Richard Rothman Said Not Go To School For Photography Is His Best Decision In His Career

Richard Rothman Said Not Go To School For Photography Is His Best Decision In His Career


Richard Rothman · Photographer

2015 Guggenheim Fellow, 2016 artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony and Light Work. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), the Biblithèque National de France, The Brooklyn Museum, Yale University Art Gallery.

Richard Rothman’s monograph RedWood Saw, published by Nazraeli Press, was listed in numerous “best photography books” articles in 2011. He is currently living in New York City and a faculty at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts.

First encountered with Richard, one could sense the stubbornness within his character. After the concert at a friend’s house, everyone was busy meeting and greeting some new friends--- one of the common social occasions you may be familiar with, where a group of strangers make as much social interactions as possible in the shortest time. Among the handshaking, laughing, and talking, Richard nodded and smiled, comfortably keeping those small conversations in his pace, instead of the other way around. Behind the light brown glasses were a pair of firm eyes.

This calmness, which could be easily misinterpreted by people as a sign of Richard’s natural introversion, reflects the independence and resiliency that engrained in Richard since he was little. When Richard was five, his father left the family. Richard’s mother remarried and sent him to a Jewish day school, where the Hebrew Bible and religion always came before the knowledges. Richard once came to a rabbi (Jewish Scholar) with a picture book about fossils and asked why the world in Bible is only six-thousand-years old. Instead of answering the question, the rabbi asked Richard when that book was printed, and then brought out a bible and yelled at him, “so do you have any idea how old Bible is? Two thousand years ago!”

Since that day, Richard refused to attend religious school until his mother sent him to a public school. This kind of rebellion to an enforced belief, idea or choice is originated from the character of toughness that has always been embedded in him.


It may seem hard to believe, but Richard determined to do something related to images in the future at only age of six. His enthusiasm and natural talent of painting laid the foundation for this determination. Since Richard was a child, he kept one thing in mind: he would draw as good as Michelangelo did. He was indeed an extraordinary young student who grew up with his teachers’ compliments. Up until one day Richard encountered a series of photo created by photographer Richard Avedon that captured the images of his father since getting ill to the moment leaving the world. This exhibition where the silent power was conveyed through mere visual images was fascinating to young Richard, who then made up his mind of being a photographer.

From when the dream started to actually become a serious photographer, Richard was nourished by New York City, where also eventually made him tired. As he got chance jumping out of chaos and ceaselessness of the city, he came to realize his lack of attention paid to the world in his life. Starting from looking at the flowers in the apartment building, to spending two years observing every transportation hub of the city, and flying to the small town Redwood 3000 miles away from California, Richard began an artist pilgrimage with no one ultimate purpose.

Richard turned the stories at Redwood into a monograph Redwood Saw, the photographic monograph viewed as one of the best of 2011 by several medias. Similar to his upcoming book Town of C. the photos were all taken at a town familiar to the locals. It is not hard for one to sense the pureness of the world that Richard captured with his camera: there are the wonderfulness, innocence, depression and grievance that humanity experiences; there are grass and trees in verdant green; there are buildings and houses abandoned and decaying… For one who has lived an urban life for too long, such raw beauty could lead confusion and rejection at first, but eventually its power could be overwhelming.

There is more complicated reason that Richard choosing a small town as his subject: each individual in the town, every piece of life as well as the landscape is a miniature of the entire nation. The subtle change in one person’s eye could even convey much more messages comparing to an abstract expression on a much broader scope.

Richard 《Town of C.》 copyright© by Richard Rothman


Q=NOISÉ / A=Richard Rothman


Q: You mentioned that you enjoyed being alone, how is it may relate to the way you do photography?

A: Solitude is something that, after you’ve been in New York City for a long time, you start to long for because you are almost never alone in the city. I think you have to enjoy being alone as a photographer. The kind of photography I do, besides the portraits, it is always about being alone. I find it is very hard or almost impossible to take pictures with other people around, because I need to really focus and think and look. And you spend much more time on post-processing after taking pictures, for example maybe every hour you spend out shooting pictures, you may spend 10 or 15 hours in the dark room or computer, processing editing and printing, and that’s done alone to. If you don’t like to be alone, it’s not a good choice (to be a landscape photographer.)

Q. What makes black and white photos important to you?  

A: I’ ve asked myself that question for a long time because I’m not really sure, it is entirely instinctive. Probably because I fell in love with b&w photography at a particular moment and made me want to be a photographer. I’ve never stopped loving it. It’s not like I don’t enjoy color photography. I do. It is like music, it could be any kind of photography if it’s excellent. There is just a particular kind of transformation that I enjoyed in b&w photography. We all see world in color, and making photography is always a transformation, either if it’s in color or b&w. But with s in b&w, there is a huge transformation, the opportunity for art.

