When visiting Rockport’s Bearskin Neck, one needs only to look a little off the main road and follow the slate walkway up to the R. Lerch Gallery to find master works of photography. This gallery is the work of local photographer Robert Loren Lerch, whose calm, keenly observed images make you feel as if you are a part of the scene – be it Cape Ann, Maine, or Ireland – just before the shudder had popped.
Here are 8 questions with Robert Loren Lerch:
Who or what influenced you in becoming a photographer?
No question, it was my dad, an art student who became a design engineer. He was the coolest guy I’ve ever met. He was multi-talented and eccentric and generally had thoughts no one else was having at the time. If it had occurred to me to ask him, I’m certain he would have had no idea who his influences were. He was generally unaware and uninterested in what others were doing. His ideas were his and his alone, and that suited him fine. He was an original character, and we were all keenly aware of it. He was a giant in personality, and I had the good fortune as a lad to spend hours with him illuminated only by the magic of the darkroom safelight, seeing images gradually appear in the developer tray.
What creatively inspires, and motivates you with your work?
Aging with grace and dignity is where I see beauty. I am inspired by people doing the best they can. Life is sometimes a picnic, and we should celebrate that as often as possible. But it is more often a daily test of endurance and perseverance. When I see people coping, and coping is the right word, with the vicissitudes of life and aging without complaint or bitterness, that to me is a victorious feat of courage and grace. Facing life with this kind of dignity is a huge theme in my work. I try to put into the work a sense of the small but important pleasures that are found in experiencing equanimity, a sense of propriety, and an appreciation of understated beauty.
What are some of the influences for your current work?
Wow, I’ve borrowed from everybody. Visual influences from the wider world: Edward Weston (I see him as a giant, but probably wouldn’t have liked him personally), Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Frederick Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Eliot Porter, Thomas Eakins. Have you noticed that a lot of these people are old-timers? Traditional values matter. A lot. Change (enlightenment?) is good, but we need the guidance of an understanding of the culture from which we’re growing. Also, my work has been influenced just as much by non-visual artists. Public or college radio has always been a constant companion in the darkroom…a lot of folks: Pete Seeger (another giant), Christy Moore, Kate Wolf, Stan Rogers, Gordon Bok. Jazz, the spoken word (William Carlos Williams, Barry Lopez)…on and on. What you are hearing affects how you print.
Philosophically, I have thought a lot about the Japanese concepts of “shibui” and “sabi”. Stubbornly difficult to translate into English, they deal with the ideas of unadorned or unenhanced inner being, Simplicity. Acerbic good taste. The beauty in the evidence of aging or use. The remoteness of life apart. A pleasing melancholy. A spiritual longing. My best translation is “like a sad-sweet James Taylor song”.
What is your greatest fear you have?
My greatest fear is being interviewed in public. Maybe taking a general knowledge test. The extent of my ignorance is huge. That’s for right now. In the longer term, there are issues like dying before I have the chance to do whatever I was meant to do here. Nothing unusual in that, I suppose. I think I am currently attending to that business, but one never really knows. I keep getting changes in my impulses with regard to work, and can’t figure out if they are distractions or opportunities.
Where do you feel photography is going?
Photography is going everywhere. It is omnipresent. Our daily lives are being documented in minutia. The recorded image is now EXPECTED. The security cam, the cop’s dash cam, the traffic cam, the bystander’s phone cam, the point & shoot cam (I forget which one) that’s always on so that you will have the shot that you arrived too late to get yourself. The proliferation of images is changing the way we feel about them. We are becoming used to the image that was made with little or no thought, even elevating its status to some kind of relevance that I think few of us really get right now. Susan Sontag, in “On Photography”, made the observation that the passage of time elevates all photographs to the status of art. Maybe in fifty years all this will be interesting, but there will be too much material to analyze. My answer to your question is “I don’t know.” It’s fast though, really fast.
My overriding fear is that photography is eroding the privacy of individuals, blurring the distinction between public and private life. If you have the need of emergency services, or if your home becomes, through some tragedy, a newsworthy event, then the images that may or may not (according to the photographer’s intention) represent your life will become public property. If a storm blows the sidewall off your house, the view of the interior becomes a commercial commodity. Sometimes for “art”; most times for the evening news.
What music are you listening to?
Puccini, Miles Davis, Pete Seeger, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, J.S. Bach, Leonard Cohen, Doo-Wop, Gilbert & Sullivan, Jay Ungar, K.D.Lang, Leonard Bernstein a lot (“Kaddish” and “Chichester Psalms”…and “Cool” and “Officer Krupke”?…unbelievable! Bernstein will never be an old-timer). And almost any contemporary (or not) folk singer-songwriter. Why? Social values, connectedness, peace, brotherhood.
What are you reading?
Right now? Reading and continuing to reread two books with interviews of Tibetan elders. These were given to me by one of my Bearskin Neck neighbors. Smart man. Also currently in the middle of Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music” (loaned to me by a professional musician/theologan, cantor, who knows a lot about music) and also Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Another book of his – found it in a used bookstore in Camden, ME, last summer – called “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals”. Just finished simultaneously reading two books on quantum physics: “In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat” by John Gribbin and “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene, both of these loaned by a former aerospace engineer colleague. As a student, I studied some of this stuff, but these books freaked me out anyway – alternate universes and all that. Last fiction read? Hmmm…don’t read enough of it…like it…just don’t get to it often enough. Gotta fix that. Jeez, maybe it was “House of Sand and Fog”, a study in unintended consequences. Before that it was Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars”. These were from my wife. She’s always feeding me works of fiction, but they pile up next to the bed.
What roll does Rockport play in your work?
I had never, before Rockport, lived in a small town…a city boy (Buffalo) by upbringing. I have pleasantly adjusted to the idea that, when I am walking to work in the morning, there is a very good chance of running into several people with whom it seems appropriate and pleasant to stop and pass the time of day. I pretty much always choose this as preferable to getting to work on time. It is the meat of life, really. There is no better use of time. We are all connected, and it is nourishing to the soul to reaffirm this at random opportunities. It provides a reason to celebrate life.
To learn more about the R. Lerch Gallery and the photography of Robert Loren Lerch visit:
R. Lerch Gallery
22 Bearskin Neck, Rockport, MA 01966 USA
Call toll free: 800-419-7797
Visit on the web at: http://www.rlerchgallery.com
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