Rocky Schenck is at once creator and master technician, composing densely toned, beautifully tactile, and deeply evocative images--dreams and projections of a fully realized inner jurisdiction. Freed by darkroom artistry and painterly manipulation of print surface, he outstrips the representational world, revealing the richness of his visual moments and allowing us to share with him a fragile country filled with mystery, longing, grace, and solitude. And it's a choice piece of esthetic real estate.
For Schenck, photographic creation is often--literally--a search. Having established his artistic territory at a very early age, he packs up his magical combination of nineteenth-century Pictorialist tradition and twentieth-century modernism and existential solitude and hits the road. The body of work in this survey was created during numerous trips through North America, Europe, and Mexico. His images range from landscapes to interior spaces to the occasional portrait--from hotel rooms, store windows, lobbies, living rooms, and information booths to oceans, lakes, forests, fields, and roadways. Herein he shares with us his depictions of these locales--but what makes them moving and profound is the fact that through an elaborate, suggested subtext he is able to take us along on his interior journey as well.
Schenck shows us a party in Hollywood but what he offers us is a modern commentary on insiders and outsiders, the surreal nature of Southern California, and the omnipresent solitude one finds in the city. In "Information" he shows us simply an information booth, but in his darkroom it becomes a heavenly, haloed, longed-for destination where we feel the person behind the desk may very likely be able to tell us not only when to catch the next train but also whether there is life after death. "Dresden" is a strongly modernist study in shadow and light but shot in an overtly soft Pictorialist style that lends to its precise geometry an emotional message involving the two figures that walk away together on an unknown path. "Daddy in the Woods" is the figure of a man--the artist's father--standing in the woods and shining a flashlight that reflects off a nearby rock. The strong manipulation of the image brings us into another of Schenck's interior dimensions wherein the glowing figures of father and light embody solace and a refuge from a truly frightening and dangerous forest. The relative size and threatening shapes of the trees underscore the fragility of the father in his advancing years. These are photographs by a generous and courageous author, learning as he goes through life with his camera and willing to share what he has learned with his audience.
I love to drive through unfamiliar territories . . . observing alien realities. Road trips are so very important to me--to get away from all things familiar, and setting yourself up to be exposed to who knows what.
. . . my approach is rather simple: I record on film what I see and what I feel as I travel through life. Although my photographs have been taken all over the world, there is a consistency to the imagery due to the manipulation both of the film's negative and of the print's surface. I consider my images to be illustrations of my conscious (and perhaps subconscious) dreams, emotions, and longings. Many of the images explore positive and negative realities which inhabit dreamlike settings. When I shoot these images, they are usually not premeditated or contrived. . . . I simply take my camera with me wherever I go and try to remain open to whatever life shoves . . . or gently places . . . in front of me. When I'm shooting, I look for images that tell a story, or provide some element of a dramatic narrative. Of course, sometimes it's a matter of being swept away by the haunting beauty of nature, which provides constant inspiration and solace.
I feel invisible when I'm taking pictures . . . I feel like nobody is looking at me and that I'm in a very private and safe world where I can observe and eavesdrop on whatever fascinates me and there will be no consequences. It's an odd reality, which I cherish.
The sense of resolution in Schenck's images comes perhaps from his feelings of being in a safe--albeit solitary--place as he shoots his pictures on location and crafts the images alone in his darkroom. He alone takes responsibility for the completed work--pre-production, decisive moment, post-production. In this sense he is, in technique, a nineteenth-century artist, creating dark, moody, dreamlike, indistinct images, and a twentieth-century modernist, concerned with solitude, alienation, sharply juxtaposed shapes, geometry of line.
His inspiration in landscape, his portrayal of solitary figures in nature, his implied narrative, his dreamy focus echo the sensibilities of the nineteenth-century Romantic, but the pychological discovery, the sense in the viewer that he has just missed something happening in the frame, and the intense effort on the part of the artist to communicate the ineffable through what is not shown establishes Schenck as a quintessential twentieth-century man exploring personal inner landscapes to benefit himself and to share with his audience. He is in a very real sense, an artist of liminal spaces--caught between the Romanticism of his forebears to which he was exposed at a very early and impressionable age and the burden of the surreal, dark, and often incomprehensible twentieth and twenty-first centuries to which he himself belongs.
Given the dreamlike, narrative quality of his images, a connection to nineteenth-century Pictorialism is a natural inference and one with particular resonance for Schenck whose great-great-grandfather was Hermann Lungkwitz (1813-1891) and great-great-uncle, Richard Petri (1824-1857), both German immigrant artists of considerable and enduring reputation who came to the Texas Hill Country in 1851. Schenck was born in Austin and reared on a ranch in nearby Dripping Springs. His parents, Dick and Bobbie Schenck, were imaginative artists and parents who delighted in creating a fantasy world for their two children, celebrating every holiday, birthday, and lost tooth.
At twelve, Schenck himself began studying oil painting, following in the stylistic footsteps of his forebears--he was selling his paintings at thirteen.
Professional and personal involvement with art became a successful paradigm in the life of the artist. Having become interested in motion pictures and photography, Schenck began writing, directing, and photographing low-budget experimental films while still a teenager. A self-taught photographer, he developed his skills while taking production shots on the sets of his own movies; and, after completing twelve years at the Dripping Springs school and a year and a half at North Texas State University as an art major, he headed for Los Angeles, where he has been ever since, enjoying a rapidly expanding career in fine art photography.
One way to talk about Schenck's visual world is to compare it to the subtextual world that writers strive to convey in their work; the good ones say that the only way to do this is to communicate between the lines--that it is not the words themselves that carry the real message, but rather it is the space between the words where all the important things are said. That's what Schenck has done with these astonishing photographs--he has let us enter an ephemeral, infinitely evocative and dimly beautiful space that never speaks loudly, but rather murmurs in our ears. They are so very somber and still, these images--not as something frozen or dead, but rather as something suspended, abiding between heartbeats.
The delicate, tactile surfaces of Schenck's photographs remind one of the wings of collected butterflies. They invite touch, but would be destroyed by it. So layered are these surfaces with tender substances, so sensitive to heat and pressure, so attractive to wayward motes of dust, so generally precarious that, when completed, they are kept covered, isolated until the moment they are placed in their frames. Only then can we safely approach, although always held at a little distance by the protective barrier of glass.
His photographs communicate profound moments we can sense but seldom capture--the liminal moments that Rocky Schenck through his vision and artistry allows us at last to explore at our leisure.