No shooter, no shot: The abstract nature photography of R. K. Dickson

CHAMBERSBURG – R. K. Dickson awoke in his truck before sunrise. He brushed his teeth, took a moment to appreciate that there was no line for the Porta-Potty, and then he hopped back into the truck and pulled out of the campground under the cover of darkness. From waking to exiting: about five minutes.

He had originally planned to camp closer to the site, but the official campground had been closed for the season. Having already traveled nearly 10,000 miles, this extra distance barely registered as an obstacle. It wasn’t even the biggest problem he would face that day. He knew where he was going — he had been there before, and he knew when to be there, and he knew he couldn’t afford to miss it. He had meticulously prepared his equipment the night before so everything would be exactly where he needed it to be, freeing him up to lose himself in the task at hand.

At the site, Dickson lugged the gear nearly 80 vertical feet, stopping just below the peak of the sandy dune, an experience later described as “tough sledding.” It had taken him 45 minutes to reach this point, and he had made it with a few minutes to spare. The dune was just starting to glow as the sun moved into position. He used his remaining moments to survey his surroundings.

He had set out a month and a half earlier with three cameras. By this point, one was broken, one was out of film, and the remaining camera — a large-format Linhof — was running low. He had hoped to have more when he hit the dune, but he had burned through his film faster than he had budgeted. He had already snapped nearly 1,000 pictures, and as badly as he wanted more now, he had no regrets, and he wouldn’t consider trading any of those. But now he only had six shots left. At one point he had considered ordering more film and having it delivered to a motel room, but decided against it. He had laid out a set of rules for himself, and he wasn’t going to resort to cheating this late in the game.

Besides, a certain amount of pressure can be useful.

This was one of the main lessons he had learned from previous expeditions: You need a problem. Without a problem, why bother being creative? And now, out here on the dune, he had a big one. He didn’t have a strict itinerary when he started driving west, but he knew from the outset that the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado’s San Luis Valley would be the climax of the journey. The dunes were his self-imposed final exam, and with only six shots left, the entire experience had just become a pass/fail final with the scale weighted towards failure.

In the visitor’s center, there is a photograph of the dunes on display from 1880s posed next to a more recent shot. It’s true that the overall flow and general shape of the dunes hasn’t changed substantially in more than a century, but it’s also true that the details of the surface are ever-changing, covering up the footprints of the day before — always sifting, never the exact same dune twice.

When the time finally came, and everything was in its place, he took the first shot. And then the second. But as he was firing the third, he realized something was wrong. The settings on the camera weren’t right. Convinced that he had ruined half of his shots out of the gate, he reconfigured the camera and once more took aim. Four. Five.

One shot left.

He peered through the viewfinder and the dune, the camera and the photographer became one.


“Dune Form 6, Colorado” — Copyright R. K. Dickson, 2017

On January 31, R. K. Dickson, an associate professor of fine arts at Wilson College, unveiled his exhibit titled “Rock. Water. Air.” The exhibit featured 39 black and white photographs and filled both the Bogigian Gallery in Lortz Hall and the Sue Davison Cooley Gallery, which is tucked away in the back corner of the John Stewart Memorial Library. It is so tucked away, in fact, that the students working at the library’s information desk were largely unaware of its existence, which is a shame because the gallery’s hardwood floors, open design and perfect blend of natural and track lighting make it one of the better art spaces in Chambersburg.

The exhibit opened — in both galleries — at 4:30 p.m. with an artist’s talk scheduled for 5:30 in the Cooley Gallery. Wearing a too-large charcoal-colored blazer that bunched in the shoulders when he gestured with his hands — which does often when he speaks — with black sneakers, slightly rumpled trousers and thick-framed glasses, Dickson cast the overall impression of someone who is very familiar with the expectations placed on an artist at an exhibition while also signaling that he would rather be out in the field or down in the dark room. It’s rare to see someone embody all three phases of their career simultaneously, but from head-to-toe, Dickson is a geologist-turned-photographer-turned-professor. And now, he has been dragged upstairs before colleagues, students and administrators to explain exactly what it is that he had been doing out in the desert and down in the dark room for all of those weeks.

When I introduced myself to Dickson, he assured me that it would be fine if I took pictures during the talk, and then he blurted out that he has no idea what he’s going to say during the talk, which was then only ten minutes away. He seemed a bit nervous, but it definitely wasn’t stage fright. Instead of sneaking off to prepare some last minute notes, he continued to mingle with the growing audience right up until Philip Lindsey, another Wilson professor, introduced him.

