Robb Siverson: Finding Inspiration in Everyday Experiences and the Landscape of the Northern Plains

Since 1977, Photographer’s Market has been a must-have reference guide for emerging photographers. Beyond up-to-date contact and submission information for more than 1,400 photography markets, PM includes informative articles and interviews with successful photographers. Read on for a 2011 PM interview with Robb Siverson, a freelance fine art and commercial photographer. Also, be sure to check out ArtistsMarketOnline.com, the new online version of Photographer’s Market and Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market—you can try it for free with the 7-day risk-free trial.

Robb SiversonA photographic jack-of-all-trades, Robb Siverson might be found shooting digital aerial photography for corporate advertisers, taking traditional large-format photographs of the landscape near his home in Fargo, North Dakota, or working in a local commercial camera store. Although he prefers black-and-white silver halide processes, Siverson is also completely comfortable with digital processes, which he uses for both commercial and color work. He has found that this flexibility has allowed him to eke out a comfortable living and pursue his art photography. Siverson explains, “My commercial photography helps keep the paychecks coming in at a steady pace. I’m not ashamed to work with other forms of photography to make a living.”
Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Siverson completed his B.A. in photography at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, and has since settled in Fargo, North Dakota. Having spent all of his life in the Northern Plains region of the U.S., he is the first to admit the influence it has had on his work: “The landscape that surrounds me and has surrounded me my entire life is a huge influence on my work. If an artist’s everyday surroundings do not inspire him, how can he make good art?” Siverson explains, “In the last two years most of my negatives have been made within an hour of my home. I love the Northern Plains. This is my native landscape, my home.” His passion for his subject shows through in his beautiful photographs of his surroundings.
While Siverson says he’s still waiting for his first “big break,” he continues working, dreaming, and shooting and printing photographs. Here Siverson describes his working process, reveals the ups and downs of being a freelance photographer, and shares his dreams for the future.

When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
I originally went to college to earn an associate’s degree in human resources. Half way through completing my degree, I stumbled across a basic photography class and enrolled the following semester. I was hooked after the first assignment and haven’t stopped taking photographs since. My instructor liked my enthusiasm and asked me to be a teacher’s assistant the following semester. Before I graduated, I already knew I was going to go back to school to study fine art photography.
How would you describe your photography?
I do such a wide variety of work within the photographic industry that it is hard to describe “my photography.” Recently I was interviewed for a photography magazine out of Paris, and the writer indicated in the article that I was a photographic jack-of-all-trades, and I agree that is a good way to describe my work. That said, I truly get the most enjoyment out of traditional processing. Whether I am working in my darkroom on straight black-and-white printing or bromide staining, having physical control over my work is something I enjoy.
However, I am not immune to the decline in this industry. I have been working part-time in a retail camera store for ten years, so I feel very comfortable behind a digital camera and know that industry as well. I work digitally for both commercial and color work. I am also fortunate enough to have studied fine art photography at a university that taught many alternative, turn-of-the-century processes, some of which I only studied in college, some I still use, and some that I hope to explore more in the future. Photography is an interesting medium to me because of the vast array of processes.

What are your working methods and how did you develop them?
Since 2004 I’ve shot most of my personal work with a 4×5 view camera. I personally craft my images from start to finish, using traditional darkroom processing methods. I hand process my negatives and photographs in the darkroom using chemistry and spend countless hours dancing around, dodging and burning, and creating photographs by hand. I then go through the process of spotting and pressing the photographs to prepare them for framing, which I also do myself.
One process that I really enjoy is bromide staining. This is a unique chemical process that creates one-of-a-kind photographs with a painterly quality to them. I apply chemistry to the photograph with a paintbrush and expose the photograph to white light. This adds wonderful hues of color to the black-and-white paper. I have been using this process on multiple projects since 2003. I have found that different brands of paper, such as Kodak, Agfa, and Forte, produce different hues of color. This process is becoming increasingly difficult for me to continue as many of the brands of paper that I use have been discontinued.
Since the discontinuation of the papers I was using for bromide staining, I shifted gears to straight black-and-white silver printing, and I have become very passionate about it. I love the look of well-printed black-and-white silver photographs. They have a wonderful glow.
Lately I’ve also been working with a variety of alternative photographic processes, including both analog and digital techniques and a combination of the two. For example, I will take a Polaroid but use the negative side instead of the positive (image) side and scan it in wet, digitizing the image. This creates wonderful images with a painterly quality.

What kind of formal training do you have?
In 2004 I received my Bachelor of Arts degree with an emphasis in photography from Minnesota State University, Moorhead. During my studies there, I was introduced to a variety of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographic processes, including carbon printing, albumen printing, and cyanotypes. These various processes fascinated me and encouraged me to continuously explore and try new processes. Post graduation I studied under photographer Wayne Gudmundson as his darkroom assistant. During this time I assisted on his retrospective exhibit and major book project in collaboration with the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota.
This opportunity became a continuation of my education. Wayne’s willingness to critique my work and teach me tricks of the trade deepened my appreciation for large-format printing. He helped me see what a quality black-and-white photograph should look like. At the end of the project he said I went from an “OK” printer to a “good” printer; while some may have taken that as an insult, it is truly a great compliment. It is important to always be critical of your own work and strive for improvement.

