Portrait of an Artist: Jim Robb Inspires the Next Generation of Storytellers
I always opt for colour over black and white when it comes to processing my photographs. Why? Because I believe colour in a photograph gives it life, contributes to composition, and overall just offers a more powerful experience.
That was before I became friends with the artist Jim Robb.
Jim Robb is a Yukoner well known for his Colourful Five Per Cent depictions of memorable Yukon characters. When northerners think of Robb they immediately think of the art that has made him famous, and of the man who some consider to be a colourful five percent character himself.
Robb, who just recently turned 84, is a staple of the Whitehorse scene, often found lounging in the Gold Pan Saloon sipping on a half-coffee half-water (a drink now adorning his name in the restaurant’s menu). I’d been a fan of his since moving to the Yukon, so after returning to my hobby of portrait and documentary photography I immediately thought of Jim as I searched for portrait subjects to practice on.
I set my nerves aside and approached Jim one night after I saw him exiting the Gold Pan Saloon. As he entered the street I stopped him in his tracks and timidly introduced myself as a new local photographer. I asked if I could take his portrait sometime, and his response was a brisk “yes, but who are you and why”. I curtailed my response so as not to lose his interest, and simply stated that I wanted to capture one of the territory’s most treasured residents. He said to call him sometime, and so I did. What happened next was an enlightening experience. What I thought would be a quick photo shoot ended up being so much more than that - for one, I processed my very first black and white photographs.
As it turned out, my fateful friendship with Jim Robb had a unique story waiting to be told. From the first moment I began working with Jim I knew there was a lot more to him than meets the eye, and as a new artist I quickly realized I had much to learn from one of the Yukon’s greats. One portrait session turned into four, and the next thing I knew Jim and I had unexpectedly struck up a budding friendship and artistic collaboration. Jim had taken me under his artistic wing, and revealed a side of himself that a lot of the public doesn’t usually get a chance to see. I’d originally set out to take a single portrait of Jim Robb, but ended up with a much bigger story to tell.
Through getting to know Jim, I’ve learned that collaboration and storytelling are at the heart of his art. From the hundreds of people he’s photographed and illustrated, co-wrote with, or curated their artwork, Jim has partnered with other storytellers in order to preserve the Yukon’s special history. I learned that Jim has dedicated his entire life in the Yukon to telling the stories of the territory’s quirkiest characters and disappearing landscapes. I also learned that he himself is one of the great stories waiting to be told.
Over coffee and donuts at Tim Hortons, photo shoots in his studio, Saturday brunches, and visits to his dear friend Dick Stevenson of the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail, I grew as an artist and was able to learn and capture Jim’s own unique story. Jim taught me how to hone my composition and about the importance of finding the perfect pose for a portrait subject. He’d eagerly study the composition of his portrait in my camera’s viewfinder, or the lighting on some artifacts, then suggest I shoot again – and he was always right.
Jim has the natural passion, focus and drive that makes an artist great, but what many don’t know is he devotes this same energy to his second passion – collecting and preserving Yukon artifacts. Jim has one of the territory’s largest collections, such as letters written by Klondike ladies, rare mining maps, and pre-1915 Yukon postcards and newspapers. When asked what he’ll do with the collection, he says much of it will end up in the Yukon Archives. He hopes it will inspire younger people who share a similar interest in history to continue his work portraying the people he coined the Colourful Five Per Cent.
Jim says he came up to the Yukon at twenty-two years old and quickly became determined to make a living as an artist. There were times he had five dollars left to his name, and spent it on paying a portrait subject. As the story goes, Jim saw Wigwam Harry dancing his one-of-a-kind jig in the bar one night and asked himself “why isn’t anyone capturing his story?”. Jim’s painting of Wigwam Harry went on to become his first public work, and the rest is history.
I’m glad I approached Jim that night in the street, because as it turns out, maybe I’m that youth Jim wants to inspire to continue his legacy. Not only did I find a new found love for processing black and whites, but I’ve found a new friend, collaborator, and a damn good story.