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Donald Robinson





Don Robinson is a left-brain/right-brain enigma. The consummate businessman, he co-founded the White Cross discount drug chain in the 1950s; sold it to Revco in 1973; then partnered in a group of diverse business interests including Gateway Travel Management and property development. But get him talking about his passion of the past 50 years, photography, and he’s every bit the artist. He is, proudly, both. And last month, the 79-year-old Robinson opened his latest exhibition of the beautiful and the exotic, In Harmony With Nature, at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. One of the photos from the exhibition graces the cover of this issue of Carnegie magazine.

When did photography become a big part of your life?
At 13 years old, I had a darkroom in the basement where I would develop black-and-white photographs. I went into the Navy during World War II, went on to Harvard Business School, and when I came out I got very busy building a business—so I would only spend time on photography when my business allowed.

But in 1987 I came to a crossroads of sorts. I was getting older
and decided that I wanted to really achieve something photographically. So I devoted much more time to it, studying a lot, and traveling throughout the world.

Did you ever want to become a professional photographer?
No, because I’ve had the freedom to do what I wanted. I was always more interested in exhibiting my work than selling it or working on assignment.

Were you inspired by other photographers?
I’ve learned a lot from other photographers—probably Ansel Adams more than anybody. His sense of composition was great, and he was a realistic photographer, like I am. I’m not abstract. What you see in my images is what I saw.

I really enjoy interpreting what I see and trying to bring it alive again through photographs. In fact, I can look at any photograph in this exhibit and remember exactly how it was taken—where I was and what was happening at that moment.

Is it possible to pick a favorite?
It’s difficult…but there are some images that are just so unique.
There’s an image that I took in Antarctica—it was in the summer, when it never gets completely dark, and when the sun goes down and then starts coming up again, everything turns golden. It’s beautiful, and that’s what I was able to capture.

Another truly unique image is the leopard and her cub. Just to photograph a leopard in Africa is extremely difficult. But to find one with a cub licking the mother’s ears is pretty unbelievable.

Do you have a preference for photographing people or landscapes?
It’s interesting…I used to do a lot of people and enjoyed it. I remember when I went to New Guinea, up to the highlands to see what the natives call a ‘sing sing,’ when they come down from the hills with their faces painted or full of mud. These are a people who were only ‘discovered’ 20-30 years ago! I found a young girl who could speak a little English and told her I’d like to photograph them. So I set up a chair, and they actually stood in line to let me photograph them. I really enjoyed that.

But now I seem to enjoy working more on landscapes. I just moved on. And I choose themes now; for instance, for the last year and a half it’s been orchids. That seems to work bettter for me now—choosing a theme and concentrating just on that.

Is there any part of the world that’s your favorite to shoot?
Antarctica. It’s the most beautiful, pristine, untouched landscape you’re ever going to find. It’s spectacular.

How about in the United States?
I love shooting out West. But I’ve also done a lot of work in western Pennsylvania. I knew people often said, “Well, this guy can afford to go to places like Antarctica and take great photographs!” In shooting here, I took the position that there’s plenty of natural beauty right in our own backyard. And I tried to prove it.

In your many interactions with animals, are there any that stand out?
Penguins. They have no fear of man; their only enemies are in the sea. So when you’re on the ice with them, they’ll come up and pick at your leg and walk all around you. And they form such interesting groups…I could just photograph them all day.

You say photography is a calming force. Has it changed you?
I’m much more conscious of beauty in the world than I was before. I look all the time—wherever I am, I’m looking for photographs, I’m looking for natural beauty. And that’s calming. It slows you down and forces you to really look, which most people don’t do.

I can remember standing at the Grand Canyon, waiting for the light to change. People were jumping out of cars…they would go up to the rim, take a few pictures, then leave…and they hadn’t seen the Canyon at all.

But I was still there, waiting for sunset, really looking.

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