After all, R. K. Dickson has been known to deliver three-hour lectures without a break — a fact that he mentioned to me before the talk, after the talk and once more during a follow-up interview that we scheduled for two days after the talk. The challenge for Dickson isn’t what to say, it’s what not to say. If he treats it like a travelogue, the result will be the fine arts equivalent of a vacation slide show, but, on the other hand, he has to keep it grounded. He says that as long as he doesn’t veer into the abstract, everything will be okay. His tone suggests that this is a very real risk.

The talk clocked in at almost exactly 30 minutes, including a brief Q&A. He mentioned specific locations, but successfully avoided the travelogue trap. He mentioned specific photographers and schools as a way of paying respect, but he didn’t get lost in abstraction. Dickson’s talk was informal but informative, casual but professional, and like Dickson’s coat, slacks and haircut, it was loose but not shapeless. In this respect, the talk matched the itinerary for his cross-country road trip: a handful of predetermined destinations with enough flexibility built in that he could stop and explore any site that seemed interesting along the way — even allowing for the occasional U-Turn to get the perfect shot. Loose, but not shapeless.

“Cloud 53–4” — Copyright R. K. Dickson, 2017

The 10,000 miles, the 1,000 compositions — brutally whittled down to the 39 that constituted the exhibit — and the subsequent month and a half in the dark room were all components of a larger sabbatical experiment proposed by Dickson to explore how creativity works and how these findings can be implemented into Wilson College’s fledgling MFA program. Dickson, who believes that making art is as much a form of research as one might do in a chemistry or biology lab, had several hypotheses that he wanted to test, and the way to test them was to go out and make photographs. There’s a whole field of creativity studies now, and it’s almost always housed in either psychology or business. Dickson set out to liberate it from the productivity realm and incorporate it into the fine arts.

But for Dickson, it was also personal: “I wanted to see if I could be a photographer again.”

To get ready, he had his cameras professionally tuned up, he bought a “crap-ton” of film, and he went out and photographed anything and everything to get his hands used to the equipment again. The points he was racking up at L. L. Bean were keeping pace with the Master Card bill. His supplies needed to be idiot-proof in terms of cooking, which meant a lot of Spaghetti-Os out of a can. The final itinerary included locations that were a mixture of familiar and new. The trip took him to Maine and New Hampshire before heading out west to locations in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

He built a little cabin on the back of his 2004 Toyota truck that is waterproof and lightproof. The needs of the film dictate that it needs to be loaded and stored in the dark, which can be difficult to find when you’re traveling through certified dark zones. “When you’re camping out in the middle of nowhere, it’s not dark,” he explained. “Even at night. There’s starlight. You can’t believe how many stars there really are.”

Dickson’s cameras of choice for the journey were a Rollei, a Linhof and a Deardorf, which range in weight from 15 to 50 pounds. The knobs are where he expects them to be, and they are equal parts, durable, deliberate and seamless. He acknowledges that in the age of digital photography, the equipment can seem somewhat anachronistic, but for Dickson, who started doing serious photography in 1972, it’s simply what he’s used to. When describing the metal, wood and leather construction of one of his cameras, he says, “It’s beautiful furniture.” Dickson’s cameras may be old-fashioned, but don’t tell him that. “People ask, ‘Wow, is that an antique?’ And I say, ‘Be nice. It’s younger than me.’”

Over the course of the sabbatical, he couch-surfed three nights, had a motel for four and lived out of the back of his truck, which he was unloading every two or three nights, for the rest. When he returned home, Dr. Barbara Mistick, president of Wilson College, asked him what he had learned, to which he dead-panned, “Take less stuff.” And he can hardly recommend truck stops for the showers. “That was a very flip answer, I think. More important is to pay attention and respond.”

In actuality, he discovered two key lessons regarding creativity studies during his time in the desert. First, as evidenced by his experience on the Great Sand Dunes, creativity requires a problem — even if those limitations are self-imposed. For Dickson this included using a finite amount of film, all black and white. And it also included traveling as a form of defamiliarization. Technically, he could have photographed rocks, streams and clouds anywhere. In fact, he practiced in his backyard and on the nearby Conococheague Creek. But new locations allowed him to leave any psychological baggage at home and exchange it for physical baggage. The second lesson was simply that people need to hone their ability to pay attention. Most of the time we have too much going on, and on a sabbatical — traveling in areas with no cell phone reception and using cameras that require deliberate rituals to operate — things start to fall away.

