Photographing with Bob

This week has brought woeful news. The camera shutters of two photography legends will never open and close again. In a matter of a few days we lost documentary photographer Robert Frank and a fellow Vancouverite, a true master of street photography, Fred Herzog.

After hearing the news, I wanted to write an in-depth and lengthy blog post about why these two brilliant photographers have been so important to me. How they inspired me so much. How they differed in their approach but produced such a unique body of work. But that’s not what I am going to write about. You will probably find plenty of eloquent blog posts about these two photographic legends. 

Today I would like to write about a photographer who passed away along with Fred Herzog and Robert Frank. This person, whom I feel privileged to call my friend, was not well known but made a much bigger and more personal impact on my photography and my life. For me, personally, he is among those giants in some ways. He was my student, mentor, friend, advocate, supporter and a great human being. 

I met Bob for the first time in my private workshop in the Palouse region. My wife and I drove around and photographed this beautiful place with Bob and his lovely wife Elaine. Every day we spent hours driving and stopping in the most remote corners of the Palouse, sometimes photographing, other times just staring at the beauty of the landscape. That’s what Bob enjoyed and wanted.

He was in his 80s when he was photographing with me in the Palouse. Bob had just started learning photography. Even though he quickly got tired, he carefully paid attention and listened to everything I said. From time to time he paused and asked a question. It wasn’t any question. It was always a well thought out and articulated argument, an inquiry with so much wisdom and wit embedded in it that before I answered I had already learnt so much from it. With each question or remark he would challenge my thinking, my vision and my personal beliefs.

From the first I admired Bob’s dedication to learning new ways of seeing. Bob already had an advantage over my other, much younger students. He knew how to slow down and actually observe, be there and see. He was never chasing the next image. He could linger and enjoy the scene long enough to craft a great image or just be present. As I was teaching Bob photography, Bob was teaching me patience and love of the moment. 

Bob loved people. Strangely enough when I first met him, he was terrified to ask strangers for permission to take a portrait. In one of our private meetings, I challenged Bob to take a few street portraits and interact with his subjects. It wasn’t easy. Bob would find any excuse not to do it but finally due to my persistence he asked the first person. It went quite well. Then Bob ask another and another…after about two hours our session came to a halt. Not because we had enough. Quite the opposite! The problem was that Bob was stopping every single person along the way for a photo. He chatted at length with everyone before he took an image, if any. He made new friends at a truly staggering rate. Of course photography was just a distraction. He loved this new adventure so much he just couldn’t stop. That was classic Bob—hungry for learning and reaching out to new experiences in life as if the concept of age didn’t exist, or any human limitations.  

Over months and years Bob and I had numerous photographic conversations. I cherished and enjoyed them tremendously. During one of the conversations I mentioned my Renatus and other projects and said I would love to work on them with a medium format camera. 

A few months later, long after I had forgotten this conversation, one Saturday evening I was sitting with my wife and watching TV. Then the telephone rang. It was Bob. I was surprised because it was quite late, and Bob and I usually chatted early in the day. He started asking me about the Renatus Project and my future photographic plans. Then, out of nowhere, Bob made me a proposition which absolutely stunned me. He said, “I would like to purchase the medium format camera for you.” Then he added, without waiting for my response, “Please let me do it and this way I could photograph with you. My health is not that great, and I believe in you so I would like you to think we work together as a team.” Then he repeated, “Please let me do it.” I didn’t know what to say. I was stunned. I said I would think about it and I was so grateful for his generous proposition. A few days later Bob called me again and this time I had nothing to say. Bob insisted he would bring the camera and I brought my seeing. Eventually I agreed and that’s how my adventure with medium format started. Without Bob I would never be able to afford the system which changed my photographic life.  

But the camera was not the most important gift I received from Bob. It was his unwavering belief in me as a person and as a photographer, which I am most grateful for. The fact that someone could believe in me and my work so much that he would buy me such amazing gear was beyond my comprehension. I thought that such things didn’t happen anymore. I thought that people who support photographers without any agenda or without requesting anything in return don’t exist. I was so wrong. Bob gave my photographic persona a new life, a much-needed zest for seeing and working hard. This act of kindness and trust brought me to new adventures and places in photography I would never dream of.  

This week Bob and I are leaving for another photographic trip. We will both be travelling, seeing and crafting great imagery—my eyes and his eyes—discovering the abundant, vibrant visuals of this world. It is great to have you, my friend, on this journey of seeing.  

“Each new friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born”Anais Nin

2019 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

20 thoughts on “Photographing with Bob

  1. What a sweet and moving testimonial to friendship, being open to new experiences and how photography brings that and more to all of us in different forms. Thank you for posting, Olaf, and for going above and beyond what most photography educators share with their students.

    1. Patricia,

      Your note means so much to me. Thank you for reading and finding the time to write so beautifully.

      I always appreciate your support and kindness.

      Olaf

  2. Wow, what a week, Olaf! I never thought it would touch you so personally. Through our conversations, and in some teleconferences, I’ve felt his influence over you, and always for good, if not excellent. Maybe the best tribute you can do is to have he in mind when you shoot MF and make every shot a hommage.

    All the best

  3. I read your words about your friend, Bob, and was very touched. It IS rather rare that people are so generous without wanting anything in return, but he obviously received as much from his gesture as you did. It just made him feel GOOD, and while it is sometimes difficult to accept such expensive gifts, from time to time one has to simply say “thank you” and receive the gift with the joy that it was given. I remember when you wrote about this gift in your blog, and it is heartwarming to hear about your friend, Bob. I am sure you will miss him, but will think about him every time you click the shutter on the camera he gave you.

    1. Susie,

      Your support and kindness means a lot to me Susie. It is such a gift knowing you. Your note is so beautiful and touching. Thank you so much.

      Hugs,

      Olaf

  4. I hope Bob knew that gifting you that camera and filling you with inspiration has also enabled you to inspire so many others. The spark he contributed will continue to ignite people he never even met. Thanks Bob and thanks Olaf

  5. Again Olaf, your ability with words as well as the camera resonates. And good to know that it’s never too late to take up photography…..

  6. Olaf, what a poignant piece of writing. I felt
    as if I could see Bob with you as I went through your article. I recollected you having mentioned the unbelievably magnanimous gesture of one of your well-wishers having gifted you the medium format camera in your interview on the Fujilove podcast. Its really sad to know that Bob is no more in the physical world but as you rightly put it, he will always remain with you. Not only through the camera that you will continue to masterfully wield, but also through those resplendent stars in the night sky and the cool breeze that will blow a kiss across your face as you go through life. I’m sorry for your personal loss. We will continue to celebrate Bob’s life through your lens.
    Best,
    Aditya

    1. Aditya,

      Your articulate, thoughtful and kind comment means so much to me. You are absolutely right – we will celebrate Bob’s life through seeing and crafting great imagery.

      Thank you again for visiting.

      Olaf

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