Roman Loranc: I was never told you could make a living from photography. I came from a poor country – Poland. I was a country boy, but I was very interested in art, however, my parents never supported that. I wanted to go to art school, but my parents sent me to meat processing school, so you see the contrast. When I was seven, my neighbours noticed my interest in art so they purchased a camera for me, which was when my love for photography began.
Even under difficult conditions (I was living in a small village) I acquired all the chemicals and items I needed to develop my negatives. Between seven and eight, I developed and printed my own black and white photographs and some of them I still have today. My escape from a violent home was the landscape, so I would got to nature for peace and that is reflected in my own work now. I am not limited [to landscape work] though: from the beginning, I photographed people a great deal. I shot glass negatives, because I had trouble obtaining materials for a large format camera in a communist country. I [still] do some people photographs, such as nudes and architectural, photographs. I have been most successful with landscape photographs, but recently [I have had much success with my] photographs of churches. When I first photographed them, most of my galleries considered it religious imagery and said nobody would buy it, but [now] they are my best-selling prints.
The commercial [side] never interested me. I never thought it would be possible to [succeeed commercially], so I just did it for love. Even when I came to America, after defecting from Poland at 21 or 22, I wanted to do photography right away, but I had to earn money first. I did not have English skills… [yet] and the [diploma] from food-processing helped me to get a job. I have a history degree, but it did not much help, so I had to do a lot of physical work. I drove a truck, but all the time I continued photographing, but just for fun; just for myself. When I moved to California, I began working in a bank, as a mortgage advisor. I saved some money, bought a [large format] view camera and started going back to landscape photography. [Eventually], I became so obsessed by photography that I could no longer go to work…. I had to do my photography – it was killing me. That was a struggle.
Most people consider [the central valley] in California to be an ugly place, or [at least] not a desirable landscape. But it used to be very beautiful, with a deep, rich history, which most people don’t know anything about it. So, [I found myself] attached to the place [at a time when] no one photographed it. Instead [they would go to San Francisco or Yosemite]…. every photographer I know would just travel, but I photographed the region and it [rewarded me]. Later, a prestigious publisher in Berkley offered to make a book [of my photographs] and Two-Hearted Oak was very successful. It sold out in a couple of months and [was so successful that] I told my friend that I was quitting the mortgage business.
I struggled for a long time. I remember going from making close to $100,000 to making $5,000 in my first year of full-time photography, but I still loved doing it. I took part time jobs, but still worked for five years making almost no money. Eventually, I reached almost $30,000 of debt on credit cards and [I thought] that I should I go back to the mortgage business…. But then I had a show in Modesto and sold so many prints that it was overwhelming. As a result, the Ansel Adams Gallery asked me for my work [I had a show with them] and overnight the prints started selling and I paid all my debts. Since then I have never had to worry about my financial situation. I’m very lucky that I am making a living from B&W photography alone. I don’t do commercial work… I don’t do anything else, [I’m my own boss] and have been making a living for 20 years, so… God Bless America!
TPF: I think landscape photography is one of the most difficult genres to be commercially successful in today. Perhaps the fact that you have chosen one of the less obvious places in the country to photograph has helped your work to stand out?
Roman Loranc: Yes, I think so. Landscape photography is often seen as clichéd, because majority of it is clichéd if its not done right. But when it’s done properly – like when you do a portrait or architecture with real openness and power – it is new again. A lot of galleries are afraid of landscape photography, but [to date], a few major museums have bought my landscape work… so it’s changing… but it took a long time before I was accepted. And the prints, some of the traditional photographs, reach extraordinary values on the secondary market ($20K resale), so for somebody who is still living this is unbelievable. People see something [special] in my work, but it took a long time to reach that point and I am still enjoying making my living. I know [Edward] Weston struggled for the whole of his life and never achieved that financial success. But people devote to their art, so if you make a living [that’s great]… but I don’t care much about promoting my work. If I pay my bills I am happy, so I can do more work.
TPF: Did you ever have any doubt about the subject matter, or feel that people might not respond to the environment you were photographing the way they do the national parks for example?
