In Living Color:
The Incredible Photography of Greenport's Bob McInnis
By Susan Whitney Simm, Dan's Papers
When I first saw the work of photographer Bob McInnis at JD Smith Gallery in Greenport, I was convinced that it was somehow artificially enhanced. The vibrant and lavish colors, at times reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish and at others of illustrator N.C. Wyeth, look larger than life with their brilliant hues. Surely they must be hand-colored or digitally altered.
"Nope," said Jeannie Smith, the gallery’s owner. "It’s the real thing. In fact, Bob is my only resident artist whose work I personally sought after seeing it at a real estate office here in Greenport."
The real estate office was Century 21 and the owners, Bob and Linda Scalia, saw Bob’s work on his website as they were browsing the Internet. They have since purchased ten large images for their office. It was a big break here on the East End for Bob, who has achieved exposure and received commissions as a result of the Scalias’ purchase. But I was still curious as to how he achieves his spectacular color, so I called and arranged an interview to find out.
In person, Bob is charming and eloquent. Born in a small town outside of Boston, his interest in photography began in earnest at the age of thirteen when he convinced his parents to invest in a darkroom. He has maintained a life-long love of the art, but Bob has been a professional photographer for only the last six years, having previously taken a lengthy detour into advertising. These days, he and his wife, Jeanne, are still independent consultants, traveling — along with their one-year-old son, Joseph — throughout the country to present seminars to daily newspapers.
"After I graduated from Dartmouth, I landed in Buffalo as a sales manager of ten weeklies," said Bob recently at his beautiful, turn-of-the-century Greenport home. "By the time I was 30, I had started speaking on sales and design at conferences on advertising." Then someone from Newsday saw Bob at a conference and offered him the training position at the daily. It was there that he met Jeanne.
"Newsday is a great organization, but I realized after a while that I wasn’t cut out for the corporate lifestyle, and when a friend suggested consulting, I thought it sounded great." He and Jeanne have since traveled extensively to work for major newspapers — such as the Hartford Courant and the Honolulu Advertiser — and moved out to the East End from Huntington six years ago, when Bob bought a Pentax 67, some Fuji film and began shooting every chance he got.
"My major in college was called Policy Studies. It was an experimental, interdisciplinary major that was designed to make one a better decision maker. And believe it or not, there’s a lot of decision making involved in photography."
But are his spectacular results really natural? "People always think that my images are digitally manipulated or enhanced. But I feel that there should be a sacred trust between the viewer and photographer. I know that the lines are blurred these days and with black and white they’re dodging and burning all over the place! I’ve even heard that Ansel Adams’ work is nothing like it is in the negative. On the other hand, I think that there are certain things the viewer expects with color work. I want to be able to look at my work and say, this scene exists. This is real. I think if I manipulated my images, the argument could be made that I’m betraying the trust of the viewer."
One of the secrets to how Bob achieves his marvelous color — one of his hallmarks — is timing. He often waits until the sun is almost set. "The sun’s rays are going through more atmosphere at that time of day and it makes things look warmer." In addition, Bob has taught himself how to look for the colors. This is especially true in "5th Street Beach, Greenport," a photograph so vibrant it looks like it sprang from the pages of National Geographic. "I knew that these primary colors, red, green and blue, would work," said Bob. "This was taken just seconds before the sun set."
Another of Bob’s images I love is of grapevines in the snow. He says that he’s gotten some static about this image because it deviates from his usual utilization of color, but I like it for that very same reason. Everyday here on the North Fork we’re treated to views of grapevines, but by capturing them in newly-fallen snow, Bob presents us with a different way of seeing those vineyards around us.
"During the last few years I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t for me. I’ll go off many nights without film and not shoot anything. I look, not only for the emotional response, but also for where it’s coming from. As in this image" — he points to "Tide Up," a popular image of one of two very well-documented dinghies on Dam Pond in East Marion. "Is it coming from the water, the grass, the boat?"
Another of Bob’s favorite images is that of the Camp Quinipet gazebo taken at sunrise from the water. "I’m standing out in the water, in waders (something he frequently does to get his shots). You get fog in the morning that burns off very early. I watch the weather forecast all the time." He even subscribes to weatherunderground.com so he can track the clouds and fog as they approach.
"I know before I leave the house where the clouds are coming from. Someday I’ll be standing at the sight with a handheld looking at the clouds above me… Here comes a cloud… I can see it coming…Ready, aim… You laugh," he says to me, "but it works!"
I ask Bob about who his favorite photographers are. "Ansel Adams for his color work. I don’t think that his color work was released until after his death. I went into a museum in Portland, Maine, where they had an Ansel Adams exhibit and asked if they had his color book. ‘He didn’t do color work,’ they said. ‘He certainly did!’ I said."
Galen Rowell is another of Bob’s favorites. A former photographer for National Geographic (not surprisingly), Rowell was featured in Oprah’s magazine last month and has published many books. "He’s very into the science of light and how people respond to things. When people see an image in one of his seminars that they really respond to, they make that gasp, that take-your-breath-away sound we all make. And when there’s something not quite right with the image, they don’t do it. He really gets into examining that basic instinct, that moment before the mind has a chance to analyze the image. Studies have actually shown that that sound is a universal reaction. That’s really the bottom line, what I’m always looking and hoping for.
Bob also hopes to do a book someday of East End images. He has a lot of images now and is thinking about the next step. But the myth persists, in certain circles that, as far as photography is concerned, black and white is art and color is not.
"I was at a gallery with my work and the owner said that color photography isn’t really fine art. I think we’re doing the scene a disservice if we strip out all the color when the color is one of the things that make it so beautiful. This is especially true out here where the light and color are so magnificent."
And the moving, artistic images Bob McInnis captures are a perfect testament to that belief.
Bob’s work is included in a new book, The Natural History of Long Island. Visit his website at www.northforkphoto.com or stop by Century 21 realty in Greenport on Front Street.
This article originally appeared in Dan's Papers on Thursday, October 10, 2002 and is posted here with the publisher's permission