Rocky Schenck: The Recurring Dream
Black & White Magazine
By Stuart I. Frolick
At a time when skilled artist-technicians are producing digital constructs of any environment and personality imaginable, the dreamscapes of Rocky Schenck strike and resonate at a deeper level than most scenes in Hollywood blockbusters.
As attention spans decrease at an alarming rate, the appeal of still photographs endures because some of us want to spend more than a second and a half (or less – just count the number of cuts-per-second in most TV commercials) to enjoy the lasting pleasure of a still image. The speed at which our culture generates and discards pictures erodes our ability to focus attention, and to hold an already tenuous grip on reality. Why read the book if you can watch the movie? Why linger for minutes on a single photograph when you can see a thousand posted online in the same amount of time?
Schenck’s aesthetic sensibility harkens all the way back to the silent film era, and he unabashedly acknowledges the great cinematographers and directors of that period as his most important influences. He cites the silent films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang; as well as more modernist films by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells, among many others.
The construction of Schenck’s landscapes begin with his insatiable curiosity, and his feelings in response to environment—and in the recognition that there may be a story he can tell through imagery. (Though we’re focusing on his black-and-white landscapes here, interested readers are encouraged to look at Schenck’s beautiful color work and portraits, many examples of which are posted on his website.)
The landscapes rendered in surrealistic color all begin as black-and-white photographs to which Schenck expertly adds expressive color by hand, with old-fashioned oil paint. It’s surprising to learn that all of his monochrome images are also hand-tinted.
Raised on a ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas, and hour or so west of Austin, Schenck’s parents were both skilled at drawing, and his great-great-grandfather, Hermann Lungkwitz (1813-1891), who immigrated from Germany in the 1850s, was among Texas’ earliest landscape painters. Schenck recalls awareness of his great-great-granddad’s romantic vistas on the walls of his childhood home, and on those of Texas’ major art museums, and they certainly played a part in awakening his own artistic interests and passions. By age 13, Schenck had already sold some of his own drawings and paintings.
He attended North Texas State as an art major, but quickly developed a fascination with film, especially German silent films. “I loved studying the compositions and lighting in movies,” Schenck says. He came to photography through film, working as a location scout and production assistant on feature films, and by shooting stills on his own movie sets. It was those stills that led art directors to book Schenck for album cover shoots, and he still uses “movie lights”- tungsten rather than strobe – for all his portraits and interiors.
“I love seeing the light at all times,” he says, “and I’m glad that I learned the tricks of lighting technique on black-and-white film. For landscapes I only use existing natural light, a lot of patience… and no assistants. It’s a solo reality—me and the environment, with zero distractions.”
In conversation, Schenck gushes in wonder at the ways of the world, how its myriad stories are depicted. While he prefers not to dispel the mysteries of his creations, and to leave interpretations of the meaning to viewers, he willingly recalls the circumstances in which the images seen here were made.
There is a charming openness and lack of pretense about Schenck. He laughs easily and often, and expresses himself with an almost childlike glee. He understands his creative process as emotional and intuitive, rather than intellectual and theoretical. “Instinct dictates” his initial impulse to create. Schenck uses his hand-tinting to “control mood; warm up tones, and to add another layer” to his pictures.
“I’ve always loved landscape,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to come across. Most of my best ones are accidents, so I shoot whatever I find interesting.”
Scheck shot “Gazing Ball,” which conjures images of Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at the close of Modern Times, in the suburbs of Paris, where a massive silver sphere containing a theater captured his imagination. Except for hand-tinting the final print, the picture was created in-camera without manipulations or other effects.
“Dresden” was photographed at a former pope’s palace, which had also been the building in which his great-great-grandfather had studied art. Attracted to the architectural details of the location, Schenck waited for a human presence to activate the scene and complete his picture.
On a return road trip from New Mexico to his home in Los Angeles, Schenck spotted “Trouble” in the distance. As his car drew closer to the action, often mistaken for a gathering tornado, he realized the plume was created by fire. “There was no wind disrupting the form,” he notes.
The perspective of a classic “S” curve winding through the vast space, and the descending scale of figures, captured Schenck’s eye in “Death Valley”; “Mischief” was made on a trip to Central California’s Big Bear region to view the devastation caused by wildfire. “The way the guy hunched over looked like he was up to no good,” recalls Schenck.
