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Collection Spotlight: Robert Stiegler

November 16, 2015
still from Capitulation (1965)

We received the film work of Chicago photographer Robert Stiegler earlier this year, and while we already put a few of his major titles streaming online, I wanted to put a brief spotlight on him and his work, which includes some fantastic, experimental depictions of Chicago in the 1960s.

Robert Stiegler was born in Chicago in 1938 and received a bachelor’s degree in 1960 and a master’s in 1970 from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He served in the army in Germany, worked for photographer-filmmaker Vince Maselli and the design firm Morton Goldsholl Associates, and in 1966, started teaching at the University of Illinois Chicago, where he would continue to work until he passed away in 1990. Robert was instrumental in the development of the school’s photography department and the New Works gallery, a vital part of the MFA photography program.

From 1967-1969, Robert and his friend Larry Janiak ran a film and photography workshop in a large loft space in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, which attracted a large variety of local and visiting artists—including Mike Kuchar, David Katzive, Jon Jost, Red Grooms, Ron Nameth, Kurt Heyl, Peter Kuttner, Peter Kubelka, Strom de Hirsch, Jonas Mekas, and the filmmakers of the Chicago Newsreel film group—who participated in numerous informal film screenings and discussions.

Today, Robert’s work resides in a variety of collections, both public and private, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the George Eastman House, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the University of Illinois Chicago.

Of the total films donated to CFA by Robert’s wife, Anita David, we have four completed works available for streaming on our Robert Stiegler finding aid, listed below with notes from Robert himself.

Traffic (circa 1960)

“An investigation of what a motion picture camera can do in the hands of a good driver”

Capitulation (1965)

“A guided voyage through a negative world. A subjective view of the world and self”

Licht Spiel Nur I (circa 1967)

“Abstracted footage shot with a camera, each frame time-exposed to create different light qualities. Cutting was based on a musical form much like a Bach fugue. The film contains both real and synthesized color.”

Full Circle (1968)

“A contemporary Koan. A series of highs, encompassing people: waiting for the bus, laying tiles at Swami’s house, celebrating a Spring Be-in and children smiling.”

On display in these films is Robert’s interest in discovering alternate ways of looking at the world in motion through the specific medium of film. At the beginning of Capitulation, he inverts the black and white film into negative, transforming a snowy landscape into a strange and alien planet. Later in the film, Robert heads to downtown Chicago, filming the crowds walking by and editing them into a frenzy of shuffling, slight glances, and the occasional wave. Long exposures, time lapses, and superimpositions abound, as he experiments with disrupting the regular motion of our busy modern society in continually new and fascinating ways.

Chicago is again the subject at the beginning of Full Circle, as Robert films moving through the Loop with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” on the soundtrack. But Robert is not content to remain there, and as the film progresses, it encompasses a variety of found footage (including cartoons and celebrity photographs) and audio, as well as documentary footage of a lakeside Be-in and housework. It ends with children playing and smiling to the tunes of the Beatles.

A personal favorite is Licht Spiel Nur I (literally “Light Play”), in which Robert combines still images of light in motion in rapid succession, creating an entangled mass of color and line that dances on screen. While it looks especially spectacular in motion, we were also struck by how dazzling the frames looked on the bench.

Licht Spiel

Along with Robert’s films we also acquired his large collection of ¼” audio reels, and with a grant from Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), we’ll be processing them in the coming months. Among the tantalizing titles include labels that say “Whitehouse Jazz Concert 1978,” “Studs Terkel,” and a series of readings from a PFC A.J. Osborne. We’re looking forward to seeing what insight they’ll provide to Robert’s art and life.

We still have many more of Robert’s films we’re still processing and working to get online, but their cans are already promising more great work to explore and share.



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