention and purpose’ followed by the synonyms objective and aim. These fifteen documentary photographs are of ordinary and everyday events, taken from life.
So my ‘intention and purpose’ in making this work, from my limited perspective, is clarity and a straight forward way of working. Additionally it’s my hope the photographs are original, worth seeing and not boring.
Growing up in the southern United States in the state of Arkansas, I became used to people using figures of speech, like “to be in the dark”. In my case, when I was 25, playing guitar in a rock & roll band in Little Rock, Arkansas, I suffered a terrible accident to my left hand, which left me with two fingers twisted upside down at the joints and steel pins inserted to straighten them. Unable to play, I remember going to the camera store in Little Rock and buying my first ‘real’ camera, a Minolta SRT-101. Knowing nothing about cameras or photography, I bought it because I liked the way it felt in my hand!
Along with the camera, I bought a stainless steel Nikkor developing tank and reels, four rolls of Tri-X film, an Omega condenser enlarger and trays, a timer and safelight, plus all the proper chemistry to become an alchemist. To me, and thousands of other photographers, my goal was to transform a thin layer of silver halide crystals into a beautiful silver print that I could hold in my hands. Of course, as a novice printmaker and new camera owner, it was hard for me to know what a ‘beautiful print’ looked like.
In October 2019, I travelled to Bristol to attend a book event at the RPS held in conjunction with the Martin Parr Foundation. It was a lovely occurrence with several photographers giving talks about their work, including Stephen Gill, who presented work from his new book, The Pillar. The book and the images are remarkable, as is the man who made them. I bought three copies, with two destined as gifts for friends.
On that same trip, I had taken fifteen prints from my long continuing series of photographs made in Arkansas. I left them with Dr Michael Pritchard to be considered for the Documentary ARPS distinction.
I was honoured to be told in February that I had received the Associateship distinction, which can mean only one thing; the bottle of Macallan single malt whisky had found its way to the panel of fellows, and performed its magic! By that, I mean to say that photographers should believe in their work, even if others do not. Photographs are subjective and are subject to the beliefs and feelings of the people viewing them, which is why a panel acting as judges is more democratic.
Having no formal education in photography is something I regret. Over the years, I have learned by looking at other people’s work, making mistakes, and printing my pictures. During the early 1970s, I subscribed to the few serious photography magazines that were available; publications like Camera which was published in Lucerne, Switzerland and was edited by Allan Porter, an American who had a talent for design. The reproduction of photographs was sheet feed gravure, absolutely superb for that period. A fanciful jest, perhaps, but I wonder if Gerhard Steidl was their printer? I also subscribed to Creative Camera, published in the UK in the silver cover days. It was a very important publication which allowed me to become acquainted with the work of many UK photographers then working, though it also included work from elsewhere. I also took the US Aperture Magazine; the latest issue of Aperture, #238, sits on my desk as I write this.
What inspired you to document the area in which you live?
It seemed the most natural place to make photographs. No one was telling me what to photograph and my guides were pictures I had seen in books and magazines that had an impact on me emotionally and visually. When you live in a place like Arkansas you know the lay of the land and the people there. Some you may know personally. You also know something about the local customs. In the end, it’s about access; if people are suspicious of your intentions it’s going to be hard to get pictures that appear natural and believable. I grew up in Arkansas and know the area very well, so I went out with my camera searching as a hunter would.
The state of Arkansas promotes itself as “The Natural State” due to its raw beauty. It’s greener than most areas of America and is full of farmland, streams, lakes, and forests. The first photograph in my panel, “Full moon in winter,” is an example of this natural beauty. It’s also one of the rare times I set up a tripod to make a picture, the few leaves still attached are soft due to the wind.
Why did you decide to work in black and white? Is the answer print-related?
Yes, physical prints are very important in my work as a photographer. I grew up seeing the weekly Life magazine, which contained stunning picture essays that were generally in black and white. So I thought black and white was the thing I wanted to do photographically. I could also manage the whole process myself, the film development and the printing. Colour was much more difficult and more expensive, but basically, I just wanted to work in monochrome. Setting aside the questions of black and white versus colour, I do enjoy making something with my own hands. Pictures that would not exist in the world if I did not take the time to go out and make them.
Why did you decide to include one photo in colour?
Well, I see in colour and thought it would add a little interest to the submission, being the final image on the panel. I do make photographs in colour, and don’t recoil from it, though my preference remains black and white. Years ago, someone asked me what my favourite colour was and I answered “grey.” He immediately started laughing and said, “That’s not a colour!” To which I replied, “Since I’m not colour blind, it must be.”
Which photograph from your panel gives you most satisfaction?