“Chandelier” was photographed outside of Prague. “During a time of plague,” says Schenck, “so many people were dying that the clergy running the church couldn’t bury all of the bodies. Congregants began creating art from the bones of the deceased, and covered the entire interior of the church with designs made from human remains. The results were unique: both intricate and disturbing – and forced me to image the horrors these people had suffered in their lives, and in their deaths.”
In his minimalist “Three Trees” Schenck reduces a Spanish landscape to subtle variations in the shape of three tree crowns and the space between their trunks, foregrounded and underscored by a thick line of solid black. Its mood lighting, soft focus and high contrast create another ominous, cinematic-like scene. Schenck produced the vignetting at the top of the frame, “either by shaping my hands or holding a piece of cardboard in front of the lens while shooting. That’s easier than coloring the image later.”
Scheck found his “Ghosts” on a front lawn on Halloween. “The decorations were amusing and disturbing,” he says with a laugh. “They checked all my boxes.”
The concept for “Smashed,” he says, “was to make a photograph of a very drunk lady. I invited my friend Robin to participate, and she complied. We sat in the living room, where this was shot, and we both had quite a lot to drink.”
“In Between” features another old friend, T.C., who had modeled for Schenck when he was exhibiting a series of nudes. “She got tired,” he recalls, “and wanted to take a break. Years later, I discovered and reconsidered this long-ignored image.”
“Up” was shot in the Washington, D.C. subway. “Strangers on their way to one destination or another,” says Scheck. “No one seemed very happy. Where did they come from? Where are they going?”
Schenck declares, “Nothing is more fun that roaming the streets in London.” On one such jaunt, he found “London Dress Shop,” with its compelling lines, textures and echoing shapes. At the Louvre, his eye was caught by the eerie lineup of silhouetted vertical figures, contrasted with the horizontality of a white statue of hermaphrodite. Of “The Art Lovers,” he muses, “Tourists gathered around, and seemed confused what was before them. Why do people react differently to different types of art? What are they looking for?”
Scheck’s photograph of “The Art Movers” was the result of a serendipitous stroll outside New York’s Guggenheim Museum. “An elevator lift emerged from the sidewalk, with this modernist sculpture on it, and these worker-bees began dismantling it. I was curious about what these men thought of this object – no longer in the rarified air of the museum—now just another item in the mundane reality of their day-to-day jobs? In a somewhat subversive, humorous way, the picture sums up a lot of what I feel about the art world.”
Toward the end of our interview Schenck circled back to influences, remembering how change encounter with a photographer whose work, he says, literally changed his life: pictorial landscape photographer George Henry Seeley. (Scheck’s “Death Valley” bears an uncanny similarity to Seeley’s “Winter Landscape.”)
“I saw just one or two of his photographs in the group show, The Art of Fixing a Shadow,” says Scheck. “I turned the corner, and there it was: a stylized landscape of his backyard, on a riverbank in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I couldn’t figure out exactly how Seeley made this image, which was a gum bichromate print from a glass-plate negative. I became obsessed with this picture. I taught myself to manipulate images through diffusion, and began paying more attention to the edges of my frames – and to what could not be achieved in the negative.
“At one point I made a pilgrimage to Stockbridge and roamed around Seeley’s old property, finding spots from which he made many of his photographs. When I read the stone at his gravesite, I was stunned. Seeley [b. 1880] had died on April 18, 1955 – the day that I was born! Isn’t that amazing? I don’t know if reincarnation exists… but seeing the date of Seeley’s death, and realizing my deep appreciation of his work – and its profound influence on my own – led me to consider the possibilities of reincarnation again and again over the years.”
Schenck is currently completing his film Four Ladies Dancing, which he began writing when he was 22, and was shot between 1979 and 1983. “My career in photography, and writing and directing short films and music videos accelerated quickly. As a dedicated ‘workaholic,’ I didn’t have the time to focus properly on the film. In 2019, I decided it spend all 2020 transferring the original, untouched black-and-white negative and sound elements to digital 4k. I didn’t realize that the Pandemic was upon us, but this ‘ancient’ film project kept me both focused and amused. I don’t know what will happen with the completed film, but I hope it doesn’t go back on the shelf for another several decades…”
Among other museum and private and international collections, The Witliff Collections in San Marcos, TX holds the largest group of Schenck’s photographic prints. His work is represented by Fahey/ Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. For more, please visit rockyschenck.com, and on Instagram: rockyschenckoffical.
Black & White Magazine. Issue 152. April 2022. Pages 80 – 89.