"Profile of a Hollywood Printmaker"
Profile of a Hollywood Printmaker
by Sharon Dawson
Robert Cavalli, owner of Still Moving Pictures, a custom black-and-white lab, has been helping photographers create outstanding photographs for 20-plus years. The first thing that strikes you about Robert when you first meet him is his deep love for the art of imagemaking.
Robert helps bring to light special moments in print, and I found that having a conversation with him is equally as illuminating: One incredible thought quickly melds into the next. Ideas brought up seem new but familiar at the same time. You want to shout, "Wait! Go back!" But it is too late, he has already moved on. Its almost too much to hold on to. Creative thoughts remain etched in your mind to sort out later. You walk away from the conversation in awe.
"The whole world inspires me. Photography is about the play of light on the world, capturing the deep emotions we feel and what matters to an individual. Photographs are as much about the photographer as they are about the image," Robert says. Halfway home you begin to realize his insight and what it might come to mean.
The second thing that hits you is his absolute humility. To him, this is all logic. It's all obvious thought. It's not about him, it's about art. And therein lies the true genius--he knows how to get out of his own way. This is a nuance few craftsmen get, and in my opinion it's the line between the technician and the artist.
To better illustrate this point, I watched Robert select prints to enter into competition. He is running around, tearing his hair out, and saying, "I don't know! I just don't know! There are so many!" Anyone who has ever entered a competition or had to choose a photo for an ad can relate to this, so I offer to help him choose. "Okay, Okay." He's coming into focus now.
He starts pulling down boxes. And boxes. And more boxes. He's right, there are so many photos-20 years worth, in fact. Recognizable, award-winning images are going right and left around me, a virtual blur of highly sucessful images due, in part, to his post-production wizardry.
Then come the exclamations: "Look at this shot! Isn't this beautiful? Look how he captured the light there. Look at this one--why can't people shoot like that more often?" At this point I realize Robert is carrying on about the talent of the photographers he has been privileged to work for and has completely lost sight of the project at hand, which is his own. He is behind the scene in his own art, which enables him to generously and whole-heartedly bring out the best in each negative he's presented with. It's never about him; it's about the work. This is a rare quality.
Robert has printed some of my images, so I have the advantage of knowing what he is capable of bring out in photographs. In this day and age of Photoshop, it seems everyone thinks they can do the amazing things he does with the wave of a hand. Applying a filter or running a blacket action on an image is not the same as having the ability to study a photograph and determine what should be enhanced and how to do so without interfering with the heart of the image. As Robert explains, "Technique is at its finest when it remains hidden serving only to enhance, never to overun."
His studio is filled with examples of his practiced eye. To a novice it might not seem as if Robert has done much, but that's the beauty of what he does. Nothing ever looks overworked, and you never look at a print and think about the processing. Instead, you see a beautiful photograph.
I pick up a shot of Audrey Hepburn taken by Yule Brynner and study it. I can see what he had done--or at least I think I can see. But when he hands me his printing notes, I see how much more he has done to enhance, but not disturb, this wonderful image. It's really a talent. He has done wonders on some of my work over the years, and even with the final piece right in front of me to try and copy, I've never succeeded. They have yet to make a Photoshop action to think like that for me.
So now let's step inside the box, shall we? Lets look at these photographs. Sure, there are steller, award-winning wedding photographs, but there is also Audrey Hepburn being rowed through Venice, Michael Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, incredible advertising photos, and work from famous photographers throughout the years. It's impressive to see these photos. Not because the subjects or photographers are famous, but because they come from precious negatives that have been entrusted specifically to Robert. Entrusted, because the photos' creators sense the potential of their work and believe Robert knows how to complete their visual agendas. In fact, he may be one of the few people who do. And what he does is breathtaking.
Over breakfast, we discuss digital. Robert is an expert with film, but he is quite willing to move along with the changed in the field. Most people do not realize that he can also work his magic with a digital file conversion to film. People with careers spanning 30 years such as his don't survive without embracing change.
As we are conversing, a thought comes to might inspired by something he says. We are talking about high constrast films, which I used quite often and loved. He asks if I have been able to recreate the effect in Photoshop, and I fidget (which I do whenever we get on the subject) and say, "Well, no, sort of, not really." This is due mostly to my ineptitude, I suppose. Then he asks if I miss using film. It occurs to me that I do miss it.
Together we remember how much we love to put a roll of film in the camera and know what that film is capable of doing with special processing; how we see differently through the camera depending upon what film we're using.
He points out that while he sees many great digital images, one of the important things about film is that when we put it in our camera, we stretch ourselves to see things in light of the commitment we made when we picked that specific roll in the first place. We force ourselves to see in accordance with our decision.
Soon Robert has moved on to his next topic: the importance of a good negative. He explains that when shooting, you must do so with the original intent of creating the best negative. A quality negative is much easier to work with because images have been conceptualized, visualized and created with a finished goal in mind, rather than hastily and carelessly composed. Then he shrugs and says, "But I guess you can always fix it in Photoshop." And then he gives me the look--which is classic Cavalli--that suggests his comments were a bit tongue-in-cheek. This is the part where I don't know whetere to hurl my hasbrowns at him or hug him.
He is absolutely right when he says, "Although the art of capture and the art of printing are intrinsically related, that doesn't mean they are born of the same talent." In other words, just because can take the photograph does not mean you have experience or know-how to see where it can go after inception. I bow my head to the man who has shown me, yet again, that he is indeed a master printer; not just with film, but with all visuals. He sees the next step so clearly.
Again while I'm watching him shovel eggs into that Cheshire smile of his, I realize it is exciting to know he has found a way to lend that talent to digital files as well. As he launches off onto the finger points of Tabasco sauce and how they relate to eggs, I rethink my approach to my photography and vow to do my part again.
While photography is certainly not a dying art, sadly, some might say the art of printing is. A visit to Robert's studio convinces me otherwise, though. He's not about the latest fad; he's about the longevity and truth of an image. He isn't a big splash of red behind a woman in white; he's the fine, gray-toned nuance in the face of a 90-year-old man. He's inspired and driven, and he will inspire and drive any photographer that comes to him with their work. He has the gift of improving both the photograph and the photographer. And he doesn't even know he's doing it--sort of the way light just seems to happen upon those never-before-seen special moments.