Romantic. Moody. Timeless. Intimate. These are just a few of the words art critics and fans use to describe the elegant black-and-white images created by fine-art photographer Roman Loranc.
“He is just so naturally gifted, so talented and so devoted to his craft that it is no surprise that his work is incredibly popular,” says Julia Christopher, director of California’s Photography West Gallery and a longtime representative for Loranc. “And there’s something else; he has a great eye, but he also has this mysterious connection—a kind of communication—with nature that sets him apart from many other photographers.” Christopher laughs and adds, “We have a saying: ‘The clouds only come out for Roman.’”
“I like that,” says Loranc as he drives from his northern California home and studio to nearby Mount Shasta, which he’ll hike up and ski down later in the day. As his dog Maya yaps from the back seat, Loranc, 66, brushes back his shoulder-length, silver-white hair and explains: “Being outside, connecting with nature is where I find solace. I’ve often said that having a camera is a great excuse to be in nature for hours. When I am in the field working, my camera becomes my voice as I am having a conversation with the world.”
These conversations have resulted in a body of work that sells internationally and is found in the permanent collections of museums including the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the George Eastman Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Art Museum of China, among others. Four volumes of his work have been published, and his new prints sell for $1,000 to $10,000. When available, his retired images range from $10,000 to $40,000.
Having grown up in Poland and become fascinated by photography, especially the “magic alchemy” of developing and printing, Loranc immigrated to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1982. It was there he first saw an exhibition of Ansel Adams’ masterful images and was bowled over by the incomparable printing, he says.
“In Poland I had never seen such rich tones. Images there were so dull, so listless. But I still remember the first time I saw the depth of Ansel Adams’ blacks and the glowing light that seemed to come from his prints. I was hooked and immediately knew that’s how I wanted my own work to look.”
He also delved into the work of Edward Weston, Brett Weston, and Morley Baer, then devoured Adams’ technical books, Kodak manuals, and more. He moved to Modesto, California, in 1984, where he met Baer, who became an important influence in his work. “I was mostly self-taught, but I did buy a print from Morley that I hung in my darkroom. I decided that when I could produce a print as rich as his, I might have a future in the business.”
Loranc practiced his printing. He also lugged his bulky 4x5 view camera and Tri-X film throughout California’s Great Central Valley, looking for landscapes that appealed to him. Although Ansel Adams is said to have claimed, “There’s nothing to photograph in the Central Valley,” Loranc scoured the countryside for special places that spoke to him. He found plenty of what’s been termed “uncommon beauty” in the region’s fragile wetlands and ancient oaks as he produced better and better fine-art landscapes. “I like to say that I proved Ansel Adams wrong,” he says with a wry smile.
After a decade working in jobs as varied as truck driving and mortgage banking, Loranc decided he’d take a chance and turn his avocation into his profession. “I remember sitting in my office one day and watching the early morning light streaming in,” he recalls. “I made the decision right there and then to sell my half of the business. I told my wife I had to be free to see if I could make it as a photographer. The magical light was too hard to resist!”
Today, some two decades after making that fateful decision, Loranc ranks as one of California’s most successful fine-art photographers. “I’ve been blessed,” he says. “It was a risk, but it paid off. My prints began selling so well that I have never needed to take commissions or do commercial photography.”
He still puts in plenty of 12- to 16-hour days. Developing and printing take up much of his time. He uses a traditional chemical process and develops negatives with the Gordon Hutchings PMK formula from Photographer’s Formulary using a Jobo processor. He prints on glossy paper that’s archivally washed, selenium and sepia toned, and then archivally dry mounted.
Printing every image himself, Loranc notes that no two prints (even in the same limited edition) are exactly the same. He knows this can annoy some gallery owners and buyers, but he refuses to change his process. “I am printing for myself and won’t reprint for anyone else,” he says. “My feeling is, take it or leave it.”
He explains that his mood can affect the look of each print. “If I am down or depressed, my prints may be very dark or moody. I know there are some prints of Mt. Shasta and an image entitled ‘Dark Clouds over Dubrovnik’ that are dark and have lost detail. It’s probably unconscious because I don’t realize this until I see the finished print and I may then say, ‘Oh, my god!’ but I leave it.” Adds Julia Christopher, “I’ve often told a customer, ‘If you love a specific print of Roman’s, buy it because there’s no guarantee others will look the same.’ His images, even within his limited editions, are one of a kind.”
Given Loranc’s preference for traditional processing, perhaps it’s not surprising that he still uses a large-format view camera (a Linhof 4x5 field camera with a 210mm Nikkor lens) and shoots only in black-and-white on Kodak Tri-X film. He has nothing against digital photography, he says, but admits, “I am tired of looking at images on a computer. They are not alive, have no soul, and are often so heavily manipulated they do not seem real. I much prefer looking at a print hanging on a wall.” As one writer has noted about Loranc’s images: “A computer display cannot convey everything that he is able to capture in his prints—not the depth or richness of blacks, the sparkle of the highlights, the subtlety of the tonality.”
While Loranc has spent the past several decades largely photographing California, he’s also made journeys back to his homeland and farther afield to Norway, Italy, China, the Ukraine, and elsewhere. He’s always in search of sacred places. “I’ve come to realize that the ancient groves of native oaks in California are just as sacred as the holy spaces and cathedrals of Europe,” he says, “and I am grateful to be able to photograph both.”
On a recent three-month trip to Vilnius, Lithuania, he discovered a Franciscan church that was being remodeled after it had been stripped by the Soviets and used as warehouse storage. “I spent hours studying how the light entered the church windows,” he remembers. “It was magical. I met a priest who eventually gave me the keys to the church. I made a picture, ‘Absolution,’ with an exposure of over 10 minutes (above). Remarkably, it includes the priest’s warm breath in the very cold church as he hears a confession. I still have no idea how I was able to capture this. It is at once sacred and magical.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.