A Cartographer's Pastel Dream: An Interview With Artist and Photographer Ward Roberts

The pastel color palette is so unforgiving, because it connotes a sense of false security. It is a palette that is rare in nature, but bathed in artificial nostalgia. It is a painterly color that harkens the horror of the Easter bunny and super market birthday cake. This is where New York-based artist and photographer Ward Roberts, who has two shows of separate series opening concurrently this evening in Los Angeles and Dallas, comes startlingly into the picture with a splash of postmodern angst. In his ‘Courts’ series, muted pastel portraits of lonely and seemingly deserted tennis and basketball courts are like archives of lost civilizations that give the sense of a mass extinction. Not a single soul in sight – just looming apartment blocks, labrynthian stairways, and a beautiful forever, and nowhere, extending miles from the periphery of the photograph’s frame. In his Cartography series, Roberts’ faded pastel chiaroscuro portraits of people seem like the last photographic proof of those lost inhabitants. Perhaps Ward Roberts is trying to tell us something. Ward, who grew up partly in Hong Kong, spent much of early childhood on the very same courts he would photograph later in later in life. And it was on those courts that Autre snapped a few portraits of the artist for this interview. Not only does Ward have two solo shows opening tonight, he is also busy finalizing the second book featuring his Courts series – it is scheduled to debut this June to coincide with the US open. In the following interview, we chat with Roberts about the meaning of life, growing up in Hong Kong and his fondness for synchronized swimming.

Autre: Your work very much deals with the finiteness, ephemerality, loneliness – does this reflect your personality or are making a statement about present existence in general? 

Ward Roberts: I’m simply interested in the state of loneliness - or how reacts to being alone - so I only shoot what feels pure. I’m interested in exploring how increasingly emotionally detached we are and how we experience emotion through technology.

Autre: You use words like excavation and catalyst to describe your cartography series; do you look at photography like a scientific or anthropological experiment rather than an artistic medium? 

Roberts: There are so many components to my process in shooting film. I don’t view myself as a photographer. While the medium itself offers me elements of spontaneity, nothing I create is accidental. I’d say I’m in interested in sociology, human interactions and reactions. 

Autre: What was it like growing up in Hong Kong and how did it inspire your work? 

Roberts: Hong Kong made me curious. Curiosity is at the core of everything I do. I was rushed out of Hong Kong quickly due to a family separation so returning to the courts I loved as a child was somewhat healing. Through reconnecting with that part of my childhood I suddenly found new appreciation for the stillness and aesthetic beauty of them. 

Autre: When you were younger, did you remember wanting to capture the courts you were playing on, or did the concept for the series come later? 

Roberts: I left Hong Kong when I was 8 years old so the desire to capture courts came later in life. I definitely remember the thrill of connecting to the first court I photographed – a court in Hong Kong. It just felt right.

Autre: Who were some of your photographic inspirations – were your parents’ artists and did you have access to art museums or galleries growing up? 

Roberts: Massimo Vitali and Joseph Schulz. My parents are very cultured, well-traveled people. We rarely spoke directly about art.  My father was a pilot and documented his travels with photography extensively and my mother was really open to me trying everything from hockey and tennis to  horse riding, gymnastics and I think she even suggested ballet at one stage. There was a huge emphasis on sport every Saturday.  

Autre: You have traveled all over the world capturing various courts, what country has the most beautiful and for what sport? 

Roberts: Basketball courts in Hong Kong, most definitely.

Autre: Do you play sports or would you consider yourself athletic – an art jock?

Roberts: I don’t play sport as much as I’d like to. In NYC sport is a bit of a luxury - you require a health club pass or to be on a team. I ride everywhere on my bike however so I guess that keeps me fit. 

Autre: Your courts display a sort of a feeling of modern isolation, but the pastel colors and hue are actually quite happy – obviously there are a lot of bland courts out there (typical asphalt and green), do you spend a lot of time seeking the most colorful?  

Roberts: I've been shooting courts since 2007 so at this point I've amassed a tightly curated selection and am currently reviewing a larger archive of unreleased courts with the thought of including some in an upcoming book project and limited-edition poster series launching in June in the U.S.  Some of the unreleased courts aren’t particularly vibrant or happy. I do aesthetically favor the more colorful courts, but I’ve invested a greater amount of time seeking out and capturing more courts that I suppose you could say are somewhat dull.

Autre: Are there any countries you haven’t visited yet, but have heard have beautiful courts – do people tip you off? 

Roberts: Nobody tips me off - yet - but I’ve seen some images of Singapore courts that look incredible.  

Autre: Is there any particular itinerary or preparedness before you venture off to shoot and do you shoot alone or with a team? 

Roberts: In the early days it was always very impromptu: I’d have my camera and literally play MTR (train system) lucky dip in Hong Kong. Over the years I’ve had to become more strategic with my time however so I usually venture out alone to explore or on occasion a friend will accompany me. 

Autre: A lot of artists find their color, but you have sort of found a family of colors under the pastel umbrella – did this journey take you a long time? 

Roberts: All of my work is connected through color and you could say that’s essentially what I’m seeking when I shoot but I wouldn’t say I’ve found anything concrete or a particular color way that is integral to having me photograph a location or space. Courts are public spaces, so there is always an element of no control in some respect. 

On the other hand, with Cartography, a separate body of work I’ve been developing over the past years, I really enjoy creating saturated neon colors for each of the portraits so you could say through that I’m definitely evolving my pastel palette. In a way the Courts palette has transcended to saturated and monochromatic in Cartography. 

Autre: What is your favorite sport?                                 

Synchronized swimming is always interesting to watch. To play however, I like Tennis.

Ward Roberts 'Cartography' series will be debut tonight at Ten Over Six, 8425 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. His 'Courts' series will be on view for eight weeks starting tonight at Ten Over Six at the Joule Hotel, 1530, Main Street, Dallas, Texas. Roberts will also be a part of the Saatchi Fresh Faces exhibition, which will be on view from March 24 to May 13 at 1655 26th Street, Los Angeles, California. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. photographs by Jason Capobianco