Art Abandoned, The Photography of Randy Lee Walker

A photographer, even one who doesn’t know he wants to be a photographer just yet, sees the world differently. And with that comes the challenge of capturing what you see as a photographer that others don’t. What is the process of making a compelling, revealing, and artful photographic image? That is the question that becomes an obsession and a creative challenge. Art photography is a passion and it can’t be ignored – until it is, as was the case with my mentor, my brother from another mother and my dear friend Randy Walker.

I met Randy Lee Walker in 1974. I was 22 years old and in three years I had finished the two year photography program at my community college. I was ready to be a photographer. I didn’t envision that it would be at Kmart but it was. I answered a want ad for photographers by a company doing baby pictures at department stores. Not the highest of prestige but I was a working photographer! There was a group of 12 or so of us. Ten hour days, travel for 2 weeks a month, and sharing motel rooms to save money kept us in a close social group. We were young 20 somethings working and playing together doing our best to figure out how to live.

I met Randy my first day of orientation. We both lived in San Francisco and every Monday had to check-in with our office in San Jose. So we became commute partners and fast friends. We loved great photography, and shared photographer heroes like Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Andres Kertesz, Jay Maisel, Moshe Brakha. Together we’d spend hours in galleries viewing exhibits trying to absorb what makes an image great. There were many late nights drinking scotch with endless talk of content and style of the masters, sharing our love for photography and ambitions to become real professionals.

Randy had studied fine art photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. He had done black & white printing for the well-known San Francisco photographer Imogene Cunningham as many Art Institute photography students would do. City College had given me a more technical and less creative education with broad skills and studio experience, but little of how to make my images personal and find a unique vision. Randy  thought about the art first and would always say that “there is no reason to do any more pictures of rocks and trees”. I learned to embrace seeing the world with new eyes.

Before I met him, Randy had served in the Vietnam war and lived in Hawaii for a while. He had an excellent portfolio of black & white photography from that time and had a solid start to his body of work. I was finding my art. So it was an exciting time of life.

We both left the baby photography company and searched for new jobs. Photography was the priority but making a living the necessity. We shared a flat, converted our dining room into a studio and our back porch became our dark room. For about six months we would take turns shooting, printing all night, and living photography.

I got a portrait studio job in San Jose. Randy had electrician’s training from the Navy and got a job at UCSF hospital on the electricians’ staff, joined the union and became a certified electrician. He was making good money and didn’t have a lot time for photography. We were still sharing the flat, along with his soon to be wife, when it became time for them to leave. After they moved I found a portfolio case full of his black & white photography left behind in the basement. I called him and we set up a time for him to come get the portfolio case, but he never showed.

That was in 1979. We never spoke again but I kept that portfolio case full of images for all these years. I think I knew his work needed to be seen, it could not be discarded even if Randy left his passion and love of seeing the world through his photographer’s eye behind in my basement. Randy was a complicated man, but I have never come to understand how he could leave such great images and never come back for them. Didn’t he know they are great? He had pondered, sorted and shown them countless times. What deep reason caused him to abandon this beauty and poetry that he revealed in his images. 

I recently had to move and needed to decide what to do with this portfolio case full of images again. I had searched to find news of Randy a few times before but with some help and timely luck, I discovered that Randy has sadly passed away very young in 2003. The opportunity to ask him why he abandoned his photography will never come.

So it is up to the viewer to look at his photography and make your own judgment as to the ‘why’ of it all, and see what you find of Randy Lee Walker and you reflected in these images…