Photographer and visual artist Robert Saint Rich from New Jersey purposefully alters his film negatives in order to achieve the final image.
These manipulated film negatives make up the images you see here. However, Robert believes that the journey and experience of creating a single piece are more important than the finished photograph, where the end result is a physical piece of that journey.
He also adheres to the ideology of passing on one's knowledge as an authentic, and sincere way to live the human experience and progress as an artist.
Robert is currently in the early stages of piecing together his second photobook which will be composed of his interpretation and manipulation of negatives.
Hello Rob! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Could you tell us how you started with photography?
My journey leading to photography as a medium of expression is a little bit of a weird story. I lived in Florida for some time and met a friend towards the end of my residency who had a passion for photography and videography. This relationship and its development served as an introduction into photography – had always had an interest in learning the medium of art, but perceiving it as too intimidating to ever really jump into. The Christmas after I moved back home to New Jersey, I impulsively bought a digital camera that was on a holiday sale as a way for me to stay connected with my friend who was now a great distance away.
Photography was a way for me to share the way I perceived the world with my friend, without being able to spend time together in person. This is what really kept a camera in my hands since it took me a while to understand and apply the basics. From my efforts, my passion for photography gradually progressed as it became a more serious medium in my tool kit as a visual artist. I became more interested in the history of photography and started teaching myself the art of film photography. I was recently fortunate enough to build a darkroom in my basement – after being gifted equipment by a professor of mine. I’m currently focusing on expanding my experience and knowledge in photography by combining traditional visual mediums of art with film photography.
Do you have a routine or specific process when working on a project? When do you know that the image is finished?
I wouldn’t explicitly say that most of my projects start with or have a specific routine. I am more of a process-oriented artist in that I find that the entire journey and experience of creating a single piece is more important than the finished product itself. There is a sort of therapy that I find in letting the piece I am working on sort itself out – where the end result is a physical piece of that journey that I am able to give to others and say, “Look at where this piece took me, follow me on my next path where I find something new”.
There are definitely pieces that I have created where I had a clear vision in mind that I was looking to achieve before I would consider the piece (for better or worse) finished, but I haven’t really found that to be too fulfilling for me as an artist, especially recently. I prefer to have some sense of expressive relief after I finish a piece, and working in a rigidly structured manner puts me in a mindset of “Okay, that’s done now, what’s next?”, and that approach never really affords expressive relief.
Knowing when to call it on an image is ambiguous. I would argue that a work of art is never really finished, the artist just has to decide when to stop working. A lot of the negatives that I’ve been manipulating in my current process of work have been older photographs I’ve taken that I once defined as “finished”. I would say that there is always more room to push the creative envelope.
Your work with negative manipulation is really interesting! Could you tell us what inspired you to alter/modify your negatives?
There is this recurring instance where I feel an overwhelming detachment from the pieces that I am creating. My process in freeing myself from that feeling is generally found by wiping the slate clean and defining a new process in which I can express myself in my visual language. That feeling has been finding me a little more often recently, and my last dissociative phase was difficult to navigate, so I decided to fully embrace change in how I define myself as an artist.
During this transition, I archived all of the pieces I had posted on my social media accounts, changed my name, and allowed myself to work in a way that most, if not all, film photographers won’t allow themselves to work. That’s how I thought of and acted on altering my negatives. To me, it didn’t matter if my negatives were able to be archived if the process in creating the photograph itself did nothing to help me develop as a person, so the question of ‘Can I actually allow myself to cut, scratch, tape, and draw on my negatives?’ was never really a question to me. I think being a successful artist is largely credited to being able to evaluate risk properly. In my experience, risking my negatives to be able to fully express how I’m feeling in a sincere manner was a call that I was able to make without hesitation.
Could you share with our readers what ideology you live by? And what does it mean to you moving forward as an artist?
One of the main ideologies that I live by is “Learn, Do, Teach”. This ideology was presented to me some time ago by an old friend, and it’s really helped me progress as both an artist and human being, so I’ve kept it in my back pocket ever since. Your first step in doing anything begins with learning, whether that is through failure, through a mentor, or both. After this, you have to continue practicing what you’ve learned to allow yourself to be available in receiving further growth in your craft. I think the most challenging step in this way of life is passing on your knowledge. It’s in this step that you really are able to find who you are and what you know. Do I have enough confidence in my craft to help hand it off to another artist? Am I humble enough to learn from this process of teaching, and accept the fact that I am probably not as knowledgeable in this field as I believe I am? It is really a test of modesty and humility, and where I find myself progressing the most as a human being. This cycle of “Learn, Do, Teach” is never finished – so moving forward as an artist and living the human experience in a sincere way go hand-in-hand and offer me the most growth possible.