Into the woods with Bob Keefer

The Eugene photographer eliminates color digitally and then adds it back by hand.

by SUSAN PALMER

Think of Bob Keefer as an outside-the-box kind of artist.  His first gallery show in 2015 featured photographs of tree stumps in various stages of forest disarray. Even in Oregon, where folks know tree stumps well, few of us think of them either as art or as inspiration for art. As a theme for landscapes it seems a little odd, like a friend announcing he’s baking bread with the chaff instead of the flour.

And then there is his medium of choice. Keefer hand paints black-and-white photographs, resurrecting an old and mostly abandoned art form to create landscapes that are surprisingly subtle and evocative. This isn’t the current vogue of digitally coloring famous black-and-white photos from gone-by eras.  These are Keefer’s photographs, color digitally removed and then added back in via acrylic paint, according to a spare calculation that seems both intuitive and random. The result: landscapes with a whispering quality rather than a hollering one: Less Andy Warhol, more Albert Bierstadt. Looking at his art is a little like being out in the woods with a trusted friend who points you toward something you hadn’t noticed — delicate candy cap mushrooms beneath a hemlock or a large-eyed northern spotted owl on a fir branch just feet above your head, a something that catches your breath and fills you with wonder.

All the best art does this, of course, crooking a finger in your direction and saying, “Look here.” Keefer’s best colored photographs have a way of inviting you to revisit them. They have staying power. 

Bob Keefer, Replanted Fir (2020). Hand-colored black-and-white photograph. Winner of the purchase award at the Art About Agriculture show at Oregon State University. Image courtesy of the artist.

It’s been a good year for his landscapes. His work has been recognized in juried shows in Eugene, Corvallis and Roseburg in Oregon, as well as in Prairie Village, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. One of his pieces won a purchase award at the juried Art About Agriculture show at Oregon State University this summer; another took a $500 award in the Prairie Village show.

His journey to this art form is a haphazard one. A newspaper journalist who wrote for years about art, an editor now of an alternative news weekly, a lifelong photographer, a Harvard grad with a degree in the history of religion, a birder, a desert backpacker, a gentleman gardener, Bob Keefer is a dabbler of the first order. Age 69, he lives with his wife, Lisa, on 19 acres of mostly forested land on the western shoulders of the Cascade Range. He’s the kind of guy who seems perfectly comfortable wielding a pen, paintbrush and Pentax, not to mention a chainsaw, axe and spade.  His vegetable garden has high fences to keep out the deer. In the spring he takes the chainsaw out to maintain the paths that allow him to wander his small treed estate.

Curious about everything and intrigued by process, Keefer is less married to outcome, which is not to say that he doesn’t care about outcome in his art, but he’s willing to let the many things that he can’t entirely control have their way on the page.

To watch him work is a study in the “Wow, that’s interesting,” school of design. Keefer will start the day with a walk.  His narrow self-maintained paths run through old and young forest, across open swaths of recently clearcut hillside on a neighbor’s land and along his ample vegetable garden and oddly fetching house.

He’ll stop for photos here and there. A leaning tree, a drape of moss, a surprising bend in a branch, any of these might catch his attention. He brings to his eye a beat-up digital Pentax KP that has seen a lot of rugged duty in the three years since it replaced a predecessor Pentax with even more miles on it. He’ll click a few images, look at them and move on. He might cover a mile or three before heading back to his studio. At the computer, Keefer will review what he’s shot and select a handful of images for closer attention. He lacks guidelines for this. There’s just something about a shape or a slant of light that makes him want to spend more time with one photo over another.

Having selected the images he wants to work with, he uses the computer to suck all of the color out of them. And it is at this point that a visitor might be forgiven for asking, “What the hell? Why take away the color so you can add color?”

Hand-coloring got its start hard on the heels of the invention of photography itself. The first daguerreotypes, tiny one-off images on metal, emerged circa 1839. This new technology was barely dry of its chemicals when photographers started adding pigment to the black and white images to increase verisimilitude.

Paint was especially useful for portraiture, helping provide rosy and enlivened skin tones. At its heyday, in the early 20th century, hand coloring was such a common practice, with photography studios around the world employing whole back rooms of (often) women to do the coloring, that in 1922 chemist John G. Marshall introduced a line of finely ground, highly pigmented oil paints specifically for coloring photographs. Marshall’s oils are still in use today.

While most of us envision photos of people if we think about this art form at all, Oregon owes a debt to hand-colored landscapes for the existence of some of its marquee wildlife refuges. Self-taught naturalist and photographer William L. Finley introduced Americans to the stunning array of birds in Oregon (particularly those hunted to the brink of extinction for their exotic plumage). In a series of popular lectures and books full of hand-colored photos, created in collaboration with childhood buddy Herman Bohlman, Finley bought Oregon into national focus. His photos helped convince President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside the first wildlife refuges west of the Mississippi in Oregon.

