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Robert Balcomb, Master portrait photographer, lives in the Puget Sound area, having practiced portraiture for over forty years, from California to New Mexico to his present location. He is a graduate of the American Academy of Art, Chicago, and has a BS-Ed from The University of New Mexico and an MA-Ed from The University of Northern Colorado. He also was a faculty member of Olympic College, Bremerton WA, specializing in English grammar, technical writing, and public speaking.

Balcomb is not just a photographer. After the Chicago art school training, he spent two decades as an Advertising and Technical Illustrator—he emphasies the point that in order for one to consider himself a photographer in the world of Art he must necessarily be also an Artist, not just a shutter-clicker, as too many photographers unfortunately are. The Mortensen technique demands the touch of an Artist.

Through 1956-7 Robert studied and worked with the pre-eminent photographer William Mortensen in Laguna Beach, California, who said that Balcomb was the only one of his 3000 students, if memory served, who so well mastered his techniques and followed his philosophies. In 1965 Balcomb began writing a book on the Master, since none existed, but upon learning that Mortensen had recently died, and having difficulty obtaining prints for the manuscript, he decided that to write about him from a student’s point of view, showing the Mortensen influence, would be more interesting than the usual biography. In 1971 he spent several days with Mortensen’s widow Myrdith in Laguna Beach, during which time she said, "You know, Bill considered you as his protégé!" and through considerable correspondence with her gathered information for the manuscript. Further research included a trip to Park City, Utah, Mortensen’s birthplace.

Perhaps Balcomb’s own words say it best:

Back in the mid-1950’s I read in a local newspaper an interview with a photographer who had had a photo studio in town for many years with a seemingly prosperous business. His statement that rings out in my memory went something like this: ‘I arrange my sittings to allow time for me to sit across a table from the client, with our elbows on the table, relaxed as possible, and observe him closely. I absorb the personality, the persona, in order to portray this quality in the portrait.’

Was he serious? Dubious, I visited his studio and saw that he had about every prop and gadget and gimmick in the book—a short Doric column for the client to lean an elbow on, potted plants and an array of backgrounds resplendent with clouds and swirls and palm shadows, a young fortune in lighting equipment including ‘barn doors’ and umbrellas and spots and floods and pattern screens and you-name-it-he-had-it. I happened to arrive in time to observe a sitting of an 8- or 10-year-old boy who, after twenty minutes of lights being placed here, over there, under there, and up here, light readings every three minutes, adjustments and readjustments, blinding lights, increasing heat, and a steady patter of photographic mumbo-jumbo, was terrified beyond any chance of a normal, relaxed sitting. I never saw the resulting portrait, but did see many on the walls that I could read the same scenario into. I remember feeling sorry for that poor boy.

This was at the time (1953) when I decided that photographic portraiture was what I wanted to do. But, during three stressful years of trying to teach myself, the more I read the photo magazines and books and talked with local photographers and saw the work in all the photo studios wherever I traveled, the more I realized that they all must have learned from the same source because they all produced the same thing, one indistinguishable from the next. I did not want to be just another one of them! I knew what I wanted to do, but had no idea of how to do it.

Do you know about “synchronicity?” Just at this point a friend showed me a brochure of the William Mortensen School of Photography in Laguna Beach, California, where he had studied in the late 1930’s, and with one look I could see that I had to go there. I went for a two-week course, but ended up spending six months, later returning regularly through the following year, further studying and working with the Master. And now, for over forty years I have successfully enjoyed a practice employing a system I had been looking for through all those earlier years of toil and frustration.

Mortensen helped me develop most of my philosophical thinking about the art of photographing people. I do only single sittings and ask the customer to bring several tops, preferably muted colors with no contrasty patterns, no jewelry or heavy makeup. I do not “do teeth”—big smiling teeth become wearing after time hanging up there on the wall. I believe in a simple portrayal of the face, sans emotion. And always in black and white. I use one light, no props, involving a relaxed twenty-minute sitting. Perhaps one word sums up Mortensen’s teaching: Simplicity.

I retouch the print itself, using a technique learned from Mortensen and refined by me. I give over to the client a portrait chosen by me, double-matted and framed to complement the portrait, not the décor of room and furnishings. I employ a system of subtle textures to help make the portrait distinctive from the usual studio work—textures that enhance the subject without taking over—with the sitter’s name hand-lettered on the background.

Balcomb’s exclusive technique results in portraits that are timeless, considered not just photos, but as works of Art, proud to hang on any wall. He has photographed people, many luminaries, from many parts of the world, including children and eventually their children, and then their children! They all know he is the only source for this most distinctive work.

The prestigious Center for Creative Photography at The University of Arizona, Tucson, had acquired the Mortensen archive, and through Balcomb’s association with Mortensen invited him to submit some of his own work as influenced by the Master. This body of prints now resides in the Center as the Robert Balcomb Collection, which also includes the correspondence between Balcomb and Myrdith Mortensen, a camera Mortensen had given him, a collection of experiments by Mortensen and his colleague George Dunham in developing the Mortensen Pigment Process, and Balcomb’s original biographical manuscript. The Center is among the most complete and comprehensive repositories of photography anywhere, having over 70,000 prints of over 4,000 photographers, concentrating on over 400 twentieth-century North American photographers. Acceptance into these halls is a signal honor, indeed.



To more portraits and "Notes on the Photographs"

To Mr. Balcomb's essay "Is Photography Art?"

All photographs ©Robert Balcomb, all rights reserved.
Reproducing in any form is strictly forbidden
unless previous permission is obtained.

Contact: rsbalcomb[*AT*]wavecable.com
(replace the [*AT*] with @)