—Helmut Gernsheim, one of the foremost scholars of the history of photography, and certainly the most notable
Randy Ehrlich was born in Brooklyn, New York way before it was trendy. At the age of eight, he started making Black and White photographs at summer camp in upstate New York. Soon after entering Long Island University, he discovered that he had a unique perspective of the world, a natural eye for composition, and met his Photography Mentor, Arthur Leipzig. Arthur, who was a member of the famous/infamous Photo League and an amazingly talented photographer in his own right, guided Randy and convinced him that he actually had a gift for naturally capturing images, and visually communicating in a unique and artful way. The love of the "magical" darkroom blossomed during his years at college, and Randy became proficient at photography. He spent many waking (and some non-waking) hours working as a photo-lab assistant.
After college, Randy packed up his VW Beetle, his two cats, his camera gear, and headed out west. When he left New York, there were about five photo galleries. Photography was just beginning to be recognized as a fine art. Upon arriving in the sleepy college town of Austin, Texas, he knew that he found a new home. At the time, Garry Winogrand was at the University of Texas Graduate Art Photography Department. Upon reviewing Randy’s work, his advice was “If you are going to teach, go to Graduate School…otherwise, just go out and do it”. Young Randy had no interest in teaching, as he was still learning. Young Randy went out and did it, doing commercial work, his art, and working in a custom black and white lab (at $2.25 per hour). It was a decision that would come back to haunt him years later, while seeking to teach College without a Master’s Degree, despite his extensive photography and teaching experience.
A few years later, he and Andy Sieverman founded Custom Photographic Labs in Austin. It was not only a high-quality custom photo lab with hand-processing, but a place for photographers to hang out, shoot the breeze, and connect with each other. For twenty years he co-owned the lab, and he became a Master black and white printer, often spending twelve to sixteen hours a day in the dark. He also enjoyed training employees at the lab, and when he was offered a teaching position at Austin Community College, he jumped at it. He taught color darkroom courses, in addition to black and white classes, under photography legend Mr.Lynn Jones, and remained there for six years. While he was at ACC, he was offered employment at St Stephens Episcopal School, where a brand new Fine Arts Center was just completed. Creating the space and designing the photography program (including initiating a Digital Imaging class) was rewarding, and after a promotion to full-time there (where he also documented and coordinated all of the private boarding school’s commercial and public relations photography needs), he received “Teacher of the Year” honors. Randy enjoys teaching photography, and like Arthur Leipzig and Lynn Jones, he imparted his experience and wisdom as it applies to each individual’s personal style. His love of all things photographic shines through in his teaching, and he is proud that many of his students have pursued a photography career. During this period he worked three photography-related “day jobs” while continuing to pursue his fine-art career. For years, he held a summer enrichment day camp for teens.
His son, Julian Ehrlich, was born in 1989, and Randy became a single dad several years later. Julian is now a talented, emerging photographer in his own right. His deceased maternal grandfather, Len Kovars, was an internationally acclaimed Commercial Photographer, who photographed for Playboy, Nestles, and other international clients in the 1960s and 1970s.
After leaving St Stephens, Randy resurrected and designed the Austin’s Dougherty Art Center’s Adult Photography Program, teaching Darkroom classes, as well as their first Digital Imaging Classes. His love for introducing photography to the community kept him there for many years. He had shorter stints at Laguna Gloria Art Museum, St Edward’s University, and the George Washington Carver Museum (teaching eight to eleven year olds), all inhis adopted hometown of Austin.
Randy was active in a blossoming art scene in sleepy Austin, as it was about to become a much larger city. He volunteered extensively, helping found the Austin Visual Arts Association, the Texas Photographic Society, and being a driving force in the early years of the Book of Days competition, exhibit, and book. Custom Photographic Labs was also helpful in the community co-sponsoring art exhibits with Laguna Gloria Museum, TPS, AVAA, and supporting the fledgling Austin Chronicle and Third Coast Magazine. Ehrlich was represented by AIR Gallery for many years, from its days on a sleazy (mostly affordable artists’ lofts and dive bars) East Sixth Street to its more upscale location in Republic Plaza, and beyond.
