IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BONK
Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Robert Bonk describes it as a wild, visceral and poetic place that laid the desire for him to explore other parts of the world and its people. Graduating in 1977 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, Robert moved to New York City to pursue a career in painting. In 1990 he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a location scout for the film industry. Recently retired, he currently lives outside of Los Angeles but plans to split his time residing between the United States and Italy with his wife.
Robert shares images from his series "Little Dramas-Italy", edited from his larger (and ongoing) series produced from three trips to Italy between 2018 and 2021. His photographs capture Italians in everyday activities of work, play and prayer which when viewed together, portray little dramas, weaving a visual tapestry of Italian life.
"A photographer must looks at everything, which is why he must look from the beginning to end. Face the subject head-on, stare fixedly, turn the entire body into an eye and face the world."
Robert, tell us about yourself.
I grew up in a ranch house on a lake in a wooded subdivision outside Jacksonville, Florida. The lake teemed with alligators and water moccasins. When my friends and I would take a rowboat out on the lake the alligators would swim up to the boat and we would whack them over the heads with the oars. Occasionally, every other month or so, neighborhood dogs would go missing. At night they’d venture too close to the alligators which would sleep on the yards at the lake’s edge. The gators would outrun them, pull them into the water. Occasionally, we would find rattlesnakes curled inside the wood pile; coral snakes running along the footpaths in the woods behind the house. Many of our neighbors displayed trophies of marlin, swordfish and bluefish on their walls. It was a wild, visceral and poetic place, which laid the desire to explore other parts of the globe and its people.
I live outside of Los Angeles in a town in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Since the early 90’s I worked as a location scout finding filming locations for the film industry. I am now retired. My wife and I have plans to split our time, residing between the States and Italy.
What draws you to photography and art? How did your journey into photography begin?
I have always been drawn to photography and art. When I was a young boy my dad had an old Argus camera. I loved the look of it, the feel of it in my hands. We’d go out and take photos. After a while, we decided to build a darkroom in the small bathroom in our basement. The alchemy of it all seemed so magical to me.
My first love was painting, though. I lived in New York City during the 80’s pursuing my art. In 1983, I bought a camera and traveled solo throughout India and Nepal for two months. I saw many amazing sights. After returning, I processed the film, finding more than several images I thought compelling. Since my adventures to India, I have always had a camera nearby.
What is the full story behind your project “Little Dramas - Italy"? What was the inspiration and when did it begin?
In 2018, I accompanied my wife on a business trip to Sicily. My personal highlights were of the fishermen at the Duomo fish market and The Palazzo Biscari in Catania, the Ear of Dionysus limestone cave of Siracusa, the vistas of Taormina. I was drawn to the combination of the Sicilian’s rawness and yet cosmopolitan elegance nature, and the impression of this is how they have lived for centuries; provoking a strong a feeling of some sort of a continuum. And, it is this dichotomy between the archaic and the present day, finding ‘little dramas’ which informs the human condition I find compelling. As The Talking Heads song, Once in A Lifetime, goes, “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” And, of course, the same applies to the rest of Italy.
In 2020, we returned to Italy, visiting Milan and Puglia, and then again in 2021, visiting other regions throughout northern and southern Italy.
Is this type of visual storytelling something you would like to pursue again in future projects? What do you think is your next chapter in your exploration with future projects?
Human nature and the human condition are universal. My street photography is something always ongoing especially when traveling. I would like to explore Europe more extensively, as well as travel to Morocco, Egypt and Japan.
Who are your favourite artists/photographers?
ARTISTS - Da Vinci, Picasso, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Per Kirkeby, Peter Doig, Walter Swennen
PHOTOGRAPHERS - Chris Killip, Sebastiao Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Taryn Simon, Minor White, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, William Eggleston, Irving Penn, Ruth Orkin, Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu, Albarran Cabrera just to name a few.
If you could just choose one photographer to shoot alongside for a day...who would you choose? And why?
If I was able to go back in time: Shomei Tomatsu. To see how he approaches his subjects and how he prints would be a real education.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? How much post-processing do you do?)
Yes, I’m satisfied with my equipment. I use a Sony A7r111 with a Zeiss Sonnar FE 1.8/55mm ZA and a Sony FE 1.8/35mm. Hardly no post-processing save working on the files to get the desired contrast and exposure correct.
Is there any advice that you would give yourself if you started photography all over again?
Buy a better camera. A Chinon takes you only so far.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…