Photographer Mark Rothkopf Exposes Depth in Light, Shadows
They make an imposing pair as I enter the bail bondsman’s office. First impressions: A bald, bearded man holding a skulled walking stick club stands beside a tall, rock-star skinny, be-hatted and be-rumpled man who greets me with a firm handshake and a smile that takes up his whole face. His hat pulled low conceals a thoughtful visage.
I am here to meet with photographer Mark Rothkopf. His manager, Irv Dickstein, is the rather large man sporting the gray goatee and the walking stick. His voice, gruff and full of bass, proclaims his status as Rothkopf’s manager. Together, they inform me that they are a symbiotic pair, the heart and mind, respectively, that trains the incisive and emotionally poignant eye of Rothkopf’s Hasselblad camera onto the world around us, telling the stories that only he can see. “I work [with] old-style film, you don’t see cameras much like this anymore, and I develop in a darkroom,” he says.
As we discuss Rothkopf and his work, Dickstein interjects often, keeping Rothkopf on his business toes as Rothkopf strays into the more esoteric zones of the deeper meanings and symbology behind camera angles and the use of light, shadows and geometry in storytelling. “The story starts here, with my dad, who owned a store when I was a kid,” Rothkopf says as he reaches into the pile of photos on the table and extracts a shot of an upstate New York department storefront at night. Garish neon letters say “Rothkopfs” and the photo itself, beautifully angled and shot, is heavy with the aroma of 1950s America.
Born in 1952 in Ellenville, N.Y., Rothkopf knew his calling in life in his childhood. “[My photography] goes back to 1978. Before that, I was strictly drawing and painting. … I was painting and doing art from an early age, and my mother loved my art. She would encourage me to hang my art all over the house. She encouraged me to go to the University of Maryland and study studio art,” he says. These artistic pursuits led to his day job creating crowns and replacement teeth for dentists, a craft in which Rothkopf also finds fulfillment, and which also pays some of the bills.
“Let’s talk about the art world for a minute,” he says, his voice rising as he warms to the subject. “You graduate from college with a degree in art and history, and then you look at reality and think, ‘OK, how many artists make a living selling art?’ I got my BA [degree] and began to search and because I have skills with my hands, I found dental technology. It’s lucrative, I like my work, and I really wouldn’t be happy without it.”
“It’s an art form in itself also,” Dickstein growls from across the table, his New York City accent revealed, “and I should know because I was in the art scene in the ‘60s in Greenwich Village.”
“You graduate from college with a degree in art and history, and then you look at reality and think, ‘OK, how many artists make a living selling art?’”
It turns out that Dickstein, a former physical trainer, has received national press for his physical training skills and business acumen, and he saw “talent in Mark that others weren’t seeing, and I asked him if he wanted to be a hobbyist or an artist! He’s an artist, so I am helping him.”
Rothkopf photos, even his sharpest color photos, have a kind of unearthly quality, as though he sees the world through a film and haze of ultra-reality. His photo of two girls, one of whom is holding a Tarantula, is a little creepy, a little funny. “When I look at this photo, I see how the different parts fit. … I see how the strap of her dress leads to this upright here. … There’s so much in this picture. It’s so much more than just a picture of two people.”
Rothkopf reaches into the pile of beautifully printed, large-format photographs on the table (“I only use the best paper in my printing.”) and pulls out a picture of a young girl—his daughter and his inspiration during all of her young life. “Now, I get that when most people look at this photo, they see a picture of a sweet, young girl. What I look for, and what I want them to see, is the rhythms and the flow of the light. It’s so beautiful and crazy. … I can’t even believe that I took it, in a way. That my eye could see this multitude of things going on just amazes me.”
A photo of downward-angled concrete steps catches my eye. It is a study in relationship topography. The railing’s shadow projected onto the wall, and the shadows of each descending step growing deeper and deeper, the eye drawn immediately to the shadow of a girl throwing her arms up in rapture, and then down to the unassailable darkness at the bottom of the steps. The contrast between the palpable joy of the girl and the unsettling world at the bottom of the stairs is only relieved by the airiness of the very bright, sunny day casting the shadows that make the photo so intriguing. Like a circular argument that can only prove itself in the absence of context, the photo draws the eye, over and over. “When I first saw this photo in the darkroom, the only title I could think of was ‘Clean.’ It just spoke of pure happiness.”
Mark Rothkopf has never taken the easy way, a fact which may explain his sometimes unsettling view of the world. “Art has to be hard,” he says. “It has to transcend the ordinary, because it wouldn’t have meaning if it weren’t hard.”