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Exploring the Human Experience: Delving into the World of Robert LeBlanc’s Authentic Photography


May 2, 2023

Transient Labs


Exploring the Human Experience: Delving into the World of Robert LeBlanc’s Authentic Photography

Robert LeBlanc is a Los Angeles-based artist who works primarily in photography and video. His projects capture non-traditional communities, including hotshot firefighters, hurricane survivors, and Holiness snake handlers. Through raw, unguarded images, he offers a glimpse of daily life into otherwise rarely-pictured social spaces. He works from the conviction that a meaningful documentary series is made through mutual engagement, transparency, and years of trust-building.

Q: Who is Robert LeBlanc?

A: I’m an artist, photographer, and documentarian. My background comes from skating, and I started to use a camera at a young age, photographing my friends as we skated around interacting with the world. I began to focus a lot more on photography after blowing out both of my knees when I was 24; over the next 5 to 6 years developed a body of work that I released as my first monograph titled Unlawful Conduct in 2015. These images were all shot with a point-and-shoot camera, focusing a lot on skating, graffiti, street photography, and just finding myself as a photographer. It was placed in some great bookstores, including MOMAPS1 and Frye Art Musume. In 2021 I released Moon Dust, an intimate project with hotshot firefighters during California’s largest fire in history. GLORYLAND is my most recent book, released at the start of 2023, documenting the last serpent-handling church of West Virginia. This body of work was exhibited with Los Angeles-based gallery Fahey/Klein. The book was recently added to the Getty Museum Research Institute as a permanent title in their library. I love to dive into complex stories and am absolutely obsessed with the human experience.

Q: Your SuperRare collections GloryLand and A New America have done over 25eth in sales, and really kicked off your NFT journey… Can you share some insight into what it was like to launch your first collection and the lessons learned from it?

A: It was exciting and highly motivating. Seeing my work displayed in a new landscape and in front of a new audience inspired me a lot. I was able to connect with collectors one on one and bring opportunities into these projects, which gave a lot of promise to where we as artists can keep doing what we love in a modern way. I think it helped me process how to edit these projects differently because they were presented to the world in a new way. I learned a lot about what art collectors look for and need, which before then, I didn’t get a lot of experience having that open line of communication with the fans of my work. Overall, I’ve been excited to see how being involved with NFTs has opened my eyes and brought opportunities I could have never imagined.

Q: As a follow-up question, your work’s goal is to contribute a broader understanding of the contemporary human experience, and I believe A New America does just that, I would love for you to share more about the project!

A: I witnessed America taking a drastic change culturally over the past ten years, and I think if we look back at this time, possibly 50 or 60 years from now, this will be a significant moment in our country’s history. I wanted to capture this change and try to paint a broader picture of the nation. The advances of technology had a massive impact on this change, and I tried to cover communities that still lived in an old America stuck in time which is now almost extinct, and juxtapose them to comminutes that are just now evolving to create a new America, showing an ear’s end and a new one’s beginning. I wanted to give views a different view of what America is now today and introduce them to communities they might ever experience or even know existed. Robert Frank’s The Americans deeply inspired me, and the book is exceptionally significant 70-plus years later.

Q: In your work, you seem to balance raw documentation with an artistic perspective. How do you strike this balance and ensure that your images remain authentic?

A: I have always been a big believer in doing what you think feels right; staying true to what you believe is beautiful is a way to keep one’s authenticity, and you stick to what you believe to be right; the views can see that the work is genuine. Documentary work is a complex area to be creative in because rules have been built around this style of photography, and I understand why that is. But I have always believed you can mix the worlds of art and journalism to create a more fine art aesthetic in a very raw and truthful space.

Q: Can you walk us through the process of gaining trust and building relationships with the communities you document?

A: Honesty and being genuine. If you have any desire to exploit or sensationalize a community, you are going at it in the wrong way. People trust me because I’m authentic and curious about who they are and what they do, and I don’t try to point the finger at them in any way. Sometimes it takes years to build that trust, but everyone wants to tell their story because we all have our own unique story to tell. They must say it for themselves; I can only observe and experience it. I have always believed that if anyone is willing to let me document them, they have given me a big responsibility and a gift. That perspective has allowed me to document many incredible places and people.

