Up Close & Very Personal With Rob Nelson
Aside from the fact that his work speaks to me personally with his semi-candid approach, natural light and use of (dare I say) “real people” as subject for his photographs, the retrospective work of London born Rob Nelson is stunning.
Walking through the red doors of the McIntosh Gallery on the Western Campus on a grey day hugging myself and my camera bag to try and not get swept up by the wind, the rain, or the fact that today felt like the first real Fall day, I am stunned with a beautiful large print of little Kirsten Dunst. Nestled on a plush cream coloured couch on the (I’m projecting here, but) pent house level of a swank Bay Street condo in Toronto.
Dunst, whose sky blue eyes are one of her most attractive and known features (aside from her one off-kilter tooth) are closed, her knees brought up in a comforting, exhausted fetal position and a little terrier sleeps by her feet.
This is the work of Rob Nelson. He has that special quality that few have to let you feel it’s safe to let that guard down. Just let it go. Your ego, your fear of double chin or crow’s feet around your eyes. If it’s you, that’s what he wants to see.
This is where we met for a quick interview which turned into a little bit of catch-up and a lot of discussion about his work, his past, his life now and how he got here.
I asked him abut his approach to the trade of photography. It’s looked at less and less of a skilled trade and more of a hobby/unattainable job nowadays, but Rob shows that it’s all how you look at it. It’s your perspective. It applies to a lot more than just his work, but for now, that’s where I’ll keep the focus.
“My father [Ron Nelson], his story; is he loved to build things with his hands and he had a love for model airplanes. He entered a competition for building model airplanes at the YMCA and he won first place, which was a camera, and from that, he decided to build a dark room, and then from that, he started selling his work and then he got his pilot’s license and then started doing aerial photography, then he got the studio and then the camera shop and then from that, started an audio visual department. He encouraged me to think outside of the box. He built a lot of his own equipment and when digital came along, I looked at that as a new way of seeing.
“He was a commercial, industrial and aerial photographer, so he did incredible shots of buildings and group photographs. From him, I learned technique and at a very young age.”
As we walked around the room, I started to notice more similarities with his work and a tangible closeness that consisted though each of the portraits. They are all so damn personal.
“As of late I’m not photographing models, I’m photographing friends. The woman there on the couch (a photo of a universally gorgeous woman in natural light) I’ve known her for like, fifteen years, the woman above, twenty years… I like my photographs to be stripped down, natural light. As little gear in between myself and my subject as possible, and very intimate. “
I’ll say. Some of the work feels so intimate that I almost blush looking at them. A portrait of a young brunette reclined in a pose of utter comfort and easiness is shot from the perspective of her close friend or lover. It’s two frames, and the bottom of the two is simply her naked face and her green eyes staring directly into you. She has nothing to hide.
That’s typical of Rob, or a theme of his work. It feels like there is so much more than what you see happening just beyond the parameters of the frame, much more of a story to be told.
“I love film. I love the feeling of the horizontal, 16×9, you’ll notice that most of my photos are horizontal and for that exact reason, so that it looks like a film still.”
Because I didn’t have a copy of the legend for each of his pieces, Rob graciously went through all 34 pieces with me telling me who it was a portrait of, often peppering in a tid-bit of information or piece of history and I got to know a little more about why he does what he does.
“You know what I love? Is when you go to a party and someone pulls out a camera, you see this over here( he points to a photo of a woman sitting on the floor with her arm elegantly perched on the couch, drink in hand, looking effortlessly striking), this is a shot for Elm Street and everybody’s having fun and looking […genuine…]” but it’s totally right. The essence of the photo makes you wish you were at that party there with those fabulous people.
So how does one condense more than 40 years of work to fit in one room? Curated by James Patten, it’s an apt representation of the work of a man delving into the world around him and more importantly, the people that populate it.
At the end of our conversation, he reluctantly let me take a few snap shots of him in the Gallery Room. He tells me as I pull out the camera “you know, this is the reason I got a camera, so that I didn’t have to be on this side of the it.”
He pulls his trade mark stealth little camera out as I’m packing up my gear to leave. He asks if he can take a quick photo of me. I say “sure, I mean, it’s rare I see a picture I like, but go ahead. Glasses on or off?” “Off.” I oblige (my glasses are filthy anyway, the arms held on by pieces of paper clip and sit lop sided on my face anyway). I now feel the pressure to look correct, especially after all the discussion that we just had but I fail miserably and smile uncomfortably, with my face most likely turning red. Damn. I should have been ready for it, but as quick as it his point and shoot was out it’s back in his pocket and we’re done. My moment in the sun was brief, but now I can say a professional photographer shot me, and it didn’t hurt a bit.
If you are in London between September 12th and November 1st check out “Rob Nelson: Photographs 1977-2014” at the McIntosh Gallery on the Western Campus.
Pamela Haasan, London Fuse
I’ve added the gorgeous photo of Kirsten by Rob Nelson mentioned in the article to the gallery. Long-term fans might remember we added a very similar photo (that Kirsten very kindly sent to us) to the gallery back in 2008. A very belated credit & thank you to Rob Nelson for use of that photo.