April 24 marked Sag Harbor’s second consecutive spring day, and Duncan Darrow and Nancy Greenberg were thinking of Ken Robbins.
They could easily imagine him setting out into the forest, or pacing the beach, or trekking through the wetlands — camera by his side — his dark, penetrating eyes seeking serenity and staggering beauty, as captured by his lens.
What Ansel Adams was to Yosemite National Park, Ken Robbins was to the East End, his friends explained. He had a presence, they said, the photographer standing just under 6 feet tall with a bushy beard.
“You saw the guy and thought you were looking at a former NFL football player. He was a big, strong fella,” Darrow recalled with a laugh. “When you start talking to him, this gentleness comes through. Like talking to an NFL linebacker …”
“Who was a teddy bear,” Greenberg interjected.
“Yes,” Darrow said. “A teddy bear is probably a good way to refer to him.”
After four decades of photographing the wildlife, landscape and people of the East End, Robbins died at home in Springs on March 9, 2017. He was 71 years old — and, despite publishing several books and showing in galleries and museums, he never had the retrospective he deserved, according to Darrow.
He’s seeking to correct that, with the help of his organization, Fighting Chance — the oldest and largest free cancer-counseling center in the United States, providing psycho-oncology care to patients and their families — and the public.
“I felt he should have had a bigger send-off. This major talent among the East End artists disappeared a little too rapidly,” Darrow said. “To some extent, I suppose this is giving him the retrospective that he didn’t get.”
In conjunction with this weekend’s Cultural Heritage Festival, four Main Street galleries — Grenning Gallery, Tulla Booth Gallery, Keyes Gallery and Sara Nightingale Gallery — will anchor a walking tour and 75-photo retrospective of Robbins’ work, joined by John Jermain Memorial Library and Fighting Chance in Sag Harbor, as well as Kathryn Markel Gallery in Bridgehampton.
On May 6, any remaining work that does not sell will move to the Spur’s locations in Southampton and East Hampton, according to Greenberg, a certified cancer patient navigator with Fighting Chance, the beneficiary of all proceeds.
“His work is astoundingly beautiful,” she said. “He had to be sitting there waiting for the right moment and he had to have patience, because some of these shots capture an instant that is perfect. You can tell some of these things were very premeditated. He knew where he was going, he knew the baymen, he knew the area, he knew the locales and he treasured it. He really did, and it shows in the work. And a lot of the work we’re showing, most of us have never seen before.”
This past winter, Darrow found himself seated across from the late photographer’s cousin, Peter Robbins, and a box packed with original prints. Flipping through them, each image was more breathtaking than the last, he said — and they were all for Robbins alone, never an audience.
“These were the master prints of his favorite works, which he had saved,” Darrow said. “I said, ‘Not only is this valuable, but it’s a real piece of archival history. How much more of this do you have?’ and Peter said, ‘I’ve got a lot of boxes.’ When I saw the full extent of his archive — all of which we were welcome to put in the retrospective — it was almost discovering a sunken treasure.”
Enlisting the help of Kathryn Markel, Arlene Bujese and Elena Glinn Prohaska, they pored over the boxes, reviewing nearly 1,000 photographs before narrowing them down to 75, which they divvied up between the galleries and local venues as the idea for a walking tour took shape.
“These images are so iconic,” Greenberg said. “You look at every one and it’s like you feel the time of day, you feel like you’re there.”
The sense of place Robbins created is precisely why Darrow, a longtime collector, decided to display his photography around the Fighting Chance clinic years ago, he said.
“The goal of our office is to create serenity for patients who are coming in traumatized, trying to find some peace of mind, as cancer swirls all around them,” he said. “The décor and the atmosphere are important, and many of the pictures on our walls are Ken’s work of Mother Nature.”
While the photos are unarguably soothing, they represent more than that, as pointed out by one particular Fighting Chance patient.
“‘If you want to get through this thing,” she said to Darrow, “you’re going to have to find a higher being.”
“What’s your higher being?” he asked her.
“Mother Nature,” she said.
“That always struck me,” Darrow said. “People would leave our office after a counseling session, hopefully feeling more optimistic and they’d go right to the beach, or they’d go right to a bench somewhere, looking out on nature. That was their way of then connecting with something that was bigger than themselves. I think when we talk about spirituality with our patients — and they all want to talk about it — a lot of them find that in Mother Nature.”
And, hopefully, on the walls of Fighting Chance, he said, where Robbins lives on.
“It’s the second beautiful spring day in a row, it’s just spectacular,” Darrow sighed. “It’s crisp and clear, and Ken, I’m sure, were he around, would figure out, ‘Well, where is it going to be most beautiful today? Where is spring going to sing the clearest? That’s where I want to be, and take a picture of that.’”
A gallery walking tour, featuring a Ken Robbins photography retrospective, will be held on Saturday and Sunday, May 4 and 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at various galleries on Main Street in Sag Harbor, including Grenning Gallery, Tulla Booth Gallery, Keyes Gallery and Sara Nightingale Gallery, as well as Kathryn Markel Gallery in Bridgehampton.
John Jermain Memorial Library and Fighting Chance in Sag Harbor will also display a selection, with the remaining work on view at The Spur in Southampton and East Hampton from May 6 to 31.
All proceeds will benefit Fighting Chance. For more information, call (631) 725-4646 or visit fightingchance.org.