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Laguna Beach

 Volume 11, Issue 99  | December 10, 2019

Magic visible: The wizardry behind Jeff Rovner’s stunning and mystical Fine Art Photography


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Last Thursday afternoon, at the monthly meeting of LOCA Arts Club, a crowd at LCAD Gallery waits to hear Jeff Rovner discuss The Fine Art Photography Experience, From the Inside Out, and how his life pursuits as magician, lawyer, and software designer affect his role as photographer. And judging by the capacity turnout, the audience is more than a little curious about the ins and outs of how he captures the “magic” and translates it into images both stunning and mystical. 

Before introducing Rovner, Betty Haight, Laguna Beach artist and member of the LOCA Arts Club, recounts her experience coming across his photographs for the first time. 

“His booth at the Festival of Arts last year stopped me in my tracks. I wondered, who is this person? I’d never seen anything like it,” she says of his photos of Le PeTiT CiRqUe performers. (Le PeTiT CiRqUe is an all-kids cirque troupe similar to Cirque du Soleil).

How Rovner came to speak at the LOCA is one story: how Rovner evolved into a Fine Art Photographer is a much longer story, woven together by the common thread of a self-proclaimed “fetish for organization” evident in all his endeavors.

After practicing law for 14 years, in 1996, Rovner made a career change to a field that came to be known as knowledge management, organizing vast quantities of information to make it accessible to the lawyers in his firm. Currently, Rovner is the Managing Director for Information at O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

This need for order appears to inform his photography as well. 

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Jeff Rovner explains his need for order

“The camera is my preferred tool to extract order, beauty and meaning from a chaotic world,” his website states.

As he begins his presentation, Rovner says, “I’m going to try to distract you with bright shiny objects,” and gestures toward his sixteen-year-old daughter, Haley, (his highest achievement, he says) sitting in the corner, dressed in her Cirque costume.

At the moment, however, no distractions are needed. All eyes are on Rovner as he plies the audience with a magic trick (he’s been performing magic since he was a boy) by blowing bubbles and, “abracadabra,” poof, one turns into a solid ball, and then just as quickly, disappears. 

“Every magic trick has two parts,” he says, “the effect and the method. If the effect is really awesome, it’s worth the time put in to get it.”

In a brilliant melding of talents, he says, “Photography brings the magic and the organization together. It’s worth all the work to achieve the effect, to isolate something out of chaos and distill it, finding a moment that can be told.” 

But what led him to photography in the first place? 

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A photo of Rovner photographing a LPC troupe member 

“When Haley was born, I started taking snapshots with an automatic camera, and I wanted to get better. I would get only one good one out of ten bad ones,” Rovner says. “Then one of my friends, Don Bonsey, who’s a photographer, told me that if I was going to get better photos, I needed to master my camera and be in charge.”

So, Rovner got a retro model Leica, which allowed him just that, to be in control. During the quest to refine his photos, he was influenced by the works of Henri Cartier Bresson (math/geometry of shooting), Brassai (night shooting), Annie Lebovitz (the addition of light), and William Mortensen, who said there’s a subliminal element of photo without the viewer knowing why.

Then came a valuable piece of advice from photographer and mentor Robert Hansen, who encouraged Rovner to find a product to work on, and a story to tell.

And as serendipity would have it, around that same time, Haley was mastering the hula-hoop and was asked to join Cirque. Rovner started taking photos, was fascinated by the performers, and eventually, got permission from the founder to take formal portraits (in the style of Irving Penn) of the individual troupe members. 

Based on the success of the portraits, he was given more access, and documented the kids at their rehearsals and shows, photographing each performer showing his or her unique skill. These Cirque Arts images and other portraits became the book, The Values of Le PeTiTe CiRqUe, which catalogs the troupe’s values, and what the performers endure to get where they are.

Rovner calls the book, “A labor of love.”

Soon after, he showed the book to a friend, Peter Morrison, who advised him, “Enter the portraits to be juried for the Festival of Arts.” 

“I resisted,” Rovner says, “but he insisted.” 

And the rest is history. 

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Haley captivates the audience with her hooping skills

Rovner says, “The Festival of Arts was a fantastic experience. I look forward to this summer. I’ll be returning with the circus theme.”

In response to a question about how he feels referring to himself as an artist, Rovner admits, “I’ve worn a lot of hats. The art hat is still a strange fit. But I’ll keep at it to make it a better fit.”

During Rovner’s presentation, Haley, the bright and shiny distraction he described earlier, treats the audience to a hooping performance, doing tricks that seem impossible. When asked by an audience member if she’d learned anything special from her dad’s magic, she says, “Work equals illusion and magic. And if someone asks how it works, I’m not going to explain.” 

Although the viewer never sees the method or hard work behind the illusion, perhaps we don’t want to, and only desire to be bewitched by the final product, whether it be a performance or a photograph.

The photographer Dorothea Lange once said, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”

And in these moments of stillness, Rovner captures the magic, over and over again.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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