Keefer, like many of his generation, remembers hand-colored pictures from his childhood. He still has a 1950s-vintage baby picture of himself that’s a black and white photo with pink cheeks. He also has a long history with making his own black-and-white photos, having stumbled upon an iconic Brownie box camera in a closet when he was a kid. He eventually created his own darkroom so he could develop the photos himself, and has long preferred black-and-white photography over color.

“What’s lovable about black-and-white photographs is that you can develop them in your bathroom. It gives you more control than taking the color roll down to the pharmacy… You could do this yourself,” he said.

His preference for black-and-white images led Keefer to a close study of the work of photographer Ansel Adams.

Bob Keefer’s studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

He came to hand-coloring thanks to its brief resurgence in the 1980s, a short-lived fad of bunny-and-cute-babies art that nevertheless caught his eye. He recalled seeing an article describing the process, which noted that colored pencils and vegetable oil could be deployed to experiment with the technique. Twenty years ago he tried it with an old 5×7 photo of some college pals. It worked.

“The oil turns the pencil into an even layer of color that looks remarkably like paint,” Keefer said. “This was a different dimension in photography that you could really play with.”

Keefer is nothing if not a tinkerer, and so began several years of experimenting with the hardware and software. He started with Marshall’s oils on darkroom prints, but moved to acrylics on digital photos printed on art paper. His darkroom has been replaced by a wide-format digital printer. And each iteration has moved his art forward.

Once he’s selected photos, he prints the pictures as large black and white images on sheets of watercolor paper up to 22 by 30 inches. Size, he jokes, matters.

Think of him as a collaborator with his materials. But perhaps his greatest collaboration has been with the forests of Oregon. While his own property provides him with plenty of opportunity to photograph trees, Keefer has also done much of his work on the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, one of 84 federally managed chunks of land around the country dedicated to long term research.

Bob Keefer at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Andrews Forest, located in the heart of the Willamette National Forest an hour’s drive from Keefer’s home, offers unique collaboration opportunities by providing residencies for artists with the single requirement that they visit specific research sites while there. Keefer’s residencies on the Andrews Forest land have resulted in some of his most recognized work.

Fred Swanson, a longtime researcher on the Andrews land who helped develop its Artists in the Woods program, has long been a fan of Keefer’s work.

Swanson recalls Keefer’s first gallery show featuring tree stumps. Swanson writes in an email:

I’m intrigued by how his spare application of color – and often color not intended to match the natural – creates interesting lighting patterns and direct the viewer’s attention to particular features of the image.  …  In an artist’s talk at the Jacobs Gallery some years back, he commented, ‘The forest is too green!’  In a series of images — black/white, full color, and hand-painted — he convinced me, despite my initial gut reaction to his statement.

And this may be the best explanation for why Keefer takes the time to add back color. He knows what moved him in the moment that prompted him to swing up the camera. The camera — as anyone who has ever bothered with a cell phone or anything more complicated knows — captures light and dark but not emotion. It doesn’t always convey the thing that prompts us to stop and shoot.

Keefer didn’t wake up one morning as a skilled artist after a professional lifetime of messing around with words. A features reporter at The Register-Guard in Eugene, more and more of his reporting efforts focused on art. To help his coverage, he sought out an art appreciation class that provided good background. Drawing and painting classes followed, and the dabbling got serious over time.

Drawn to the Hudson River School artists — Albert Bierstadt, Maynard Dixon, and the like — Keefer is unabashed in his preference for this romanticized view of the west.

His art, however, veers in a different direction. Keefer’s images aren’t larger than life, or knife-edge sharp. Like Finley’s landscapes, they seem to exist outside the context of time.

Bob Keefer’s studio with a cat. Image courtesy of the artist.

His painting technique is not remotely fussy. This is not the tiny brushes used in traditional hand-coloring by backroom artists ever so delicately bringing blue to eyes and rose to lips. The paper gets a layer of retarder to keep the paint workable a little longer than the fast-drying acrylic normally lasts, so Keefer doesn’t have to rush. He dips into his colors with a two-inch house-painting brush and smooshes them around on the paper. Dabs a little off here, adds some more over there. Stands back. Comes close. Dabbles some more. A foggy sky gets a swash of pale blue, late-summer grasses a daub of light ochre, fir branches a hint of new-tree green.

The result: a tree that startles out of the mist, a skitter of fallen orange and gold leaves beckoning the eye down a deep green tunnel. Art that whispers in your ear: This place is magic.


Bob’s website is https://bobkeeferphoto.com/
Here is a short documentary on classic hand coloring.


Susan Palmer is a freelance writer who worked for 20 years as a general assignment reporter in Oregon and Alaska. She lives in Eugene.

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