NYC

Bee & Rog Walker

Peaceful Stills

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I kept abandoning the things that I thought were important for things that I truly loved. It wasn’t scary, just really practical.

__Bee & Rog Walker

Photography is one of the most powerful and universal forms of communication. It has the power to educate an audience, sway opinions, birth and destroy movements; from Dorothea Lange’s portraits that personified the Great Depression era, to Bill Hudson’s images of the 1960’s Civil Rights protests that shaped international momentum. In their purest form, photographs tell us the truth about a moment, a place we have never seen, a person’s character. Like any compelling art or design, photographs harness the soul of the creator, the author of its frame. The composition, subject, even medium on which it is taken reference the voice and personality of the photographer and express his or her values. In a world where anyone can pick up a smartphone or digital camera, the greats of this field are recognized for their iconic contributions, the images they produced that swept us off our feet and reflected the soul of a time and place we did not know, but nevertheless shape our understanding.

For Bee and Rog Walker, photography is an art of not only technique and methodology, but of patience and courage, of selecting for only what is necessary, only what is excellent. Theirs is a life of uncompromising devotion to one another, their craft, and uncommon levels of joy and peace.

But becoming a creative wasn’t a lifelong dream for either of the two, and certainly not a photographer. “My parents are both physicians,” Bee explains. “It’s not that they didn’t believe in being creative; my dad very much encouraged that. He’s the one who bought me my first camera and took me to art galleries, but it was always considered more as life enrichment, not something you would do as a career.” Meeting Rog, who at that point had only recently begun shooting with the ranks of New York’s creative scene, marked the beginning of a departure from that traditional path. “Spending time with Rog and our friend Dre [Wagner] was such an eye-opening experience. I saw how fully involved in this kind of life they were, and how it reaped benefits. They were meeting people and having these great experiences; they were able to express themselves. That was what really changed my mind about how I would do life.”

“For me, creative life didn’t even exist as a concept,” Rog reflects. “Bee talks about her parents taking her to galleries and showing her things about photography. Those things were not in my worldview at all.” When a friend of his introduced him to a DSLR for the first time, he didn’t recognize it as a camera. “I was so disconnected from creative life that I didn’t even know what  that was. I was doing web development at the time and thought, well it would be nice to have good photos for the websites I build. So I had this little purple point-and-shoot and thought, ‘Okay, I’m a photographer.’ It was ridiculous. But that was where I started.”

For the past six years, the couple has lived and worked as photographers in the Big Apple. Their studio apartment in the Bronx is large enough to live and work from – which they do – but sparsely decorated, adaptable and revolving around whatever they presently have in the works. Their few visible possessions reflect their work, as well: cameras, lighting equipment, a few thick, glossy-paged photo books.

The simplicity of their home, their wardrobe, and ultimately their budget, is a conspicuous hint at the way they conduct themselves as creatives. They’ve assumed some sacrifices, but also immense freedom in favor of living simply. In doing so, they make work that to them feels more “honest,” unencumbered by the demands of ‘making a living.’ “We take on some things here and there, but mostly we’re just producing our own work. There’s this mainstream idea of doing a ton of commercial things to cover your living expenses or your creative work,” Bee tells us. “I shy away from that because it’s a lot like the way I was raised, to do a ton of work just to cover the things you’re really passionate about.”

For Rog, it’s about an attitude rather than simply a lack of possessions or loads of work. “I don’t talk about it a lot, but I’m really big on peace,” Rog explains. “We’ve made a decision to abandon the culture in that way. We’ve chosen a lifestyle that we really enjoy, and it’s pretty minimal, so there isn’t a lot of overhead in our life. It’s allowed us to travel more, and enjoy our time together rather than have to do all of these things to feed a certain lifestyle. It allows us to be able to say no, that we don’t have to do that, and allowed us to create work that’s from a really peaceful place, where we don’t have to strive and struggle.” For Bee the transition allowed her the freedom to change her mind about what she thought defined her. “I kept abandoning the things that I thought were important for things that I truly loved. It wasn’t scary, just really practical.”

In an increasingly digitized world, their preferred shooting bodies are medium format film, Hasselblad models each over 50 years old. “My dad shot film, so I grew up practicing with that. I actually didn’t have a digital camera up until I met Rog; before that I had shot all 35mm. I remember realizing that the greats, the people that I thought were amazing, cared about the way that their photos were printed, seen, and displayed. Because of that they had these close relationships with developers and retouchers, people in darkrooms and printers. They spent a lot of time considering that, not just the shooting process. When I thought about what I saw in MOMA and great photo books, it was all shot on film. At some point I felt like I had to make a choice: film or digital. Digital was really fast and it was easy to get the images out there, and as soon as something happens you can show people. Those photographers that I consider the greats, some of them have had these incredible commercial [digital] careers. But when they make art, it was film.”