“Arch, Zion, Utah” — Copyright R. K. Dickson, 2017

Dickson places himself firmly in the west coast rocks and roots tradition of Ansel Adams, which is known for meticulously-crafted and highly-stylized black and white prints. Indeed, he has participated in workshops led by Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro in addition to studying printmaking with E. C. Cunningham. His artist statement describes his approach as “highly formalist, a somewhat old-fashioned approach.” The rocks and roots tradition can be thought of as the artistic branch of a tree that is rooted in the American naturalists in the middle of the twentieth century who reveled in America’s natural beauty. They were men and women who roamed and rambled through all of America’s ecosystems with sketchbooks in hand until cameras became portable. While big game hunters like Robert Ruark were advising readers to “Use Enough Gun” (Ruark, 1966), the American naturalists were taking only pictures, leaving only footprints and “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” (Gibbons, 1962). During this same window of time, Ansel Adams was preparing his book “A More Beautiful America.” All driven by the urgency instilled by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) to appreciate and preserve today that which might well be gone tomorrow.

When Dickson discusses taking pictures during his talk, he stops and corrects himself. “You’re making photographs,” he said. “One is predatory and the other is a dialogue.”

And there are many dialogues going on within each image in the exhibit. The first is between Dickson and the subject. While the image might be of rock, water or air — usually in combination — it is a representation of his emotional response. Then there is the dialogue between the work and the viewer triggered by the viewer’s emotional response to Dickson’s initial emotional response. Any communication between Dickson and the viewer is whispered into the image that is then passed on in an altered form to the viewer.

In the 1920s, Alfred Stieglitz launched the style of abstract photographic works of art by taking hundreds of pictures of clouds with very few points of reference in a series called “Equivalents.” The series inspired the photographer Minor White to expand and codify the concept of “equivalence” in the 1950s and 60s, formalizing the field of abstract photography. For Dickson, “The photograph serves as an equivalent for my response and prompts viewers to their own equivalent response.” As with abstract painting, technique is important, but words like “good” and “bad” are replaced with more ambiguously subjective and psychologically complex phrases like “this one really speaks to me.”

“When I show you the photograph, you have an emotional response,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the same, but the idea is that they are somehow equivalent.”

In literature, Roland Barthes declared that the author was dead, and for literary critics and general readers, the author’s creative intentions offer no clues as to the meaning of the text. To the other extreme, the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process insists that it is impossible to judge a work without a solid understanding of the artist’s intentions on which to gauge “success” or “failure.” Equivalence allows artists and viewers to have it both ways. The artist’s intentions are important and certainly worth exploring, but the viewer’s emotional response is equally valid — even if the response is completely different than what the artist had intended. Indeed, everyone will have a different, personal reaction to the work.

Dickson said that he had started out photographing larger vistas as Ansel Adams did, but he has transitioned to a style that “attends to the overlooked.” By reframing them and removing them from their original context, he is able to elevate them to the level of fine art. He worked with clouds, like Stieglitz, and incorporated other aspects of nature like White. He is not totally averse to including man-made structures in his photographs, but it is limited — a truck in one, fence posts in another. On the Great Sand Dune, he was happy that the winds and shifting sands quickly hid the footprints of tourists. He saw many lighthouses on the East coast leg of his tour, but perhaps because they are too obviously picturesque, he skipped them and sought environs that spoke to him and him alone.

“Rocks and clouds and water are infinitely more variable than buildings are,” he said. “Even with the formal approach that I take, the rock is just something to bounce light off of, and I’m just looking for significant shapes.”

He added: “If you’re looking at these photographs, you’re going to notice things outdoors that you normally ignore.”

“Dune Form 7, Colorado” — Copyright R. K. Dickson, 2017

Dickson isn’t sure why he has been so drawn to rocks throughout his life, but his geology background definitely pokes through during his talk. His rocks aren’t just rocks, they are “water-laid sandstone.” Even his clouds are abstracted to the point that the pictures could be close-ups of marble slabs. He wasn’t just a rock hound, collecting and identifying specimens as a hobby. In his previous life, he had worked as a geologist for a mining company in Denver, but he insists that he his not “intending these to be used as any kind of didactic or political vehicle.” He went on to add that he recycles and his truck gets good gas mileage. He even bought a Prius.

While half of the sabbatical was spent seeking the perfect light, whether it was on rocks, dunes, streams or clouds, the other half was spent in the dark room. He returned home on November 18 and worked in the dark room non-stop — including Christmas morning — until two weeks before the opening reception.

“There’s a special state when I’m working with the camera,” he said. “There’s another special state when I’m working in the dark room. I see the image in the camera, and then I try to see it at the end — all new — in the dark room.”

Solitude is an important part of Dickson’s process. His first e-mail address, back in 2000, was “artmonk,” and his wife has commented on his monastic style of working. He was formally turned onto Zen Buddhism by following in the footsteps of one his photographic heroes, Minor White, but people have been telling him that his work is Zen-like long before he took up the practice. His real epiphany occurred while reading “Zen and the Art of Archery” (1953, US).

