Geoffrey Roberts with text by Lyndal Irons
Geoffrey Roberts: The Kind Warmth Awaits
text by Lyndal Irons
If Geoffrey Roberts wore a high vis vest and pretended to be a surveyor rather than a photographer, it would save him a lot of interruptions. The first Victorian showing of his exhibition The Kind Warmth Awaits, an expanded continuation of his recent Sydney show of the same name, opens November 6 -29 at Colour Factory in Fitzroy
Earlier this year in Armidale a man came up to Geoffrey Roberts at Dan Murphy's and, seeing a 4x5 monorail camera set up in front of nothing, asked what he was photographing.
"The loading dock," Roberts' replied.
"Why?" the guy asked.
"Because I like it," he responded. The guy blinked and asked again. Roberts grew impatient, noticing it was a question he'd been trying to answer himself. "I like the light on it and I like the textures," he continued. "It just feels right."
The questioner looked at him strangely. And then he went to Coles.
Put on the spot, Roberts does not often succeed in enlightening his interrogators. But by the time his negatives are hand printed and on the wall there something undeniably uncommon about the everyday scenes transformed by his attention.
One of his first interrogators was Magnum's Antoine D'Agata during a workshop undertaken in Fremantle, WA which he described as being "a lot like spending a week with a psychologist".
"It is not so much what he told me but the questions I couldn't answer," recalls Roberts. "They were very simple. I remember on the first day each person in the class showed their portfolio and at the end he asked, 'What is this?' People either didn't have an answer or they scrambled so hard for one it became ludicrously obvious that it wasn't true.
"I don't think it's important to know when you are taking the pictures but it is important to know eventually. It took me a while to start taking pictures that made sense together."
After the workshop the humans quickly dropped out of his street photographs and they became the urban landscapes he has been making since.
"I find beautiful things are sometimes a little bit boring," said Roberts. "Everyday things have a greater connection because I see them a lot. I don't go to the beach and see a sunset everyday - that's something I do a couple of times per year. It doesn't feel very relevant to my life."
At some point during his quest to sort out the background and better compose pictures, the background became so well realised it became the entire picture.
The photographer who had once hated his tripods (they still had a "new car smell") became obsessed with the most stationery of devices, the Arca-Swiss 4x5 Monorail, which was able to reproduce the print quality he is now known for. When he needs to be more mobile he downsizes to a MF Rolleiflex.
It is the curse of Geoffrey Roberts that a man who shies from the limelight fell for a camera that often makes him the centre of attention. He frequently emerges from under the dark cloth as the subject of multiple Instagram posts.
In part it is this attention that's pushed him away from shooting in the city as frequently, favouring road trips that see him arriving hours out of town before breakfast for 13 hours of pure photography.
"I think I just lost interest in photographing the city. I've included pictures from the city in this set because people spend a lot of time there - I've spent a lot of time on the tenth floor of that building. But I think real life happens outside the city in most cases, so my pictures have been moving further and further away."
If there's a link to all his images in The Kind Warmth Awaits it's largely the absence of people and the presence of things constructed by them. There is one picture included that would have been a natural landscape had a tree not been bulldozed the week before.
The title incubated as a misheard lyric but it's related to the spark when he senses a potential image. "I get very excited when I walk past something that might be a picture in the same way a kid gets excited on Christmas Eve. Perhaps in a quieter way but it's the same feeling that something good is coming.
"For me it is the mood or the atmosphere and whether an image gives back to me the feeling I had on the day or perhaps it gives me an overall feeling of my life."
If you are just looking at his photos, what Roberts feels daily is ambiguous. There is nothing overtly melodramatic or threatening in them. But there is a cinematic tension in certain images, an apprehension in knocked over goal posts, shadows closing in on small yards and doomed buildings that feel a little ominous or claustrophobic. To him, they are optimistic and demonstrate a satisfaction in the way things are.
Inspired by the clarity of Stephen Shore and the economy of Robert Adams, Roberts' goal is to find cohesion. "When I find a picture that's successful I get back to life before it has become overcomplicated. That is what I look for and it is a very peaceful thing that I am doing.
"The thing I like about photography is that you can respond to something instantly. Even if you are not entirely sure what it is you are looking at or why, you can make a picture and then you can work it out. Sometimes as you are making it, sometimes when you look at the negative or print it, and in other cases it comes years later when you suddenly figure out what it was about or what you were trying for - why you were interested in a clothesline."