I love the fact that in b&w photography it is very easy to shoot, any time of the day. You can even easily shoot at night. I like film, I develop my own film. That’s much easier to do with b&w. Many of the photographers whose works I love the most are b&w as well.


Q: What is the best decision you’ve ever made in your career?

A: Not to go to school for photography, sorry… (no offend, laughing) I was trying to do what is important to me. Following my own way into photography, taking pictures that are meaningful to me before anyone else.

Graduate schools tend to turn out students that are very much alike the chair department, the head of the school. People go there for safe, to get a teaching job. And academia has become having less individuality. There are generalizations there that many good artists come out of graduate school, too. But you can’t teach anyone to be an artist.

I don’t have a secret. I think I fell in love with images when I was six years old. It was drawing at first, but I’ ve always loved pictures of every kind. And they just affect me deeply, there is something really beautiful about the idea of taking the picture that expresses the way you feel about the world in a complex and accurate way, it is very hard to do beautifully but it’s incredibly satisfying when you get it right.  

Q: Some people say that the most important thing of photography is to document. What is your opinion about that?

A: No, I think it is part of it. It is also to capture how you feel about something. Expressing the essential feeling about being alive and the world. Even though camera is a mechanical device, if you do it over and over again, it’s a kind of record of your consciousness. First of all, it’s a record of choice that you are interested in. You decided to point at something, a tiny fraction of thing you see in life. Over time, it’s just a simple record of what interests you the most, but then if you do it seriously you can shape it into something that it is a deeper reflection of your feeling about life.

Q: Is it necessary for you to give some explanation to people who look at your photos?

A: Yes and no. No, for just people who are just looking at it. Yes, for critiques. Because I discover that if I don’t put new work out with the text that describes my intentions, critiques will come alone and interpret the works themselves, and it’s usually not exactly the way I feel about the works. If I take the responsibility to write something thoughtful about the work and make sure that is accompanied with the new works, the whole critical process tends to get on the right track.  


Q: Is there anything you felt regretful about?

A: I never experienced regret in a powerful way until recently, and now I have flash back of the regret I had in my entire life from very small thing to very big things. i think it has to do with the humility of getting older, realizing how many mistakes you made along the way, mostly you regret hurting other people’s feelings you did not mean to. If there is an opportunity to change something…. (long pause) I would love to have the freedom. I know almost no one does, but if I could have anything, I don’t have it would be perfect. It means to have all my time to do my work.  

Q: What is your favorite piece of work?

A: Town of C., my latest project. If I don’t have that feeling about each new project, it is time to stop. You want to always get better, and I find even though I’ve been doing this for a very long time, I felt like I still get better.

Q: If you have a chance, what advice would you give to yourself who is at age of twenty or thirty?

A: Pay more attention. Always pay attention. You can get distracted throughout the day, certain problems in your life, things you need to do but are less important what you have as a goal. Paying attention to life, getting the most out of every moment and responding to it as much.  

Q: What are the top five personalities that attract you the most?

A: Intelligence, kindness, warmth, emotional-awareness and loyalty. 

As you progress through life and you have different love relationships, you begin to build the picture in your mind that is like those drawing that the police officer asking the victim to describe the criminals’ look based on the memories. As you move along in life, you start to create this picture of all the best qualities that people you are with had, and it becomes harder and harder to find the person who possess all these qualities.


Richard only produces art works in black and white.

 It not just because the time when he began his photography was before the began of the era of digital camera, but because the camera he shoots with—the 4*5 view camera—only works with black and white films. It is another reflection of Richard’s stubbornness and persistence at nowadays where the gears cannot fit in a jean pocket are comparable to extra useless metals. Sometimes we might see people carry a heavy camera wandering on the street, but it seems most likely because of a whim for attention.

 “Cumbersome” “confusing” “over-complex” “it is upside down in the viewfinder” “you have to print it in a darkroom…” a view camera might not be the friendliest equipment to general people. we demand efficiency, as no extra valuable moment should be wasted. Why would one bother to carry a heavy big camera, living a hermit life at a middle of nowhere, and not even mention the time spent on waiting for the final photos?

This inexplicable actions of Richard could be explained by one reason: he is just so stubborn that he persists using his big lens to pick those treasure moments in his life and the world:

Some profoundness that we are impressed; some pureness that only exists in those instantaneous moments; some pains on us who live almost in numbness…

 In that simple little town, he met a 16-year-old girl. With the permission of the mother, Richard took a shot for her. She was so excited and could not stopping asking questions: about the camera that looked like a black box, about this photographer from New York City, about the marvelous world out of the town that she only heard of…

copyright© by Richard Rothman

copyright© by Richard Rothman

When it was time to say goodbye, she turned serious and asked,

“Can I go to New York City with you? “

At that instant Richard knew, the moment that his camera just captured has become the past.


Photographer:Siyu Tang

Author:Ziqiu Guo

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