Fifty Years of Photography
Richard Loftis is one of the most dedicated and influential photographers in the Midwest. His work represents both a selfless devotion to the demands and possibilities of the medium and an almost synoptic exploration of photography’s classic themes.
Loftis’s thinking about photography was shaped by two important early experiences. As a child, he looked at family photographs with his mother. It was clear to him at the time that these were objects with a special value: they were fragments of history itself, the heritage and visual memory of his family. The quiet truths of these pictures made a powerful impression on him; indeed, they provided a kind of model for the directness and clarity
of his work to come. The second formative experience occurred in 1951, when Loftis – at the age of fifteen – received his first camera. At the time, he was learning to fly, and he used the camera to document both airplanes on the ground and the earth from above. It is tempting to speculate that flying and photography became intimately linked in Loftis’s mind – that the exhilaration and radical sense of discovery of the first activity shaped his appreciation for the second. Both flight and photography provide new perspectives – at once heightened and intensified – of things we thought we knew.
The gestation of these ideas took time. Loftis worked relatively casually with the camera until the late 1960’s. During this period, he made his living as technical illustrator and design engineer for the firms of Westinghouse and Western Electric. This was highly detailed and analytical work: for years, for example, he produced assembly drawings for the jet engines of Navy fighter aircraft. These drawings – or pictures – were minutely accurate and scientifically precise. They described not only every component of a given assembly, but the functional logic of the mechanism itself.
Loftis’s interest in photography deepened rapidly in the late 1960’s. He began intensive research on the subject, applying his innate analytical sensibility to an understanding of photography’s technical and expressive possibilities. He read widely on the medium’s artistic history, taking particular inspiration from the work of Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, and the 1930’s documentary images of Walker Evans and other FSA photographers. This personal exploration culminated in 1973, when Loftis took one of Ansel Adam’s Yosemite workshops. This experience was deeply inspiring and Loftis became good friends with Adams, visiting him frequently in the years before Adam’s death in 1984.
Photography has been the central, driving force in Richard Loftis’s life for the last three decades. His devotion to the medium has been all-consuming – at once a calling and a compulsion. The degree of his commitment is reflected in certain qualitative measures. In each of the last thirty years he has made at least 1,000 negatives, in formats ranging from 35 mm to 8x10-inches in size. To make these pictures, he has driven a total of more than a million miles in the U.S., in addition to his trips by air to Vietnam, China, Mexico, Colombia, and other countries.
Loftis’s photographs are varied in subject, but united in sensibility. He has recorded the landscapes – both bucolic and grand – of the Midwest and West. He has portrayed people in both a formal and informal way. He has worked extensively with the human figure, exploring the body’s seemingly endless permutations of line and form. He has produced hundreds of close-up studies of both natural and mechanical subjects, and he has documented his travels abroad. While best known for black and white, he has also worked in color. The variety of Loftis’s subjects and approaches is a reflection of his broad interests, his curiosity about the world, and his inclination toward description and analysis.
Loftis’s pictures represent the highest level of technical achievement. Adept with cameras of all sizes, he is particularly fond of the 8x10-inch view camera, a format that allows the world to be depicted with an almost magical degree of transparency. As refined as they may be, however, his pictures are far more than mere technical achievements. The brilliance and clarity of his work reflects his deep love of photographic materials themselves – a fine black-and-white paper’s palette of silvery tones, for example – as well as his abiding faith in the value of facts and clear description. His pictures reflect a deep respect for the reality of the world, and the insight – and pleasure – to be gained through clear, focused seeing. Few photographers have seen as intently, or as precisely, as Loftis.
For Loftis the photographic quest is one of self-discovery, and his style and ideas have naturally evolved over the years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, much of his work was done in the West. The heroic and sublime nature of these landscapes – and their link to his childhood enjoyment of Hollywood Westerns – prompted Loftis to return to Colorado, Utah, and Arizona on a regular basis. A change took place in 1984, however, when he received a commission from Missouri Public Services (an electrical utility) to photograph around the greater Kansas City area. He devoted a year and a half to this work, traveling thousands of miles through western Missouri and eastern Kansas to photograph a regional landscape to which he had previously devoted little artistic attention. In the course of this work, he came to realize the artistic value of subjects that only seemed to be commonplace – a rich pictorial world discovered, in essence, in his own backyard. The larger message was clear; successful photographs are a result of the quality of one’s seeing and not the scale or renown of one’s subject.
Loftis’s work has shifted in sensibility over the years. Many of his earlier pictures are relatively cool in feeling, boldly composed, tightly cropped, and deep in tone and contrast. His more recent prints are beautiful in a different way, and they reveal a significant change in artistic outlook. By comparison, these newer images are warmer in feeling, more open in tone and contrast, and broader in perspective. These prints suggest an acceptance of the world, in all its complexity – a desire to really see it, and to learn from it, instead of imposing predetermined aesthetic patterns or structures on it.
Every photographer’s work is a vision of a world that is valued, or held to be important, in some way. Loftis’s world is not simply one of visual clarity and precision. It is, fundamentally, one of optimism. We sense in his pictures an eager openness to experience, a love of the radiant power of light, and a desire to share and to communicate with others. This is also a world of beauty – the beauty of the human face and form, the natural landscape, and the rhythms of everyday life. It is a realm in which memory and history play an important role. He photographs things in order to preserve and remember them, and his pictures are deeply informed by his own experiences and recollections. This is a world in which time plays an important role. In Loftis’s Western landscapes we have a sense of the eternal; in his city views, an appreciation for the decades-long cycles of growth and change; in his views of rural scenes of the Midwest, a feeling for the natural rhythms of the day and of the seasons. His nudes – in addition to their sheer formal elegance – are paeans to the physical perfection of a specific age, early adulthood. These works suggest a yearning to freeze time – human time, at least – at this peak of ripe, graceful faultlessness. The poignancy, of course, lies in our knowledge that such perfection rarely lasts long – the rose blooms and fades, followed by others, and by generations more.
There is, ultimately, a powerful duality in Loftis’s work. His pictures acknowledge time’s relentless flow, while seeking to transcend it. They represent an attempt both to understand the world, and to find in it a kind of otherworldly perfection. In short, his pictures seek a precise balance of fact and form, vision and imagination, the real and the ideal. While there can be no single way of achieving these goals, the success and deep integrity of Loftis’s work provide a powerful model of how it might be done.
Keith F. Davis
Senior Curator, Photography
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art