Randy's first ten years as a photographic artist was spent making beautiful Black and White enlargements of work that he refers to as "ironic juxtapositions in a photo-documentary style". Yes, Randy went to Woodstock (and worried his mother to no end...he forgot his cell phone to check in), and although he didn't document the festival, shortly after he started his first "series". It was on music festivals, and would go on for years. Three images from Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic and Austin's Eeyore's Birthday Party are included in the Austin History Center's Permanent Collection. Additional black and white series include environmental portraits and a series of formal nudes that explore the subtle highlight tones of black and white prints, which have been referred to as pencil-drawing like images on a silver gelatin medium.
His entrance into the world of color photography began with a fascination of Polaroid SX-70. He purchased a “professional”, black
Polaroid SLR from Precision Camera in Austin, and under a program sponsored by Polaroid, was able to send back prints that were not to his liking for any reason. For every ten prints that he shipped back, he received a free pack of new SX-70 film. Spending so much time in the darkroom as a custom lab technician, he jumped at the opportunity to watch his images appear in front of his eyes, in broad daylight. Ehrlich matted and framed these prints, and exhibited them as one-of-a-kind “jewel-like” works of art. The work was primarily abstractions, as his black and white vision had been heading in that direction. His college degree was in psychology, and he saw these images as being like a Rorschach Test. He’d listen to viewers conversations at his art openings, and would often say that the impressions that the viewer takes away from his art, says as much about them, as it does about his pieces. He refused to title the works, stating that he didn’t want to influence the viewer with preconceived notions. The irony, he would say, is that most people saw exactly what he saw in them. He continued with this presentation style for a couple of years, and then decided that large prints would have more impact and much more detail to explore. Returning to conventional film (64 ISO Kodachrome) would keep the images sharp, as well.
The work that he is most well-known for is a series of abstract expressionist color photographs that are named the “PainterlyAbstraction” Series. That name was coined by his long-time art dealer/rep Chuck Cooper for a solo exhibition at AIR Gallery in Austin. For Randy’s description of this body of work, you can go to the “artist’s statement” on this website.There are approximately 200 images in this series that have been ruthlessly edited down from many, many more. Ehrlich believes that editing is a skill and an extremely critical element in the final presentation of one’s work. Additionally, he professes that objectivity in viewing your own images is crucial. In fact, it was a collaboration with Chuck Cooper and a Houston Art Gallery during Houston Fotofest, that led to Helmut Gernsheim discovering Randy's work, and purchasing many pieces for his Gernsheim Contemporary Collection year after year. Mr Gernsheim was a big fan and promoter of the large abstract series. He gave Ehrlich his first exposure to the international art scene, and became a mentor to Ehrlich. The advice that he offered and the perspective that only a man of his stature could impart was invaluable. Professor Gernsheim saw Ehrlich's work as timeless and unique, and advised Randy to keep doing what feels right. He stated to him that trends come and go, so never worry about that aspect of his art.
Randy also has an ongoing "Motion" series that is a portrayal of formal figures (originally modern dancers) in motion, suggesting other timeless scenes, and interpreted through 35mm still color and black and white photography. The concept involves capturing the exact instant that stillness becomes movement.
Although, an early adaptor to digital imaging and Photoshop, Randy believes that the moments prior to, and the instant that you press the shutter are the most creative. “That’s the difference between Photography, and Graphic Arts” he said. He believes that controlling the image in the camera is where the magic is, and will use software primarily for contrast and brightness control. He prints everything full frame, not cropping his image, and when he takes the photo, he can envision what the final print will look like at the final enlarged size, as well as the characteristics of the medium that it is presented. He has been creating both commercial and serious artwork with his Digital SLR in recent years, but has yet to do a final edit and present his digital work as fine art. You can find him on Instagram, but that only includes cellphone photos, taken purely for fun (at least, for now).
In 2011 family matters took him to South Florida, where he has been living ever since. The new environment and the different natural light has stimulated his visual senses, and, in turn, his creativity. It took a while to discover, but he is most impressed with, and excited about, the thriving international art scene, from Art Basil Miami Beach to the quality museums and galleries up and down the coast.