In the mid-1970s, American photographer Les Krims, known for his pioneer satirical mise-en-scènes, created an intriguing series of photos of robots, exhibited today for the first time in 40 years.
In the summer of 1974, while teaching a workshop for Japanese master Eikoe Hosoe‘s Tokyo School of Photography, Les Krims became fascinated by the animated cartoons and popular Transformer toys, or robots, that had not yet made their appearance in the United States. The series, “Uranium Robots,” was the result of two robot suit-building contests assigned by Krims to his students at SUNY, Buffalo. The competition offered “generous cash prices” for fabricating a wearable robot suit. Krims provided the idea, the space in which to photograph, and the conceptual method for making photographs. Each student had to fabricate their interpretation. The entrants wore their respective robot suits and stood in the same corner of the room, and Krims documented the entrants using an 8x10 inch camera, and the resulting vintage contact prints were developed on either Portriga Rapid or Kodalith Ortho paper. An otherworldly space invader trapped in a quotidian classroom.
Blind spoke to Les Krims about the making of his “Uranium Robots” series.
What do these robots represent?
Each robot represents an individual student's idea of a robot suit circa 1976.
Could you tell which materials were used to build the robot-suits?
The suits were made from cardboard, tinfoil, plastic, paint, electronic parts, caulking, odds & ends, frogs, snails, and puppy dog tails, etc. One student, who worked for a heating/plumbing company, fabricated his suit from galvanized steel ducting material and Christmas lights. The galvanized suit was one of the winners. I bought the suit, and had it in my home for many years. The jpeg attached was another winner.
Is there a behind-the-scenes story?
My photography class at Buffalo State College functioned as a repertoire company in those years. We'd all work together to fabricate and photograph pictures. The suits were fabricated by the contestants (not all were students) outside of class. I never saw that process. The "Uranium" part of the title came from my initial plan to tone the prints (I often toned my prints using Selenium) with a 19th Century toner concoction made from Uranyl nitrate. I abandoned this as being too dangerous, but kept the title in keeping with the unfortunate history in Japan of radioactivity and its consequences.
Why did you photograph your students wearing the suits in the same corner?
The room was a disused faculty lounge. It was large, and had a wall of windows (natural light), which provided a view of the campus's Soviet-style architecture and a parking lot. What better place to make photographs of funky, plebeian, robots. A photograph of a memorable robot suit, simply presented, was the goal—that and the experience of the process of getting there.
What happened to the robot-suits?
Once a picture was made of a contestant wearing the suit, the person undressed, so to speak, and left the building carrying their suit. Beyond the one tin man robot I purchased, I have no idea what became of the others.
Interview by Jonas Cuénin
Les Krims, Uranium Robots
An online exhibition at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, CA
October 31, 2020 to January 2, 2021
See the online show here.