Q: Your photography often captures moments of intense emotion, struggle, and faith. How do you navigate the ethical considerations in documenting such intimate aspects of people’s lives?

A: I will be honest and be in the moment, leaving my personal ideologies and judgments out of the story. I’m here to learn and observe and always learn a lot from the individuals who let me into their lives. Every time I begin a story, all my assumptions are proven wrong, and it is a humbling experience to know that what I think I’m getting myself into is never the case. If I take myself out of the equation, I’m left with what is presented to me in front of the camera, and the camera has no biases.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience while working on your various projects, and why did it stand out to you?

A: Oh, man, that’s a tough one. I learned much about myself while working on GLORYLAND and how I looked at religion, mortality, poverty, and faith. Even though I don’t believe precisely what the serpent-handling church believes, I have had to consider many things that I would have never thought about without them. I also spent two weeks in a mortuary at the peak of the COVID pandemic, and witnessing this made me think about death and how little time we have to be alive, and how valuable time really is

Q: CHANSU is an abstract post-photography series that draws inspiration from contemporary Japanese aesthetics and focuses on the significance of grain and blur in creating a surreal, black-and-white landscape. Could you speak more about the piece and really dive into what makes you so excited to launch this?

A: I have been gravitating toward this style of photography, where grain, rich black, and texture are all embraced to create an emotionally invigorating image. In documentary work, the way an image is formed is much more literal, and I have always considered composition the most essential quality. But in the contemporary landscape, emotion takes the lead, and I have been finding this world very freeing. I’ve always looked up to the level of thought, attention to detail, and purpose you see in almost everything from Japan. Photography is certainly no exception to these attributes for them, either. One project that has been my biggest inspiration for CHANSU is Daido Moriyama’s Bye Bye Photography. This book broke all the rules of photography at that time, embracing chaos and chance. It’s a true masterpiece. Chansu is a way for me to explore a new world that offers me endless boundaries.

Q: Is CHANSU your first dynamic/interactive NFT? The pieces have a gradual dissolving element of four still images over 80 minutes, to create a visually stunning experience, additionally, viewers can toggle the image between the four stills. I would love to learn more about the piece and the way (and the why) you are utilizing AI, blockchain, and interactiveness in this project!

A: Yes, it is! I wanted to create an experience for the viewers to see the pieces interact. I see these displayed large scale in an exhibition space where they morph over time, always giving the experience something new, ever-evolving, similar to our environment and how this technology is ever evolving, especially in the arena of AI. Chance was the driving force in the initial stage of artwork production. It’s impossible not to embrace chance when working with AI. I used vague and not specific prompts, which resulted in me knowing that what I could get from this machine was a complete gamble. By doing this, I had to let go of the controlling side of myself and embrace fate. I also wanted to play on the speed of the way the world is moving is such a drastic pace. In return, I tried to slow down time, making the viewers sit and digest the artwork at a slower and more deliberate pace.

Q: When creating your artist books, such as Unlawful Conduct and Moon Dust, how do you approach the process of selecting and arranging images to tell a cohesive story?

A: It’s a long, painful process (laughing out loud), but I enjoy it immensely. It’s hard to give a specific answer to this question, but it takes a lot of time, thought, and knowing all the essential ingredients that need to go into the book to complete it. It also takes help from colleagues and editors to see it from a fresh perspective. Once you have it dialed, you can see how the book’s experience resonates with its views, and once you get the impact you are looking for, then you know its ready.

Q: Lastly, this is an opportunity to plug whatever you’d like and just share about what’s coming up for you if you have anything you’d like to promote/share!

A: For now, CHANSU is locked in my sights. Hopefully, the NFT release will be successful, and I can transition the project into an entire physical exhibition, and I also plan on it being an art book. I want to take these digital images and explore unorthodox printing processes, adding another layer of complexity to the project.