A Visit to the Rodney Lough Jr. Gallery in San Francisco

Editorial

IMG_0927America loves photographers. They seem so much more appreciated than photographers within the UK and photography there is truly accepted as an art form and also one that is highly collectable too. I’m not talking about fashion or news photography here either, I’m referring to landscape photography. If you had to name a selection of so called big name landscape photographers from the UK, then I’m sure Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite, and people like David Noton may come to mind, but I bet none of them come anyway close to reaping the type of financial rewards that of some of the big name American landscape photographers are able to command. For a select few, landscape photography in the USA is big, big business. Sure it’s highly commercial, and the USA is a huge market compared to the UK, and lets face it, they have so many dramatic, spectacular landscapes to photograph too. It seems everything in America is bigger and that goes for the galleries too.

IMG_0930My first experience of one of these big name landscape photographers was when I visited the Peter Lik gallery in Las Vegas whilst on holiday there a couple of years ago. Surprisingly Lik is an Australian, although his main market for pictures is within US as is a large proportion of his subject matter. He comes across as a bit like the “Crocodile Dundee” of the photography world and video clips on his website portray him running around the wilderness in shirts with torn off sleeves. It’s all rather Hollywood, very commercial and a tad unbelievable but he reputedly sold one picture for a million dollars in 2010 so it certainly pays. Can you ever imagine a Joe Cornish image ever going for that?

San Francisco Gallery

Just recently I had the chance to visit the Rodney Lough Jr. Galley in San Francisco, which opened on August the 6th this year. Rodney Lough Jr.,is another big name, commercial, landscape photographer in the US who’s gallery presence is expanding. His pictures are stunning, if perhaps a tad over saturated to the English taste (a trait rather common amongst the American photographic fraternity). The IMG_0962gallery however, which is one of several now, is mightily impressive too and contains a vast array of beautifully presented, stunning photographs, some of which are presented as absolutely huge prints. Many are panoramas some of which must be 8 or 9 feet wide, and would make a commanding presence on any wall. I was informed that these are printed on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper which, under the discrete overhead halogen lighting, makes the pictures positively glow set against the black gallery walls, so much in fact  some you’d swear they were back lit. No matter what your taste in pictures you can’t help be but impressed by some (if not most) of Mr. Lough’s collection of photographs.

Photographic Repertoire

His repertoire comprises the great American wilderness, and many of his shots are the classic scenes that adorn many books and walls of countless other galleries, and include images of Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Tetons, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and so on. However, what makes Rodney Lough just that little bit different, is that he does try to make his views unique and every one of his images are just about as perfectly composed as you can get. His panoramic shot of the Mesa Arch sunrise demonstrates this IMG_0939perfectly where he omits (crops?) the foreground cliff edge from the frame and creates a panoramic view of the arch that I’d not seen before and found most appealing. This perhaps, was my favourite of all his pictures, but I guess that may be because it’s one location I’m pretty familiar with and have shot myself. There are many other panoramas and one other shot that caught my eye was a foggy scene of an old weathered, leaning outhouse, taken amongst the grassland in Square Top Mountain National Forest, Montana, entitled “Can You Spare a Square”. It was so sharp you can literally see every blade of grass. He does profess to venture deeper into the wilderness than most other photographers do, and his YouTube video here portrays him as a “Modern day explorer and photographer”. While that moniker may be a leaf out the Peter Lik style of marketing, it would certainly seem that he works hard for his art. If you like the great American wilderness, which I do immensely, then you’ll enjoy his pictures.

Equipment & Print Quality

Rodney shoots large format using an 8 x 10 Arca-Swiss line camera, with either a 150mm f/5.6 Schneider or a Super-Symmar XL lens or a Fujinon 300mm F5.6 lens. The large format certainly captures an extraordinary amount of fine detail which can be seem in his photographs. In some cases the pictures were shot with a P65 Phase-One digital back, but I wasn’t able to find out how his panoramic shots were done, and whether they have been either cropped from 8 x 10’s or stitched. The gallery assistant told me that the pictures are largely untouched, and not ‘photoshopped’, but that was clearly not the case in some. As I mentioned above, many are over saturated to the point of looking slightly unnatural, but I guess at the end of the day this is just a matter of personal taste, and this look certainly seems to be the ‘norm’ and popular amongst USA landscape photographers, and something I have laso been quilty of doing myself. One or two of the pictures were a tad over sharpened too, and just look too detailed. On close inspection clear, fine, bright halo’s around some mountain skyline edges could be seen; his shot of Kings Canyon NP, California being one of them, or though to be perfectly honest you’d never ever notice this from any reasonable viewing distance, but you just know how we other photographers like to be pixel peepers. I just couldn’t resist looking real close.