It’s probably the image of the three pigs, for several reasons. One morning, I drove out from Little Rock intending to explore the western part of the State. After lunch, I turned onto an unmarked dirt road and passed several small farms and homes. Then, up ahead, I noticed a farmer walking towards his mailbox. I stopped the car, got out, walked up to him, and said “hello”. Just for conversation, I then asked him how far away the next town was although I was in absolutely no hurry to get there.
As he answered I glanced over the barbed wire fence and noticed a wooden pigsty with three large pigs rooting around in the dirt, stirring up dust. The scene was something I had never witnessed before, and having my camera on my shoulder I raised it, focused, and clicked off a shot. The sound of the shutter caught the attention of the pigs. One moved back into the darkness, while the other two peered out at me. One appeared to be smiling. Advancing the film, I made a second exposure, at which point all three bolted out of the small shelter and ran up the hill towards a barn. The amused farmer said, “I believe they like you!”
After developing the film that night, I thought the second shot was a good photograph. The next day, I went into the darkroom and made a print of it. Not being a purist, I cropped the 35mm Tri-X negative as a square thinking it focused attention just on the denizens.
A year later, I moved to Dallas, and once I was settled, decided to drive down to The University of Texas in Austin, where Russell Lee taught photography. Russell was one of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers who worked alongside Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. I knew some of his documentary work through books, and admired it, so I went into the journalism department, asked if he was in, and was eventually able to meet him. During that first meeting, he asked if I had brought any work with me. I told him I had some prints out in the car. He looked through them all slowly and, then, pulled out the print of the three pigs. “I’ve seen a lot of pig pictures in my days as a photographer,” he said, “probably hundreds, and this may be the best one I’ve seen. It has mystery to it, with the snout showing from the pig back in the darkness. It has atmosphere to it, with all the dust swirling around in the air, and it’s somewhat surreal with the pig smiling at left. In some ways, it reminds me of a Dürer etching. This is your best picture by far of the batch you have shown me. The next time you come through Austin I would like you to stop by the department and show me some new work. I would enjoy seeing what you find interesting.” With that, I thanked him, and handed him the pig print and said, “I would really like you to have this” and he said “Thank you. I’m going to show it to my students tomorrow.”
So that is why this particular photograph gives me some satisfaction. The fact that it just happened out of the blue, something I wasn’t expecting. And it wouldn’t have happened if I had just driven past the farmer and not stopped. When Russell Lee told me it was the best picture of pigs he had ever seen it was such a great compliment. That is the kind of thing that inspires you to continue working in photography, as with the ARPS documentary honour granted by a panel of photographers that I have never met but feel close affinity too.
Which photograph from the panel did you find the most difficult to achieve?
If the definition of the word ‘difficult’ includes the idea of ‘skill to accomplish’, I would say the photograph of the farm dog chasing my car. I was in the small town of Denmark, in the north-east of Arkansas, searching an abandoned cemetery for the grave of my great-great-grandfather, Perry Evans. After several hours, I gave up and started back down the road towards Little Rock. Within the first hundred yards, I could see a large dog, in the front yard of a farmhouse, just starting his run out towards the highway to give chase. As I came closer to the dog I could see that no cars were coming down the highway from the opposite direction so I moved into the opposite lane and slowed down to his speed. On the seat next to me was my Leica M6, so I reached for it, brought it up to the open window, and squeezed off one shot without lifting the camera to my eye. Then I moved back over to the right side of the road. At the time I thought, there is no way this picture is going to turn out well; the exposure will be off, as well as the focus. When I developed the film and saw that the frame was almost perfect I thought, how lucky can you be?
If you could rework the panel what changes would you now make?
When putting together my panel, I began with around thirty-five images from the Arkansas series made over many years. My younger brother lives there and I always photograph when I am back in my home state. I first selected what I thought were the strongest fifteen individual images, spread them out on a table, and sequenced them into what I thought was a logical arrangement. The next day, I looked at them again and changed four of the pictures into a different order. The day after that, I decided to replace three others which seemed to work better in the sequencing scheme. This went on for about a week and a half. In the end, I decided to send a sample from around the state, with about half of them from my original ‘strongest’ pictures. I wanted to include photographs that had people in them, and eight of the fifteen do so. If I was to start all over again, I guess the panel might be different. This process had value for me, as it makes you ask why you made each picture in the first place, and what attracts you to it now. Would the results have been different at the distinction judging with a different set of pictures? Maybe. If the judging panel does not agree with what you send, you should still believe in your work and try again.
Do you have a “one that got away,” photo that didn’t make it into the panel?
This is the best photo I decided not to include. It was made during Thanksgiving weekend in Stuttgart, Arkansas, at the annual ‘World Championship Duck Calling Contest’. Duck hunting is a main attraction in the Fall months, and this competition brings in people from all over the country who sit behind a blind (stacked hay bales) and call ducks. I do believe this is a good photograph and seriously considered including it in the documentary panel but also thought that, without knowing the background, it would be somewhat mysterious.