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Individually their styles reflect the differences of their past: Rog raised by Jamaican immigrants during an unsafe time in New York’s history; and Bee, a true lady, born in Kenya who traveled the world from a young age. “When I look back at my work, I realize that my identity is very much rooted in the photos I’m taking. It’s like a self-portrait of my life,” Rog observes. “The environment doesn’t just influence my work; it is my work. Mt. Vernon, where I grew up, was this weird place. It’s the city, right next to the Bronx, but so close to the country in Hudson Valley, so it’s this in between mix of both. And that’s been my personality. Growing up in that environment influences what my eye is drawn to, and it’s a snapshot of myself, my life, my identity.” True to her own history, Bee thrives on shooting what is foreign to her, unexpected. “That’s been the theme of my life. I moved around a lot growing up, so for me a big part of shooting is travel. I feel most like myself and make my best work when I’m in an unfamiliar place, when I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Much like the minimal lifestyle they’ve adopted, when it comes to their work they keep a low profile. Often their personal websites are simply a dramatic splash page, a digital veil over their vast body of work. Social media is no better, with Bee only intermittently updating followers and Rog almost nonexistent. For photographers in such a media driven age, sharing your work at every possible outlet seems the most sensible thing to do, the 

most natural way to create an audience, a following even. It would seem they’ve intentionally hidden themselves and their work. “It is intentional. We both started online, and that was where our audience grew. But there was a time when the media platform changed,” Bee explains. “Instagram in particular is great because it’s such a democratic platform, but people can follow thousands of accounts now, and not necessarily photographers. It’s image driven, but it’s not necessarily about photography.” And although Bee posts from time to time, she admits her involvement continues to recede. “It may just be me developing as a person to realize that these things have a time in our culture, but I think I realized that I’m not on Instagram the way some people are on Instagram, or even in the world the way some people are in the world.”

Moreover, they’ve found social media insufficient for creating the kinds of real change they believe art and storytelling are capable of. “We always talk about understanding, like how do people learn something they don’t know about? We’ve found that social media platforms aren’t the place for those types of conversations, because you have to grow a certain level of intimacy with something to understand it. I think it can only happen through a willingness to meet people and have conversations. If only people would put down their phones long enough to do that! There’s so much to learn from other people. It makes everyone better. It’s priceless.”

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Rog’s presence on social media is conspicuously non-existent. “I’ve been through a few phases, but mostly it’s about time. You can spend your day just watching how many likes you get. I just didn’t want to spend that much time on my phone. I want to focus on making work. But also, the way I experience the work on Instagram is so quick, and thoughtless. I realize when I’m intentionally seeking something out, whether it’s a documentary or going to a gallery, I’m committing my time to that. We’re consuming the work in a way that honors it. I just don’t see people coming to Instagram asking themselves about the themes and perspectives hidden in a photo, so I have to find ways to [encourage] that elsewhere.”

One of those ways has been through Paper Monday, a monthly digital collection of photo and video short stories that Rog writes, directs, and delivers to your inbox. It’s an outlet to exploring photography as a storytelling tool, and as a conduit for social engagement. It’s often personal, provocative, creatively grappling with the divisiveness in our culture, the heated ways in which we disagree, to somehow engage both logic and emotion. “I like to speak not from a side, but to say things that are relevant and allow people to attach themselves to it, and let there be dialogue around that. I like stirring the pot a little. I don’t think there’s ever one side to any story, so I want to complete the circle, to show a complete truth. I’m interested in creating things that speak to the issue without triggering a fight response, just to have people think.”

Their fight for intimacy in the work, whether through soul piercing portraiture or irrefutable honesty in narrative has yielded along with it a rather familiar feeling of creative discontent. Inspired as they are by the giants of the field, pursuing excellence means being real about your weaknesses and have far yet you have to go until greatness. “We’re so fascinated with photography that it almost gets depressing sometimes. There are so many people we admire: Wayne F. Miller, William Eggleston, Richard Avedon, Sallie Mann, Irving Penn, Bill Cunningham, Paolo Raversi. We could list off name after name, and we take from all of them. Our styles aren’t the same, but I’ll see something amazing, and that perspective will go into my work. [But comparing myself to them], I realize I just can’t be the best at this. There are just so many great people doing it.”

This standard of excellence, passed down from legends and held by their contemporary heroes, has drawn them deeper into the studio. Drafting stories to create together with renewed purpose, stirring up new resolve to challenge themselves and those who might see their work. “I want to create art, and that requires creating something in front of the camera rather than just pointing it at things. I’ve been doing this for six years and for a lot of people photography is fun, but for me it’s something I want to be the best at. There’s a standard, and I’m trying to get into this league of sorts. I want to make art, and in order to do that I have to look at great art and judge myself through that lens.”

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