To look at Robby Cavanaugh’s photography is to see the portrait of a man fighting an inner war waged since his childhood.
Beyond the fantastical content of each frame, the recent Cal Poly Pomona alumnus of graphic design’s attention to dark and colder color tones add to the already surreal and dreamlike quality of his work.
“All of my pieces have a story about who I am or how I interpret things,” said Cavanaugh at a Jan. 31 reception for his photography, which is on display in the Bronco Student Center. “I had a lot of anxiety growing up [and] when I was a child, I had this weird fear of not being able to escape.”
Perhaps it goes without saying that Cavanaugh’s struggle with anxiety permeated his everyday life. Cavanaugh said even watching a movie in a theater would trigger an episode because, as he put it, “that’s two hours when [he] couldn’t escape.”
Interestingly, Cavanaugh seems to expertly exploit the use of a photographic phenomenon called a “vignette.”
The effect manifests itself as a curved shadow in each of a photograph’s four corners, giving the rest of the photograph a somewhat rounded appearance — as if one were looking at the scene through a spyglass.
The effect is often used by photographers to draw the viewer’s focus toward the center of the photograph, but in Cavanaugh’s work, it is almost as if the use of a vignette does more than draw us into the photograph — in a way, we are drawn into “a place of conflict” in his life.
“I’m creating work where I can have closure,” said Cavanaugh. “I’ll go to those places [of conflict] that I would like to portray or show the world, and that’s what I create.”
Through photography, the seemingly modest and humble photographer finds not only an escape, but also a way to confront his fears.
He does so in one such photograph titled “The Fleeter’s Find,” where a woman on the shoreline of a beach – encompassed by a tight vignette – thrusts her head backward as she grips the knob of a white, freestanding door.
“The door … symbolizes that I always have a way to escape no matter where I go,” said Cavanaugh.
For a fine art photographer whose work was featured in Vogue Italia’s October 2011 issue, it might be surprising to realize that Cavanaugh began shooting only three years ago.
“We saw some signs in high school,” said Cavanaugh’s father, Robert, about his son’s artistic capability. “He was doing drawings of whatever came to his mind. Over time, I think that just developed into photography, where he can have a lot more flexibility in what he does.”
Cavanaugh’s mother, Annemarie, light-heartedly attributed Cavanaugh’s talent to biology.
“He just got the art gene,” she said, adding that although she “doodles” a bit, Cavanaugh’s grandfather is a landscape photographer. “He started playing around with [photography] by doing some portraits, and then it developed into fine art where it was just more surreal and fantasy images … It’s not like he’ll just come up with an idea; he kind of keeps it to himself until he has it all figured out.”
For as visually stunning and imaginative as Cavanaugh’s photographs may seem, he said editing software such as Adobe’s Photoshop is used only to assist his creative process.
If anything, Cavanaugh said he takes several images of a scene and merges them together.
The resulting image is called a composite, but the process to create it is a technique some photographers have utilized for nearly 100 years — well before the advent of digital photography.
In “The Fleeter’s Find,” Cavanaugh said, the final image is a composite of two photographs of one scene: The model with the door and a small flock of seagulls that he waited to come into frame.
“Everything should be done in-scene,” said Cavanaugh. “Photoshop should enhance your work, not create it.”
So where will this up-and-coming artist go now?
Cavanaugh said aside from his hope to be recognized by galleries one day, he would like to give his photography one more year to develop before he publishes a book.
If he has a say in it, Cavanaugh said he would also like to teach photography workshops one day to help inspire other aspiring photographers.
For more information about Cavanaugh and his work — or to purchase a limited-edition print — visit robbycavanaugh.com or flickr.com/photos/robby_cavanaugh