To Buy or Not?

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I was told by one of the gallery assistants that Rodney Lough is an old acquaintance of Peter Lik, and without doubt he has taken a page out of his book and is following similar footsteps with the big, expensive, high profile galleries. I can’t see that approach ever being successful within the UK and even in the US it must be a huge financial undertaking. That sort of real estate in prime tourist territory near the famous Pier 39 of the San Francisco wharf area and the gallery conversion must have cost millions. However, no doubt once you’ve made your name it can potentially reap a huge financial reward too. As you’d expect his pictures, which are generally limited editions of 500, don’t come cheap either, starting at around $1000 for a small print, and going up to well over 8 or 9 times that amount for much larger framed prints. One wonders who just can afford these, certainly not the casual tourist like me of whom the majority of the visitors appeared to be. Then again,  Americans, certainly wealthy ones (and of those no doubt there are quite a few), seem much more liable to invest large sums for what to they may deem highly collectable and desirable items than us frugal Brits. You’d also need a pretty big house or office with capacious wall space to be able to hang such prints, and most Brits do not posses such wall space, whereas the much bigger American properties are much more suited to large works of art. The prices were well out of my league, although several pictures I admired immensely, but I would perhaps would be tempted by a book; sadly there were none to buy.

IMG_0959If you have any interest in American landscape photography or even just photography and are visiting San Francisco, then the Rodney Lough Gallery is well worth a visit. For me it was one of the more interesting attractions near Pier 39, and one I found most inspiring, but then again I’m a photographer too.

Location

The Rodney Lough Gallery, One Jefferson Street, San Francisco, CA 94965.

Telephone: toll free at (877) 274-3739 or at (415) 399-9959.

Resources

3 comments


  • Clive Sawyer

    Hi John
    I have read your piece with interest having been to both Lik & Lough's galleries. You are quite right in what you say in my opinion.These guys have got their work presented in such away as to stun most visitors. The framing of their work alone must cost hundreds of bucks. I have my own gallery in a tourist spot, Rye, East Sussex, and happen to be doing quite well but I do have a job selling prints bigger than 36 inches long. Most people look at them and say they would be great in a loft apartment! There is a saying that if you can't make them good make them big, but these guys are good. However I do not go along with what is said about Lik being the world's greatest landscape photographer, I've seen just as good work if not better in the "Landscape photographer of the year" competition run by the AA and judged by Charlie Waite.
    Clive Sawyer

    September 8, 2011
  • John Birch

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for letting me know. I suspected that was the case, but the amount of detail in those cropped panoramas is still staggering. I guess digital still has some way to go.

    I'm not opposed to any Photoshop work either, as I seldom (if ever) take a picture that can not be improved upon by some manipulation or tweaking in either Photoshop or Lightroom. I was just rather surprised to see some halos around some of the high contrast edges which to me speaks of over sharpening. This could easily be remedied by selective rather than global sharpening and one or two of the shots just seemed a tad too sharp for my eye. I've no objection to boosting the saturation either, although I've never been a velvia user; it's just that I find saturation is often over done and can start to look a little unnatural. It's all down to personal taste though and that's just my preference.

    I guess I'm a bit of a cynic but I do find the "present the scene as he saw it" a bit of a cop out, as there is no way the scene really looked like that. So many photographers come out with statements like this, but what they really mean is "I processed the picture the way I wanted it to be". If they just said that I'd probably have much more respect for them and I really hope one day a big name photographer comes clean.

    At the end of the day Rodney is obviously a very successful and proficient photographer and can command big bucks for his prints, which (most of them) do look absolutely super. Most visitors to the gallery won't ask questions or pixel peep like photographers do but it would be nice to have an assistant who is in the know.

    September 5, 2011
  • Andrew Ward

    Hi John,

    I spent a few days with Rodney Lough at one of his Wilderness Workshops, and can answer a couple of your questions.

    Rodney's panoramic shots are taken with his 8"x10" camera but then cropped. Obviously this is smaller than the full 8"x10" transparency would be, but still bigger than the 6x17cm panoramic format.

    I agree that in the gallery you're given the impression that "no photoshop or filters are used", however (as you spotted) that's just not true (which surprised me too when I found out). Obviously he doesn't use any Photoshop gimmicks (and he genuinely doesn't use any filters on the camera (except a neutral grad?)), but he works extensively on the computer to "present the scene as he saw it" (in his words).

    I personally don't have any issue with fine tuning the image in this way. For example, Velvia and Astia portray the same scene differently, so what's on the film isn't "right" it's just the film's attempt at capturing what was there – so there's nothing sacred about the image as it was captured on the film.

    September 5, 2011

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