Roman Loranc: Yes, we all doubt ourselves from the beginning. We are the biggest enemies of success and there were many times that I doubted and [ended up shooting] gimmicky work and some disturbing images. It’s not too hard to do [that and in comparison] a good photograph of a tree is very difficult [to produce]. About five years ago, I realized that I don’t care what people think. I just do [what I want], but it took a lot of reading, a lot of thinking and [focusing on] what is important for me. [Now] it seems so simple, but it’s a long process. I have been criticized many times and now it doesn’t affect me at all, but [earlier in my development], if someone said something [unkind] about my work, I found it devastating. You build that strength and then also build strength in your work that people cannot deny. People can’t deny strong work.
TPF: If a person ever does anything that has a clear defining character to it, it will always bring about opposing opinions, of course. It will come down to people’s personal preferences. I suppose it’s when a person’s work does not generate any opinion that you have to worry.
Roman Loranc: Of course. We shouldn’t all photograph the same thing; that’s the beauty. There are very few good landscape and architectural photographers today, so its kind of a dying art, but its funny that you say it, because I have a lot of recognition outside of the US. I just did big interviews for India, for China, Denmark and some other countries. Some people really appreciate going back to the traditional form of photography and that real commitment to place and to the art of B&W photography…. so I [think] there is a renewed interest in it. I am friends with Kim Weston and the Westons do a scholarship for kids. I donate a lot my print sales [revenue] and prints to that and we sponsor kids, who do traditional work. When we started a couple of years ago, we received 10 or 20 applications, but now there are thousands of students and they have to submit traditional wet/silver work for judging. A lot of colleges and high schools have re-opened their darkrooms, so [we can all do] do something of our own to encourage working with traditional methods.
I have nothing against digital cameras and I just bought my first digital camera, but of course I don’t know how to turn it on and I purchased the wrong lens for it! When I opened it, [I thought it looked like] a tiny little computer. [When] I want to take a photograph just for fun [I can’t] and think I will have to go to one of my friends to take the class!
TPF: It sounds like it’s quicker for you to get your 4×5” out for quick snaps!
Roman Loranc: I sometimes take on students, when someone is very interested in 4×5” photography and when they come they set up their camera in ten minutes, whereas I can set mine in 5-6 seconds and this is the problem. You have to be quick. Light will not wait 30 minutes for you to set up your view camera – this is the challenge! I can work quicker with 4×5 than with a digital camera. It’s interesting how complicated digital is too – I admire that – its another art to to learn all [about it]. I have friends, who are experts in this area and they are producing decent prints, very good quality, but the blacks are never there like mine and probably never will be. Technology is catching up… [but it] may take 5-10 years before it matches my prints. If I were a color photographer, I would shoot digital, however – that would make more sense.
People photography, that’s what I am missing. I see [opportunities] because I travel a lot, but I can’t [easily] do it with a view camera. If I learn digital (and I doubt that I will), I could shoot people with digital and then make negatives and print with silver, so that’s always a possibility too. I am open [to such things], but what discourages me, is that I look at prints, real prints on silver paper and everyone is sharing these digital files…. and everybody’s photographs look incredible on the computer screen, but when you see them in real life, unfortunately they look horrible.
TPF: Over the years, people have debated how much of an art photography really is and this is perhaps a never-ending subject. However, there is undoubtedly a craft component that has always been there in traditional photography, where there is a craft to the tangible product: the print. Do you think that because so many digital photographs today are being circulated as files on a computer that the erosion of the printmaking craft has affected the whole approach to photography? Without a final printed image… perhaps work seems less ‘finished’?
Roman Loranc: It’s funny that you say that, because when we just talk with average people and discuss about how we used to open our albums and look at B&W and color prints…. they were all in an album. Some of the B&W photos of my family are [actually] stunning portraits – they are pieces of art. However, today I have to look for a digital file and can’t find it! So [the culture of print making] is already lost in some ways. We don’t print [photographs]… they’re somewhere but not [available] to look at, so I think we are losing something. We’re overwhelmed [by the volume of photographs being produced to day]. It’s a massive number and while it is of course its wonderful to see all these interesting captures, only history can judge whether digital is lesser or not. It’s hard to predict today. I’m fascinated with it [digital], but prefer to go to museums and see old traditional photographs hanging on the wall, whereby I can pay attention to one image at a time and that gives me joy. But everyone is different.
TPF: Your website shows that you are now offering retreats that blend “photography with spiritual and physical well-being”. How are photography, the outdoors and spirituality connected for you?
Click below for next page.