Friday, May 20, 2022
An Interview with Robert Langham: 2022 Guggenheim Fellow

 

This is the second in a four-part series celebrating Tyler Junior College’s 8th annual Arts Festival. Throughout the month of April, we will highlight a few of our talented students, alumni and faculty members in the disciplines of art, dance, music, and theatre.

Robert Langham was standing in the Tyler Junior College art department when he found out about his Guggenheim Fellowship.

“We had just wrapped up the (TJC Arts Festival) art auction when my phone rang,” he said. “I looked down and saw that it was Anne Tucker, who is the retired curator of the Museum of Fine Art in Houston.”

Langham has had a long association with Tucker through the Houston museum. Recipients had been informed of the award a month before but were asked not to reveal it individually until the official announcement.

“She said, ‘Well, I guess you’re a happy guy right now,’” Langham said. “I had my phone on speaker and (TJC Art Department Chair) Derrick White was standing there listening, too. I hadn’t had a chance to check email or messages yet, so she got to break the news.”

About the Guggenheim Fellowship

Since 1925, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has awarded fellowships to exceptional individuals in pursuit of scholarship in any field of knowledge and creation of any artform, “to add to the educational, literary, artistic and scientific power of this country.”

Approximately 175 fellowships (out of about 3,000 applications) are awarded each year, to individuals making their mark in the social sciences, the natural sciences, the humanities and the creative arts.

Previous Guggenheim Fellows include documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, composer Aaron Copland, choreographer Martha Graham and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as well as one of Langham’s early mentors, landscape photographer Ansel Adams.

In addition to the prestige of winning and a formal reception this summer in New York City, Guggenheim Fellows receive a monetary gift to be used for a yearlong work project of their choosing.

Starting at TJC

A Tyler native, Langham came to TJC after graduating from John Tyler High School in 1970.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said, “but one of my friends said there were great things going on in the journalism department, so I signed up for a class with Professor Blanche Prejean, who was a force of nature. She had this way of being kind of scary, and yet you always knew she was on your side. She loved teaching.”

As part of his studies, Langham took photojournalism, which was a brand-new course at the time.

“It was so brand-new that our instructor, Charles Sowders, who was a mechanical drawing and drafting instructor, learned along with us,” he said. “He said, ‘I’ll stay ahead of you in the textbook, and we will learn this together.’”

Langham and the camera became fast friends, and it’s a match that has stuck for the past five decades.

“From almost the first day, I really got it and couldn’t wait to get to class each day, because I was learning something that I was interested in,” he said. “I just couldn’t learn it fast enough.”

Lessons from Ansel Adams

After TJC, Langham transferred to Sam Houston State University, where he continued as a photography major. On a whim, in 1974, he signed up for a summer workshop with photographer Ansel Adams, whose iconic black-and-white landscape images of the American West are known around the world. (Adams was a two-time Guggenheim Fellow.) For the next three summers, he was invited back as Adams’ assistant.

About his first summer with Adams, Langham said, “It was terrific. Before I knew it, I’m in Yosemite in Ansel Adams’ house behind his gallery, and we were at a summer kickoff cocktail party with a very impressive group of people who were faculty.”

He continued, “Ansel is so inspiring for the subject matter you’re looking at: You fall in love with the Sierras and Yosemite through those landscape photographs. It’s kind of intoxicating but also a little difficult because you’re out there on the landscape with the people who made these landscapes famous — but you’re taking pictures, too, and then you begin to kind of compare your work to his.”

But the art process is not imitation, he noted.

“The real art process is, whatever your subject matter is, you’re looking at it as yourself and the relationship is between you and that subject matter,” he said. “And if you think of someone else’s photograph of that subject matter first, you need to rethink and find your own way of looking at it. Once you do that, you’re off and running.”

For his Guggenheim entry, Langham thought back to those early lessons from Adams in the American West and forged his own path by focusing on the shadows cast by the subject matter.

“I’d gotten to place where I was photographing Shiprock (New Mexico) pretty regularly, and I began to watch how the light changed and really see the shadows. The shadows are very dramatic, and they finally just kind of swept me up. Then, I decided I didn’t need to photograph any one thing except what the light is always doing. It’s a miracle right in front of you, as long as you’re not looking directly at the subject. So, I stopped looking at the subject and started looking at the shadows.”

Never stop learning

After graduating from Sam Houston State University, Langham spent the next few decades as a commercial photographer and returned to TJC as an adjunct professor of photography.

Today, he concentrates on his artistic endeavors. His work has been on exhibit at Tyler Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Art in Houston as well as other places. Still, he never stops learning and searching for his next idea.

“Even today, at the age of 70, and after graduating in 1970, I’m excited to see new things and keep learning,” he said. “I’ve always been really glad to be from Tyler, and TJC has been really important in my life, as a teacher and as a student, both in learning how to learn and get so enthusiastic about learning new things. I continue to learn every day.”

For more on TJC Arts Festival, go to TJC/ArtsFestival.com.