“The idea that with archery there’s no shooter, there’s no shot, there’s no arrow, there’s no target. There’s no difference between those things. For my photographs to work their best, I think I need to achieve a union with them. If I’m looking at something, that’s different than looking with something. And being by yourself in the dark room lends itself to that. There’s a lot of time. Not a lot going on. It can be meditative. Not restful. It’s trite, but there’s a zone or a mind-set you can get into where there’s flow. You’re no longer conscious of what you’re doing. You’re absolutely attentive to it, but it’s not like you’re thinking about it.”

He continued: “You’re still yourself, but you’re also the situation. You’re not picking and choosing. There’s a certain kind of attention that meditation can foster.”

And, for Dickson, this requires solitude. His wife had joined him for part of the sabbatical journey, but for most of the time — especially out west — he was truly on his own. He didn’t care about food, showers were scarce, and he slept wherever he was and only when he needed to. Thirty years ago, he slept less and could carry more gear. “It wouldn’t be fair to her, it wouldn’t be fair to me, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to the work,” he said. “You need to be willing to take risks at a lot of different levels. It’s not likely to be life-threatening, but you need to take risks.”

In the dark room, Dickson will often make 15 or 20 variations on an image as he circles in on the specific version in his head. It’s a complex alchemy of getting the components of the image to work together. How does making a shadow darker over here affect the highlight that’s next to it? Due to the dialogical nature of his approach, there will never be a definitive version of the images that make up “Rock. Water. Air.” He explained that he would print them differently, for example, if they were being collected to be printed in a book. He has gone back to print things that are 40 years old, and just like a musician performing the same song after 40 years, it’s different because he is different. It’s a continuation of the response. There’s a dialogue with the materials that goes on in the field and again in the dark room to evoke a lyrical quality from a subject as outwardly emotive as rocks.

“There are multiple originals — none of them are copies,” he said. “If you have two and you can’t tell them apart, one is not a copy of the other. Every single one is original. That’s sometimes a difficult concept, but it’s not like there’s a first one and then the rest of them are downstream versions.”

“Barbed Wire 1, Near Holden, Utah” — Copyright R. K. Dickson, 2017

During the Q&A portion of the talk: Did he take any selfies? “It’s tough to do a selfie with a large-format camera.” Of the thousand pictures he had taken and processed, how did he decide which ones to exhibit? “How do you decide who is your favorite child?”

He added: “Of course, you think every one of them is great. There are a few — something happened that time, and you know it’s going to be special. I made work prints of 300 to 350 images and whittled that down to 75 and that down to 39. I tried to get the dean to pay for all of that paper. You get the time or the money.”

In fact, while Philip Lindsey was starting to hang the show in the galleries, the exhibit contained 40 photographs. “I took one out. It killed me to take it out.”

As we were leaving the Cooley Gallery following the artist’s talk to join the reception-in-progress in the Bogigian Gallery, Dickson confessed, “That had almost nothing to do with the notes.” Out in the cool winter air, we passed a woman — at Wilson it could have been a colleague, a student or a local artist — who asked with skepticism, “Can you rejuvenate doing this work?” The trip, after all, was a component of a formal sabbatical. “Oh yes, yes,” he replied and continued to the Bogigian. For Dickson — an “art monk” — there was rest in the labor.

We entered Lortz Hall through the lower level, which took us past the dark room where he had spent several weeks. Dickson doesn’t have a dark room in his home, but he said that he had brought his equipment here. And it was here that through a combination of ritual and monastic isolation he was once more one with the dunes.

Of the 39 photographs that made the final cut in the exhibition, two of them — “Dune Form 6” and “Dune Form 7” — were from the Great Sand Dunes, the same shots that he had been sure were ruined. But what appears one way in the light of the sun takes on a different cast in the dark room. Of the thousand overall pictures, the odds of two images from the surely-botched dunes session making it into the final exhibit are extraordinary.

“I was shocked and amazed when I processed the film that all six of them were usable. Two of the negatives were just what I wanted them to be. Just what I visualized.”

If nothing else, “Rock. Water. Air.” reminds us that there is a world out there waiting for us to react to it, to become one with it. The current moment is our only moment — never to be repeated. These grains of sand will never exist in this precise combination again. What we see in these clouds is whatever we bring to them. And even if it ever was repeated in our lifetimes, we would be different — our own minerals, water and air appearing in an entirely new and unique configuration at the molecular level. So….

Take less stuff.

Pay attention.



“Rock. Water. Air.” Will be on display in the Cooley Gallery until June 4. The portion in the Bogigian Gallery closed on March 10.

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