Editor Jeff Smith chats with native Michigander photographer Robert de Jonge in this article that was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. The web version doesn’t do the print version justice, so purchase your copy today to see this gorgeous spread in person! Melding an experimental mind, digital expertise and a love of landscape and faith, Bob de Jonge assembles images transcendent.
Photographer Bob de Jonge appeared on our radar a couple of years ago when we asked Liz Ahrens, director of Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, to recommend some favorite fine art landscape photographers working in Northern Michigan. At the time we were seeking images for our annual winter travel roundup story, and we asked de Jonge if he’d care to submit some candidate photographs. He did, and we couldn’t help but be taken by his ability to create landscape images that simultaneously deliver on an emotional level, a spiritual level and on an elevated fine art plane. That feeling was only amplified when we spent time at his solo show at Crooked Tree in the fall of 2013. Seeing de Jonge’s images commanding a room of their own and experiencing some photos as 6-by-8-foot prints was an experience not soon forgotten. Here we talk with de Jonge about the technical and digital mastery that is essential to his art and the spirit that pulsates within his work.
Let’s start at the beginning, as in the very beginning. tell us about your very first photo experience.
I was maybe 10, maybe younger, and my dad bought me a small camera for a trip we were taking around Lake Superior. It was a Bell and Howell point-and-shoot with the little cartridges you put in the back. It took square pictures. Most of what I took were nature pictures and of course Mom and Dad and Brother and Sister. I remember shots from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Duluth and from Brockway Mountain, at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. And I got lots of positive feedback.
What about your first good camera?
That was in college. My dad was going to Europe and he asked me if I’d go half and half on a Canon. I did. But I only had it for a year because my sister took it to Yellowstone on an outing and it was stolen.
Give a sense of the scope of digital manipulation you use to create your images.
Software has been a boon to my style of work. Some of the images I am doing now are compilations of 60 or 70 photographs into one image.
What does that help you achieve?
You know, back in the good old film days, you always struggled with range of light. The sky is so much brighter than the land, and you couldn’t shoot one image that accurately metered for all of the light conditions. If you meter for the sky, the land is too dark and you lose detail there. If you meter for the land, the sky is too light and all the clouds are blown out. So with film you tried to compensate with filters. But now I can take an image with the correct exposure of the sky and another image with the correct exposure of the land. So even a more straightforward landscape could have five to seven images assembled into one.
So are you saying a manipulated image can more accurately reflect how your eye would take in that scene, adjusting to the various light conditions as you look from up at the sky to down at the ground?
When using it to balance light, yes. But when using multiple lenses, multiple focal lengths to create one image the purpose is more achieving something your eye cannot. For example, I composed an image of the Manitou Passage using several different lenses, with different focal lengths, from wide angle to telephoto. I wanted to pull in the details of everything from the grass etching the sand at my feet to the lighthouse on South Manitou Island. So I blended several shots to create a vertical storyline. The different focal lengths are used to tell a story that a realistic image cannot tell—kinda like Picasso using cubism to show multiple sides of a person or object on one surface. In the Manitou Passage image I’m flattening depth/space—kind of a super reality. (see the image at robertdejonge.com.)
What about the artistic aspects of photo manipulation?
I get bored really easily, so I really enjoy experimenting. I am an art history fan, and I love what the expressionist people did, and the impressionist people and the abstract people. I love the whole gamut of art. So photo manipulation is essential in those more abstract images.
I hear you saying you aren’t locked into a “look.”
I want to shoot for me, for what I believe in. It probably hurts my ability to sell stuff because many collectors want artists to have a certain look, but I do this for my passion. That’s what makes it worthwhile for me. I still work part time as an art director, and that supports me, so when I go out and shoot, I can shoot whatever gets me going.
So what is it that drives your art?
I am a religious person. I am a Christian. To me it’s important. When I go out and shoot, it is a religious experience. I am giving my gifts in my photography to my Creator. Some people sing a praise song in church. I sing a praise song in pictures. One of the pictures that people seem to enjoy is one I took in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, in an old corn crib. All of these slats converge and at the back of the corn crib were two crossed beams. I didn’t notice that cross when I took the picture, but I did later when looking at the image. So I went in and lightened up the cross. Then I had another image with a vine that was on a wall at the farm and I made that the floor. I call it “Store up for Yourselves.” So that is more overt in its message of faith, but even my other images that are pure landscape are just as spiritual to me.