Bob Kimberly does not consider himself a wordsmith. But when asked about his photography, he becomes a talker. He sat at the Mocha Mott’s in Vineyard Haven to talk to The Times about his work, his hands covered in speckles of paint from his job as a house painter, and grabbed for a large stack of 8-by-10 photos.
The photo at the top of the pile was an aerial shot at a mall food court of people sitting at four tables. One man eats a Subway sandwich. Another family shares a McDonald’s meal; a child absentmindedly hangs off a chair and plays with a shoe. A woman scrolls on her phone while her companion eats an ice cream cone. When photographed, all of these isolated moments become parts of a single universe, connected through the boundaries of Mr. Kimberly’s framing.
“Mundane places and things, there’s a quality that is …” Mr. Kimberly trailed off in thought. “See, that’s why I’m a photographer, I’m looking for the word … not a temple, but, it’s almost a temple to light in a way. My wife stopped into a mall to get some makeup, and I was in the food court so I did a series,” Mr. Kimberly said. “It’s hard to verbalize, but there’s something going on here.”
For Mr. Kimberly, that’s when he knows he got the shot. Much of his work is street photography, unstaged shots on streets, from large cities to small towns. The mission of most street photography is to capture the hard-to-verbalize sensation of seeing something in the mundane, and Mr. Kimberly’s is no exception. It takes vision, curiosity, and, arguably more important, patience to achieve a well-composed and powerful shot out of everyday life.
Mr. Kimberly always had an inherent wanderlust. He was one of those kids who would distract himself in class with a map between the pages of his textbook rather than a comic. Hailing from Springfield, New York City loomed large in his mind as a place where Things Happened and Photographs Lived.
“I always wanted to go to New York — that was the mecca,” Mr. Kimberly said. “That was the big exciting place. When I was a little kid, I had a tiny camera and I went on the biggest trip of my life, which was to the Bronx Zoo. I took a few pictures and lost the camera. Then I had the famous Kodak Brownie camera. You couldn’t do much with it. So I got a sense of what would make a good picture, instead of a average picture just from doing it alone. And trying to convey what the place felt like.”
This early infatuation with New York City has developed into a lifelong love affair. His
wife Daisy Kimberly, who owned and operated Alley Cat on Main Street in Vineyard Haven for 25 years until she closed it in 2015, regularly traveled there for fashion trade shows, with Bob in tow. He would spend the day wandering the city, searching for pictures.
“I don’t know anything about women’s clothes, so I would roam around the city,” Mr. Kimberly said. “In New York, I would go into areas that anyone would just wander, but something great happens with the light, or you come upon some fantastic building or some beautiful-looking people. It’s almost spiritual. It’s the zone, like in sports.”
Today, access to cameras is widespread. But scroll through your friend’s Instagram feed and you’ll understand: A camera alone does not a photographer make. Making a decent photo, even with a phone, requires basic understanding of light and composition. Making an excellent photo requires instinct and fearlessness.
“I climbed a mountain with a day camp,” Mr. Kimberly said, “and the obvious thing would be to take a picture out from the mountain at a distance, and I remember thinking, If I took a picture sideways showing the edge of the cliff that we were on with a few people, you would get more of a feeling, so maybe it started there.”
Mr. Kimberly never abandoned this instinct, and continued to allow it to shape his photography. He has an inherent sense of wonder for photography, even after decades of photographing. “There’s an essential thing there that can be found,” he said of taking pictures. “You sort of have to fall in love, you’re vulnerable [when] you put yourself there.”
He brings out a photo of uptown Manhattan on a crisp winter day. A staunch roadway occupies half of the frame, and five apartment buildings sit atop it. A pink apartment complex occupies a sliver at the left of the frame, in contrast with a sharp blue sky streaked with clouds.
“This was a cold day in New York City on the Hudson River, way uptown, 100 and … 60’s or something. Way up there. There’s just something beautiful about it. But then you think, this was designed to be beautiful, and here it is, I’m appreciating it.”
This references an argument made about street photography, and photography in general, by some of its critics. The argument goes, How can you call a photographer an artist when he is simply pointing a camera at something he didn’t take part in creating and pressing a button? I think this argument is lazy and ignorant, to say the least. Spend a freezing winter day walking around the street in any neighborhood, even New York City, and you’ll learn that making images takes a lot of work. And give two people the same camera and put them in the same place, and they will return with two completely different sets of images.
“As soon as people start to pose, it’s a whole other thing,” Mr. Kimberly said. “That’s a whole realm of photography that I’m not all that interested in. If you go to New York City, there’s so much going on that you can get away with [not posing people]. You don’t want to be peering into people’s windows, but you do at the same time. It’s not to be a snoop or be annoying, it’s because there’s something beautiful.”
“My conceit is that I’m a total outsider, but I’m really not,” Mr. Kimberly said. “I’m
aware of what’s going on, and I go to shows and I know what’s happening, but I’m trying to be true to the thing that gets me really excited, [although] I’m not sure what that really is. I’m like this kid who is breaking free, school is out, the day is fresh, and I’ve always had that. When I was a little kid, I always went as far as I could go, and now I’m stuck on this Island, where you can’t really go far.”
Like many Island photographers, Mr. Kimberly is protective of his favorite photo locales. “I’m kind of possessive of my spots, even though they’re right there, but I haven’t seen anyone else take pictures of them,” he said.
The more time you spend with Mr. Kimberly’s photography, the more surprises you will find. Digging through his stack of images, there was always one more shot that made me say, “Wow!” Some of the less “polished” images had these incredibly well-constructed layers that took minutes to pick apart. For me, those are the most satisfying images to digest. In a world that is saturated with images, it can be refreshing to see something you don’t immediately understand. When you start to layer moment, human expression, and emotion on top of solid lighting and composition, that is when you elevate a snapshot to art — something Mr. Kimberly has honed very well, which certainly makes him a valuable part of the Vineyard photography community.
For more information on Bob Kimberly’s work, he can be reached at 508-693-5959 or firstname.lastname@example.org.