Bob Keefer is a former newspaper art writer, a Harvard graduate, a resident of rural Oregon and long-time photographer. Bob has been making and selling hand-colored black and white photography since about 2002. Born in Alabama, he grew up in Los Angeles and went to school with a surprising number of movie stars’ kids. Bob got a bachelor’s degree in history of religion at Harvard University in 1975.
As a newspaperman for many years he interviewed people like Bob Hope and Muhammad Ali, once spent the night in a Nevada brothel on the paper’s expense account (newspapers were more fun then), and developed a deep interest in art 20 years ago after Bob wrote about an oil painter.
In 2006 Keefer was a fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts’ Journalism Institute for Theater and Musical Theater in Los Angeles. In 2013 he quit newspapering and became a full-time fine art photographer.
It’s been a pleasure for us to take an interview with Bob Keefer and learn some interesting facts of his biography. We wish you a pleasant reading and viewing of Bob Keefer photography.
AP: Hi Bob! Thank you very much for finding the time to give us an interview. That’s a great honor for us. We hope you will enjoy our questions. So please tell us what got you started?
Bob: I’ve been taking pictures since I found my older sister’s unused Brownie camera in a closet when I was 12. The grittiness and graphic look of black and white has always appealed to me. I still have a usable darkroom, though I haven’t actually used it in some years. Most of my first hand-colored photography was on photos shot with Tri-X film developed in Rodinal.
I’m not even quite sure how I discovered hand coloring. There are a few hand colored photos (including one of me as a toddler) in an old family album of ours, and I’ve long admired the work of Western landscape photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of whom used hand coloring. One example would be Fred Kiser, who set up a studio on the rim of Crater Lake in Oregon and sold hand-colored photos.
AP: What a great start and discovery! Do you have any formal education in photography or were you self-taught?
Bob: I’m self-taught. That is easier to do these days with the Web, of course, though hand coloring actually has very few resources available online, so that was mostly learned by experimenting.
AP: Yeah, I also think that a person can learn a lot by experimenting. What genre are your photos?
Bob: Almost all my hand colored work is landscape. The subject matter lends itself well to hand coloring, as people are more willing to accept an imaginative approach to color in a nature scene than, say, in a portrait. Most hand colored portraits I’ve seen, including most I’ve tried, are simply bad.
AP: How would you describe your landscape photography?
Bob: My work blends the mechanical precision of photography with the expressiveness of painting. At best, the two approaches complement each other like two lines in a musical fugue. Very few people in the art world do serious hand colored photography. That’s at least in part because of the vast number of cheesy hand colored photos out there of puppies, cute children and sunflowers.
AP: Thanks for such beautiful description. You do you a very exquisite job. What’s your favorite piece so far?
Bob: That’s like asking which one is my favorite child. Fortunately, photos can’t be jealous of one another, so it’s OK for me to answer. I really like the look of a 22×30-inch print I colored last year and titled, rather unimaginatively, “Forest 2012.40.” The photo creates a forest scene that is, at once, seductive, friendly and alien.
AP: I like that picture very much! I’d describe it as dreamy, fabulous and never-ending. What kind of equipment and techniques do you use to take your pictures?
Bob: I shoot with a pair of Pentax K-5 cameras and their weatherproof zooms for nearly all my landscape work. Really, all digital SLRs these days are so competent that it hardly matters what equipment you use, and I could perfectly well do my work on any system. I like Pentax because their cameras are small and tough.
In the days before digital, I made traditional darkroom prints on fiber-based paper and colored them with Marshall’s oils, just as hand colorists have done for decades. About eight years ago I started experimenting with using artist acrylic paints instead of oils, largely because acrylics are faster drying and less toxic. It took about a year for me to get used to the new medium, and I only figured it out by doing scores of bad pictures.
In about 2008 I started working on black and white inkjet prints, trying to figure out how to transition from film into digital for my work. Once again, I spent many months doing bad work and throwing it out until I was able to find a combination of paper, ink and method that satisfies me.
Right now I print on an Epson 7600 printer outfitted with pure carbon-pigment black ink; the paper I use is Stonehenge printmaker’s paper.
AP: Thanks for such big and detailed introduction to your working process; I am sure your readers will like it much. What is the formula for success in your activity?
Bob: The only formula I know that succeeds in art – as in most of life – is hard work and paying attention. My photography has gotten better since I quit my day job, as I now shoot outside several days a week and work in the studio the rest of the time, but that has also forced me to shoot or paint on any given day whether I feel like it or not.
Marketing is also important for any artist, as for any business person, and I set aside time each week to write or telephone publications, galleries and art consultants who might be interested in my work.
AP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on AstrumPeople?
Bob: Photographer Craig Hickman, who was the inventor of the old Mac drawing program Kid Pix. He’s a genius, a friend, and a great photographer. See red-green-blue.com.
AP: We will definitely contact Craig Hickman and do our best to take an interview with him. Is there someone who supports you in your creativity?
Bob: My family, of course, for giving me the physical and emotional room to pursue something as tenuous and as unlikely as art. My son is a bird photographer and writer; we often do photo trips together. I also have a painter friend I check in with periodically to compare work and talk shop.
AP: Tell us three lessons you believe are really important for every photographer?
- Look at as much art – not just photography – as you can find time for. I am especially fond lately of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints.
- Take drawing lessons – this will improve your photography immensely, more than any amount of new gear.
- Go out and shoot as much as you possibly can, and make prints of your best results.
Bob, thank you so much for sharing such amazing and inspiring story with us! It’s very incredible. Your fine art hand-colored black and white photographs look fantastic. We wish you a brilliant success, more great shots and continuous inspiration. To learn more about Bob Keefer photography, please visit his personal website.