Pages of a book fan out between its tattered covers, as if to divulge a secret. Petals form a whorl from the center of a rose, like wrinkles around an old woman’s eye. A straight-backed wooden chair floats blurry against a pitchblack background, seemingly dreaming itself into focus.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then one Robert Stivers photograph tells a thousand stories. I hear a different one each time I look at an image of his. When it comes to the story behind his gelatin silver photographs of common objects, “so much of what I do is intuitive, spontaneous, organic,” he says. “The reason I choose an object to photograph could be as simple as ‘it’s available.’ That’s why there’s such a diversity in my work — book, typewriter keys, shoe, egg, flower. And I try to give equal weight to each object. It’s not about being profound or making a grand statement. But I also don’t want to diminish or take away something that might be very special.”
A sense of mystery, memory and reverie emanates from much of the sixty-five-yearold Santa Fe, New Mexico-based photographer’s work. With many of his images intentionally out of focus, often becoming abstract, his portraits, nudes, landscapes and photographs of objects and dancers ask us to look at “what lurks behind,” as he puts it.
Stivers’ photographs have been shown in dozens of galleries worldwide; and collected by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others. His work also appears in six published monographs and more than a dozen anthologies, and as periodical covers. He has also received several national awards.
It wasn’t until his mid-thirties that Stivers got serious about photography. Nothing in his childhood pointed to an eventual career in it. He was born in 1953 in Palo Alto, California, to Stanford-educated parents, an aerospace engineer father and politically involved mother. With no artists in his family, he grew up without any encouragement to become one. But no one stopped him, either, when he took his first photos of waterskiers during a summer vacation at the family cabin at California’s Lake Arrowhead. That was 1973, a year after he graduated from high school.
“All through high school and college, I studied a lot of art history, and I loved music and the visual arts. I always felt that I had the temperament [to be artistically creative] but didn’t think I had any skill,” says Stivers. Answering to parental expectation, he went for a master of science in administration degree, thinking law school, though “that was the last thing I wanted to do.” Inspired by his then-girlfriend, who danced, Stivers took a ballet class. “I played a lot of sports, and from the first moment, I connected with dance on a level of it being poetry and physical and magical, surrounded by music and beautiful women. It was a revelation.”
Stivers dropped out of the master’s program and the two left Los Angeles for New York City, where he danced in a performance with the Joffrey Ballet, as the photographer in Moses Pendleton’s revival of the 1924 Dadaist ballet, Relache. “It was an interesting foreshadowing,” he says. A serious back injury during ballet class, though, sent him into a downward emotional spiral.
He didn’t allow himself to stay there for long. If he couldn’t dance, then he would combine his love of the arts with his managerial skills. So he got a master’s degree in arts administration from New York University and managed a dance company. “It was successful and got great reviews, but I was very dissatisfied because I wasn’t doing anything creative,” he says. “I also felt this necessity to prove that I could go out in the world and earn an income.” He moved back to Los Angeles and gave himself two years as a licensed stockbroker and life-insurance agent. That was enough. Off to Europe he went, hanging out with dancer friends there.
When he returned to California, broke, he became a photographer’s rep, self-taught, after meeting a couple of commercial photographers. One of them showed him how to take photos, do lighting and work in the darkroom. Then, in the fall of 1987, Stivers took a workshop with famous photographer Jo Ann Callis. That marked the end of repping others — and the beginning of attending to his own creative self.
Says Stivers, “From the very start, I found that I had a voice, a vision. I really felt I had something to say, which surprised me. It was as big an epiphany as when I discovered dance. A whole world opened up to me that I didn’t know existed. I hadn’t known I could create anything of value. I thought, at best, I’d do something very mediocre. I was completely surprised that I had a ‘knack’ for photography. I also knew that I couldn’t work for anybody. I vowed to do the work I wanted to do.”