by Michael Potts
"Light is a Law. " Summoned with his Art Center School classmates to a darkened stage, Peter Dobbins recalls these words uttered by a favorite instructor, standing in a cone of light from a spotlight he holds aloft. Momentous words: "Light is a Law."
Peter first found the power of a camera in his hands as a young photographer onboard the USS Rochester, sometime flagship of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet during the peaceful stretch between Korea and Vietnam. Tasked to shoot a group of visiting brass, he enjoyed telling the Admiral, "Take three steps to the left." Realizing that this attitude might not lead toward a rewarding stint in the Navy, Peter embarked on a college career.
"I was raised a Southerner. Understand, that's really not a comprehensive, one-size-fits-all classification. There's the classic redneck from the popular joke, and there are very refined folks also. My people mixed the two. Father's father was a rural circuit riding Baptist Minister we saw less than once a year. Maternal Grandfather was a southern aristocrat, a banker who carried his bank through the Depression.
"My father became a liberal newspaper editor and publisher in Montgomery, Alabama, presided over the Alabama Press Association, but stayed a Baptist. Mother, true to her upbringing and her membership in the DAR and Daughters of the Confederacy, impressed upon me the dignity, honor, and daring of the Confederate soldiers and the rightness of our cause. Ah, the glory of the lost cause! How seductive it is."
After a few semesters in the audio visual department at the University of Alabama, Peter focused on photography and moved closer to the action. In Los Angeles, he attended the Art Center School, now Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. Five semesters later, in firm command of The Law, he was lured away from studying to work as an assistant to established LA photographer Robin S. Robin and Bob Dornan, who was then documenting the Goldwater Republican National Convention and campaign.
Lots of darkroom time later, Peter and a partner opened their own photo studio in Los Angeles, and gave themselves a short, painful course in business economics. "We rented a place in the Ramparts neighborhood, and had a pretty good time. We pitched several agencies with some high contrast work I was doing. They loved it. Didn't give us any work right away, though, and pretty soon we saw other photographers doing it. I still like chiaroscuro for itself, the way strong contrast simplifies the image."
"I didn't enjoy pitching. It was impossible to tell if we we were making headway. We saw another guy having a success. He had a rep. So we stole his rep, who sat around on the phone with her girlfriends. We moved to a bigger studio, a former Ford Agency in Beverly Hills. It needed remodeling, and what with rep, assistant, nitrogen burst, lease, we had a $5,000 a month nut. Pretty soon we had a month without work, and then another, then just when we couldn't string it out farther, we'd have an $11,000 month.
Peter left the business in 1969. "Shooting for myself, was easy and I should have been exhilarated, but I wasn't. I was done." A move to the country was proposed. "What can you do in the country?" Peter wondered. Not long after, with the photographer burned out of him, Peter found himself in Boonville building a house, opening the Sundown Café, and teaching Adult Ed classes in Mendocino's Anderson Valley. In 1978 Peter bought a horseworthy meadow within sight of the San Andreas fault scarp in Point Arena, built his soaring, light-filled house, and settled.
Electronic photography caught Peter's eye during his lengthy tenure as manager of Friends of the Garcia River, familiarly known as FrOG. Their Olympus camera had sensitivity modes that allowed exaggerated contrast, even reducing the image to black or white. When he tried to get back into the darkroom, Peter discovered that his favorite photographic paper, the profoundly contrasty Agfa Brovira 5 & 6, was no longer made. Peter gladly traded in the dark for the light, and the computer tools used by electronic photographers. An early PC adopter, Peter fondly recalls DOS and his first 20 megabyte hard drive.
"FrOG was a joyous and miserable time, and I see a darkness and cynicism in my photography that might date to those years. We were a hands-on, hardworking Board trying to save a watershed's spirit despite the duplicity, greed, backstabbing, and above all, the lies, of some with land and power. Still, we succeeded: after 13 years, there was little more we could do to save the river, and we were broke, so we disbanded."
Once FrOG met its preservation goals, Peter resumed his career as a photographer. For four years he and a partner operated the Lighthouse Peddler a newspaper that survives. He and his wife Anna also operate a picture framing business, Arena Frame.
Looking back on his formal schooling in photography, Peter questions whether it helped him develop his artistic vision at the start. "I'm guessing that school ruined my photography for years by making me too cerebral? Hmmm, I'll have to think about that . . ." he deadpans. Quiet, understated humor illuminates Peter's words as well as his work.
Peter's imagery is unusually diverse; his work as an LA ad photographer broadened his choice of subjects, and he continues to find images everywhere. "I never walk down Main Street Point Arena, four blocks down and back, something I've done a thousand times, without seeing pictures. I almost always have a camera with me. About the time I really started to put time and effort into photography again, I had a ruling thought: A worthy photographer should be able to look around in one place and find a worthwhile image. To a great extent, I believe this still drives me. Reaching for a tour de force, and a treasure hunt in equal parts. About this, I have a terrier mentality."
The darkroom was a large part of Peter's work until the computer came along. "Printing in the darkroom, you only have two hands, and so your ability to burn and dodge is limited. With a computer, you have as many hands as you need. The software is so facile, you can accomplish things you could never do in a darkroom. It's endlessly fascinating, what can be done with the computer.
"I am still intrigued, as you can see in my photos, by darkness. Light is Law, but its interplay with its opposite, dark, is where I find many of my subjects. Sometimes that still bothers me. I think that my penchant for cynicism, for the dark view, results from my sense that we are looking at a pretty steep slope ahead. My best guess is that we artists all want to illustrate truth and reality as we perceive it to be. Most – maybe all – humans live in a carefully constructed cocoon of our own making. Some of us allow more dark in. People generally spend a good bit of time with their faces averted from the all-encompassing reality, and no wonder! But, it doesn't seem to get the job done.
"A lot of my work illustrates solitude . . . perhaps loneliness. This may be in part cynicism, but the better part is Zen Buddhism. I rush to say, not the organized path of the Roshi, but my own discoveries through unguided meditation on Zen stories and haiku."
Peter's work has an unmistakably indigenous flavor, an authentic insider's look at western Mendocino county's people and places taking unexpected advantage of all the light the law allows. We look forward to his show at the Mendocino Art Center Gallery in Mendocino coming up in early November of 2009.