What do you prefer about traditional film photography?

There is something special about working with traditional large-format film. I tend to slow down and think about what I’m photographing and why. Using this format makes me think the composition through. The slow, at times cumbersome technique is rewarding when it comes together in the darkroom. Working with larger negatives gives me the ability to print larger photographs with wonderful detail and sharpness throughout. I like to get my hands dirty and enjoy the quiet time spent in the darkroom creating photographs.

What’s it like to be a traditional film photographer in the digital age?
Exciting and expensive. It seems like every time I order traditional supplies, anything from chemistry, paper, or film, prices continue to increase due to a shrinking demand. It is also a very exciting time in photography as the possibilities are endless, especially when utilizing both analog and traditional techniques together.

What kind of equipment do you use?
I was very fortunate to be able to purchase an entire darkroom setup right before I graduated. A local photographer who was retiring the wet lab and converting to 100-percent digital sold his entire darkroom to me for a song and dance. This enabled me to continue working with the wet-lab process after leaving the university environment. The biggest challenge graduating photography students face is how they will be able to continue traditional processing without access to enlargers and the darkroom supplied by their university. I have to think that this is why a lot of art students turn to using strictly digital techniques upon graduation. And, as this industry continues to “dry up,” there aren’t a whole lot of choices for community darkrooms to choose from.
While I feel blessed that I was able to find a wet-lab setup for a very reasonable price, my next challenge was to find a place to set it up. I originally set up shop in a rented space that supplied running water and lived in a small apartment a few blocks away. My wife and I have since bought a home in which I converted the basement into a darkroom/studio.
For my commercial photography, I have a wide assortment of digital equipment ranging from digital SLR cameras and lenses, to film scanners, and computer software and hardware. I have a makeshift studio and lighting system that travels with me to a many different locations.

What are your long-term goals?
My ultimate long-term goal is to open a gallery/studio in Montana. Both my wife and I love the mountains and what Montana has to offer. We would like to settle there for the second half of our lives. The gallery/studio would showcase not only my work but also the work of other artists I’ve met along the way and whose work I really admire. It would be a gallery with a friendly and well-put-together e-commerce website so people could look at the exhibitions and purchase artwork from all over the world. I have been very fortunate to meet many influential artists, who I would be honored to exhibit with, and this would be a way to give back to them by helping promote, sell, and expose their artwork to a wider audience.

What projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on a two-person exhibition that will travel to multiple locations
throughout North Dakota. This exhibit will showcase traditional large-format, black-and white-photographs. Also, an art director recently hired me to decorate his client’s office spaces with artwork, including mural-size photographs of my own. My aerial photography season (July-September) has started, so I will be busy with a mixture of corporate, advertising, and brochure-type work. My daily projects vary widely, which always keeps things interesting. I learned early on that commercial photography is a wonderful way to bring in a steady income and enables me to continue working on my art.

How do you approach new clients and, more generally, how do you promote your work? Do you have an agent or photo rep? Why or why not?

I do not have a photo rep. I have not had that opportunity present itself to me yet. I do, however, promote my work by selling online through my website and by exhibiting in galleries. I have used online stores such as eBay to sell my work in the past, and this helped put more eyes on my art. I also used to travel and showcase at art festivals around the country, but I found out quickly that the “on the road” art festival lifestyle was not for me. The emotional ups and downs of the art festivals was hard on me. Not only are they physically draining, but emotionally draining as well. I would go from one show selling a lot of work and winning an award to not making enough sales to cover one night at the hotel. Lately, I prefer to use the Internet and galleries to promote my art and my commercial work.

Are you able to make a living off the sales of your work?
Not entirely. Making a good living on print sales alone is very hard for most artists. My commercial photography helps keep the paychecks coming in at a steady pace. I’m not ashamed to work with other forms of photography to make a living. This way I am able to work on my first passion, fine art photography, without the pressure of making a living solely as an artist.

What was your first big break?
After my senior photography exhibition I wanted to continue showing my fine art photography in a gallery setting. Knowing I had to start somewhere, I turned to a local coffee shop. I advertised, promoted, made fliers, got a press publication, and ended up with a large turnout and significant number of sales. I’m not sure if I would call that my “big break”-I’m still waiting for that, but you could call it my first break. It showed me there was interest in what I was doing and that people appreciated my work. Since then I have never stopped trying to show my work and have been fortunate to have a handful of local galleries that continue to exhibit my work on a yearly or bi-yearly basis.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a freelancer?
There are a lot of ups and downs in the world of being a photographer and artist. In years past, I’ve gone months without a paycheck and other times the checks never seem to stop coming in. The financial aspect of working independently can be an emotional roller coaster. A lot of people think freelancers have it easy because we do not have to answer to a boss. In reality there are many weeks I work 60-70 hours, meeting deadlines for commercial clients, exhibiting and creating artwork, or a combination of the two. I may be answering to multiple “bosses” at one time: curators, marketing directors, etc. While I may be in business for myself, I work for my clients.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received and do you have any advice for beginning or struggling photographers?
There are a lot of sacrifices along the way and there is no guarantee of what may transpire from all the hard work you put into your photography. However, no matter what type of photography you create, continuing to do what you love is clearly a form of courage.

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