Arts Council of Princeton artist-in-residence Robin Resch says she likes the idea of using Nassau Street’s Dohm Alley as the setting for her current photographic exhibition, “Taking Pause.”
That’s because the exhibit’s name is also a desired reaction, for area residents and visitors to take a pause to view her collaborative visual meditation that asks subjects — and viewers — to reflect on things that are personally essential and irreplaceable — a provocation made more poignant during our COVID-19-challenged era.
Resch says the exhibition, on view through October, is based around a three-level approach that involves a subject, the irreplaceable, and a personal statement.
“It was very important to me as I started to work on this that each person is not a passing subject. They are a participant. They’re engaging in this project and engaging on few levels. Their voice is so important to me.”
She says the idea for a series featuring a meaningful portrait of a person through something that matters to them came from a personal experience.
“My mother has an old maritime painting that I love — crashing water and energy. It is something that will never be mine. So I thought how can I make it mine?”
Although she used photography, she says, “I deconstructed (the work) in a way, took moments from it, created other versions of it, and put it together on panels. Images were wood panels covered in caustic wax. So it doesn’t look like photographs. It looks different. This process became important to me.”
The approach also provided her with a method where she could work on a portrait that would convey the depth of the subject. Although, she says, it took a while for her to find the language to convey her intent.
“It isn’t ‘What is important to you?’” she says about communicating with the subject “But, ‘What is irreplaceable to you?’ Not everyone thinks about the question.”
The project began in 2018 when the Princeton-based professional photographer “reached out to a few people in town and bounced the idea off them. A few of those early people were my first participants.”
Eventually, she says, she had developed criteria for subjects or participants, “not a client, not a close friend, someone out of my comfort zone, not in my reach. I started with about eight people in here, New York, and Pennington, and I asked each person to help me” to find participants.
She says she chose to trust others to take her project seriously and to connect her with others who would do the same. “I was trusting them to help, and they did. Trust has been part of it.”
Resch followed recommendations with a letter inviting them to participate, including addressing the question regarding the irreplaceable, writing or sharing some thoughts regarding on it, and possibly connecting her to another participant.
The project eventually grew to include a four-month trip across the southern portion of the United States.
“I went to participant to participant, and sometimes they hosted me. Both of us were out of our comfort zone, and in certain cities I had a very generous host or hostess and stayed with them and worked in that community.”
When she returned home to address some professional and artistic needs, she says, “I was looking at what I did and what could happen, and then the pandemic hit. That put travel on hold, to put it mildly.”
However, she continues, “In New Orleans I got to work with a wide range of people that I would never have had to the chance to. And I realized that it would be great to work in a community. In a way that is what I’m doing now in Princeton.”
Since the pandemic thwarted planning for an indoor gallery exhibition, she and the ACP chose to present “Taking Pause” in the outdoor Dohm Alley — an art presentation space created several years ago by Princeton-based artists and now coordinated by Princeton Future.
Originally from Wilton, Connecticut, Resch came to Princeton to study architecture.
Describing her progression to an established commercial and fine arts photographer, Resch says, “Photography came first. I always had a camera since I was 16. I was given a camera by my dad and was always passionate. But architecture was something I wanted to study when I was younger. My father was an architect and thought it was a difficult profession. My mother thought so, too. Architecture was always something I wanted to do.”
After graduating from Wilton High School, where she was a yearbook photographer, she spent a year in Italy as a foreign exchange student and then attended the University of Michigan. “I chose to study art history because it encompasses a lot. Afterwards I still had a design interest and thought of fashion. I actually got accepted into a school in Paris, but my parents said try the fashion industry. So after college I went to New York and the fashion industry and then worked as a marketing director for several established companies.
“I met the man who I ended up marrying who is Belgian, and he was the program director at PS 1. He was asked to start a contemporary arts space in Holland.”
She continued to work in fashion but thought again of architecture and decided to study it in Holland. Although she learned the Dutch language to do so, she saw the program entailed “five years and mostly engineering only, not as much design as I wanted.”
After she and her husband separated, she turned to arts editing to support herself and her daughter and son.
When she and her children left Europe, she moved back to her parents’ home, decided to study architecture, and applied to several universities. “I got into all the programs, but Princeton made it irresistible, and it all worked out.”
