Interview #23: Bob Duncan (2021)
“Room to Breathe” ／ Interview by Paul Rowland
Bob Duncan is a life-long photographer who has lived and worked in many different places and drawn inspiration from all of them. He now lives in India, where he has been inspired anew. Although he works in different categories of photography, he feels a strong attraction to minimalism and he has a fascination with architectural details. He is especially drawn to subjects that have history and intrinsically have become art over the passage of time.
Here’s our interview with him.
PR／Please tell us about yourself and your background.
BD／Born in Texas and moved to L.A. when I was a teenager. At around 20 got a transfer to a Fifth Avenue based department store (Bonwit Tellers) in New York. I became a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker for about 12 years. Began traveling abroad at 25. Am self-taught regarding photography and have worn many hats over the years: as a narrator of documentary films in LA, owner of a shop in NY, a vintage photo dealer in SF to name a few. Photography pulled me through a lot over the years. I began photographing when I was 12. Polaroid had just come out with the new Swinger camera and it was advertised at $19.95. It was the only thing I could afford, as in those days you needed a darkroom and everything that came with it if you were “into” photography. So I began at that age and have been taking pics ever since.
PR／I was interested to read about your encounter with Cy Twombly. Who and what are your influences and inspirations?
BD／Long story but I was living at Andy Warhol’s house in Paris. Mind you, it was only for two weeks and I never met Andy. I was friends with a mutual friend of his in Paris and I needed a place in between moving from one place to the next and he called Andy and Andy said no problem. So they set up a bed for me in the storage area. Each night before falling asleep I looked at a hauntingly beautiful silkscreen Warhol did of Jacqueline Kennedy wearing a mourning veil. The whole room was filled with amazing stuff. It was while I was at Andy’s that I met Cy. Cy’s work inspired me — especially his chalkboard scribblings. I’ve not only been influenced by him but also by the New York School of abstract expressionists: Pollock for his “action” painting style, Rauschenberg for his inclusion of objects in his work, and Franz Kline for his use of black against white.
PR／What is your attraction to minimalism?
BD／I think it’s because it gives you room to breathe. I was raised by a suffocating parent and I realize she had her own issues but whoa — needed room to get away from the sense of overwhelm all the time. I once heard John Bradshaw in his series, “The Dysfunctional Family” mention that at the Minnesota Institute for Asthma Research they discovered that a child suffering from asthma began recovering when the presence of an overbearing parent was removed. It rang a bell with me and explained why, among my siblings, I was the only one that had chronic asthmatic bronchitis. I’ve always been drawn to clean lines and uncluttered environments and things that were mercifully simple. Don’t get me wrong. I love rummaging through dusty old junk shops, but living with too many chotskies and “stuff” can be overwhelming. I once read something describing a person trying to decide which silver spoon to buy as a gift. They said they chose the plainest one because it was as simple and unadorned as the cloudless sky and about as beautiful. I related to that.
PR／Your work is often very “painterly”. What is the relationship of your photography to painting (and/or other art forms)?
BD／As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been strongly influenced by the New York School of the mid-20th century. I once worked for a fancy catering company in Manhattan and regularly got a glimpse at the rarified world of Park Avenue. One famous person’s home had original Legers, Mondrians and Picassos. I’m not sure what it is that resonates with me and modern art. All I know is that when I stand before it, I’m in awe. And yes, I also love architecture. My favorite building in all the world is in Rome: the Pantheon. I love it because of a story I’d once heard about the fall of the empire. When it was being sacked and pillaged by invading barbarians it was said that when they entered the Pantheon even they were left dumbstruck by its awesome splendor. I love beautiful architecture and am saddened by the artless structures that are thrown up everywhere these days all in the rush to accommodate the housing shortage. But even the most unsightly buildings have beauty when you see them in the right context especially if you isolate a detail.
PR／I see that you’re living in India now. How does your location and environment affect your work?
BD／India has been very healing. I’ve lived in several countries and have to say that for whatever reason, I feel really “aligned” here. It’s brought me to a new place within myself. I’m currently on my third visit to this amazing country. The first time I came I visited a friend in Delhi and the second time was invited by a fashion designer to photograph her line at a big show in Kochi. I had no intention of ever returning. I was living in Rome just a few years back and every day used to go to a local library to work. One morning on the way there I got a call from a friend in Delhi convincing me that I should move there to be a motivational speaker. I’d written and self-published a short story on Amazon called, “You’re Freer Than You Think” and he said I needed to share its positive message with audiences in India. The story’s about taking risks and how much it pays off when you do. Things didn’t work out in Rome and I followed my instincts and came here. It’s been one of the best moves I’ve ever made.
PR／You often photograph distressed and eroded surfaces, shadows, and architectural details. Why are you drawn to your subjects?
BD／I’m attracted to weathered surfaces and textures because I love how much history you can see in how they survived. So much is revealed in the accumulation of things like scratches, blotches, or drippings. It’s a language in itself. This blackboard, for instance, struck me when I first spotted it. I discovered it behind a lot of old junk in the storage room of an orphanage. I imagined the years it showcased all the stuff that had been scrawled on it. I was probably the last person to give it one last square look. I examined the separated segments that no longer fitted together and the smears left by everything that had been erased from it. The old warhorse had obviously served its time because its scarred surface spoke volumes.
PR／Your images often show traces of human interaction, hinting at untold histories. What do you hope to communicate with your work?
BD／I’m not sure I’m trying to communicate any one specific thing. As I mentioned with the blackboard, I’m drawn to things that have history. It’s interesting how they turn into art with the passage of time. This kitchen board, like the blackboard, accumulated its own history. Originally a plastic kitchen cutting board, over time knife-edges created a mish-mash of lines into the stains and ground-in smudges on its surface. I remember reading that Rothko painted layer upon layer of the same color range within each color zone of his paintings. Somehow the “art” of this cutting board’s surface came about in layers too — with Rothko it was of course intentional: with the board, it was happenstance.
Bob Duncan is a life-long photographer who has lived and worked in many different places and drawn inspiration from all of them. He now lives in India, where he has been inspired anew.
Although he works in different categories of photography, he feels a strong attraction to minimalism and he has a fascination with architectural details. He is especially drawn to subjects that have history and intrinsically have become art over the passage of time.
Interview by Paul Rowland.