March 23, 2020

Roth and Ramberg-About Photograhy I


Dale Roth is one half of the photography duo, Roth and Ramberg. As writing is not his strong suit, he has asked his teenage son to correct his lack of punctuation and when possible, add in big words. However, Dale does know how to do a perfect scheimpflug.)

People often ask if I miss the days of film and darkroom.

My answer is usually a quick no. I explain that now we don’t have to wait for film, we don’t use chemicals anymore and we can shoot as much as we want in order to get the perfect shot. However, upon further reflection I realize I miss the familiar smell of the darkroom, the sight of my own black and white print developing before my eyes and the rich history of photography that is present while doing it. I miss processing the film, hoping I got the right expression and won’t have to do it all over again. I’ve been lucky to be in a constant state of learning and wonder for the last 30 years. Still I continue to learn more as photography is ever-changing.

My photo journey started when I applied to Alberta College of Art and Design for their Photography Program. Part of the application process was to submit some of our artwork. They suggested submitting a drawing of a breakfast scene. I quickly got my bowl, spoon and Frosted Flakes, arranged them precisely on the table and began drawing my scene. A swift rejection letter was sent by mail.

I then applied to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton to a program that focused on darkroom procedures and the history of photography. One of the requirements to get into this program was to do a career investigation. This meant first talking to professionals in photography, then writing about how hard it is to do photography and how nobody in their right mind should do it. 

Soon, my acceptance letter arrived and thus began my lack of a real job that I hope to have for the remainder of my life.

It was September of 1986 when the program started, a day characterized by eager photography students chatting while also stealthily sizing each other up. The program head, Don Kinsmen, a brush cut fellow who looked as though he had just come off the battle field, began explaining the rules of the program.

“Two failed classes, and you’re out” he barked. Suddenly, the younger, long-haired version of me was wondering if he had made the right choice. 

That first day, cameras and tripods were issued to each of the students. By camera, I mean a view camera which is essentially a box with a lens on it. To work the view camera, you have to place it on a tripod, open the lens, put on a cape and view the upside-down image on the glass in the back. After focusing and composing the photos, you shut the lens, slide a plastic holder in the back that contained a sheet of 4x5 film, remove a plastic slide, then take the photo. It was basic of course, but the idea of this program was to teach the basic principles of photography.

Soon I was acquainted with a group of my classmates, whose hometowns were also outside Edmonton. It was in this group that I met my future business partner, Michele. 

The first year of the program was dedicated to black and white photography. Over the beginning few months we learned how to mix chemicals and process our film as well as how to take that film and make prints. The magic of submerging a piece of white blank paper in a tray of chemicals and after a few seconds watching it turn into an image, never gets old. 

The pride I felt from creating something out of nothing led me to forge ahead into the unknown world of photography. 

Photoshop, of course, is based on photographic principles. Contrast, dodging and burning, cropping, were all part of making the perfect print. Wire with a cardboard circle taped on it was the tool we used to “dodge” or hold light back during an exposure so that area on the print would be lighter. Conversely, a cardboard piece big enough to cover the print, with a small hole cut into the cardboard, was used to darken specific areas on the photo paper allowing more light to “burn” or darken down desired areas.

We had some great instructors in photo school, including the guy with the brush cut. Our first year teachers were two men who could not have been a better teacher combination, Randy Zutter and Wayne Fletcher. Randy the left brain while Wayne was the right. They filled our heads with the science of photography, teaching us things like f-stop, aperture, chemistry and physics. But they also showed us the artistic side of photography. One of my favourite classes was the history of photography. I distinctively remember Wayne holding up a blurry black and white photograph in front of the class. Although it was very blurry, you could make out it was a hand coming out of a white cuff under black suit and holding a baton. 

“Is this a good photograph?” He asked the class. 

Half of us said it was great, and the other half said it was terrible because it was out of focus. The lesson was about breaking the rules. Once you know and understand the rules, then you can break them. 

The photograph Wayne showed to our class was of a conductor leading an orchestra. While the conductor was waving his hand, guiding his orchestra, the photographer most likely took a multitude of photographs. They probably photographed the hand frozen caught in a moment, then up in the air, maybe one with the hand blurred, then with orchestra as background. In the end the photographer chose that particular blurry photo because of its artistic merit not its technical. You have to know the rules before you break them, and if you break them it has to be with a purpose in mind.

After two years of eating and breathing photography with the same group of classmates, I look back at it now as some of the greatest memories I have ever had of being a photographer.

A year later, I’m back in Calgary working my old job and paying off my student debt. It soon became clear the money I had spent on photography school was going to waste if I didn’t act fast. There were two well known commercial photographers in Edmonton at the time, Don Hammond and Doran Clark. I packed my stuff, moved to Edmonton and told them I would work for free. Once again, Michele and I connected and moved in together in the Arlington Apartments, a complex well known for its eclectic tenants. 

Days turned into weeks, which turned into months of working for Don and Doran, until suddenly they started paying me. Again, I was a part of the same small group of photo students who were now photography assistants, living the Bohemian lifestyle and eating up everything photography.

Fast forward five years and Michele was working for the government as a photo coordinator while I was still assisting the same two photographers I always had been. Ralph Klein had just became premier of the province and immediately began down sizing the government. As a result, Michele was paid $10,000 to quit her job. During this time, I was living with Michele and her husband in their basement. One Friday night while drinking beer, eating pizza, and playing Super Mario we decided to start our own business. 

“Work hard, pay ourselves not a lot of money, and have fun doing it,” was our motto. Not much has changed since then.

In the early days of our company, we shot film. Usually we used our Hasselblad camera that shot 12 exposures per roll of film. When there was a studio portrait scheduled we would shoot polaroids to get the lighting set, then load film and shoot 12 shots of one person, sometimes six if the budget was tight. If it was black and white film we processed it in our darkroom. Colour film we took to the local photography lab to be processed. If we were lucky the roll being dropped off in the morning would be done by the end of the day. 

There was always a bit of anxiety that came with photography then, whether it be hoping you got the right shot or making sure nothing went wrong in the process as it was never a sure thing. On the other hand, it was exciting to look through the film to see if you did get the shot, and thankfully most of the time we did. One of the things I still do to this day when shooting digital, is mentally remembering which shots I think were the “ones,” then in most cases I am still able to know I got the shot. I think it is important not just to shoot shotgun photos and hope one turned out right. One of the things that digital has done is reassure us we have something worthy. What it also has done is taken away that moment, the “decisive moment” as Henri Cartier Bresson once coined it. The moment of discovering you have taken an exceptional photograph. I still strive for that moment in everything I shoot. To me, it is what makes photography magical.