That includes her engagement with another department. “(Distinguished American photographer) Emmet Gowin was in the visual arts department at Princeton, and I studied with him for several semesters. It was a very tactile approach — a way of thinking, being, and doing that I had never studied because I was self-taught.”
Of her interest in architecture, she says, “I think very fundamentally I’m interested in people and their environments and spaces. So at its most basic level, it’s that. I also think that architecture is an ability to make something and tell a story to say something — it was a language that I wanted to learn. It is also about design, and, at a core level, it is about who we are in our space.”
Drawn to contemporary or modern architecture, such as those buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe, she says another level of interest in studying architecture is that it is “encompassing. It’s about materials and space. It’s about the needs of the space. A good architect deals with so much more than the technical.
“When I applied to the architecture schools, I wanted the education not the profession. I went into it for the tool kit, the language.”
Additionally, she adds, “Princeton didn’t insist I use CAD. As long as I could convey my idea, it was okay. I learned visual skills that I didn’t have. The architectural education forced me to learn. I had a very amazing visual education with Gowin and a theoretical education in architecture. At Princeton I got the best of everything.”
Then turning to her life with a camera, Resch says she was drawn to photography by “the magic of the medium. It was the beauty of it. If you ever worked in a dark room — there is something magical. I was making pictures because I loved it and had not thought of doing it professionally.
“When I was in Holland, I took it more seriously. In the context of the people I was with, cutting edge and contemporary art work, I learned from all that and kept going. From there I felt the importance of doing it and what it meant to me.”
Resch says instead of seeing it as a career path, she saw it as a way of making something for others. “It meant to me that you can make something, that you can see something that others may not notice, and create something that can resonate. Something that can exist beyond what you made for yourself and could be meaningful to someone else. It’s the ability to perceive and notice something that others may not see. It has some sort of impact.”
Although she mentions photographers she appreciates — Walker Evans for “his eye and his attention to little moments and humor”; German photographer Thomas Struth’s “very beautiful” portraits — she says, “Generally speaking I don’t look to a lot of previous examples. I like different people’s work. But I don’t have a role model. There are so many beautiful moments in the history of photography. I love something by (Edward) Steichen and (Eugene) Atget.”
As a commercial photographer whose practice includes weddings, family portraits, and corporate promotions, Resch says she approaches them in a spirit similar to her fine art photography. “I am a curious person. And I am a visual person. I respond to certain moments. People trust me to see what they’re not seeing and bring that to them.
“The professional jobs that I love to do are weddings. You’re given access to a special event and share it from an angle that the bride and groom are never going to see. It is a great joy to do weddings. It is my job to see things that others may not see.”
With a portfolio that includes black and white and color, Resch says the following about the two approaches. “I love black and white. I started in black and white. I developed film myself and never learned color process. I love the power of black and white. In color, you focus on different things. Certain circumstances call for color. The color becomes so important that it is part of the story. It depends on the situation. Color is really powerful.”
She is also drawn to images that require a blend between the two, such as a scene of flowing water where the color was so muted that it appears to be black and white.
That image was one in a series where Resch set out to capture movement. “I started photographing kids — and I had my own kids — the movement of life. It just isn’t static. Movement and being out of focus — it is my own self-portrait mode. Life is fluid, and we’re going through it. What is the experience of this fluidity?”
She also demonstrates an interest in creating photographic images that push the limits of traditional photographic presentation, including painterly works where the color glows like stained glass or disfocused images to “bring an emotional feeling — an energy. Something I feel in the moment.”
Reflecting on the difference between being commissioned as a photographer or an architect, Resch says, “The reason people hire me is that they trust me. Compare it to architecture where the client is more involved. I am trusted for my eye. Architecture is a much more complicated process; it is less immediate. I am given a lot more control and independence.”
That independence allows her to see projects as “an invitation to see things” and create portraits of machines and photographing products to reflect the energy of the maker.
“I like that diversity, and I like that challenge,” she says.
Taking Pause by Robin Resch, April through October, Dohm Alley, 102 Nassau Street, Princeton. For more on Robin Resch, visit www.robinreschstudio.com.