Ken Robbins, Noted Photographer

Sept. 18, 1945 - March 09, 2017
Ken Robbins, Sept. 18, 1945 - March 09, 2017

Ken Robbins, a photographer who captured the landscape, wildlife, and people of the East End for four decades, died at home in Springs on March 9. He was 71 and had had diabetes for several years.

Mr. Robbins’s work developed over the years from black-and-white studio portraits to experiments in hand-tinting, which created a painterly quality. In recent years, he often manipulated images digitally to suggest the eerie stillness of paintings by Magritte and Hopper.

His landscapes and seascapes varied between relatively straightforward images whose power derived from dramatic lighting and turbulent skies and others that acquired a surreal quality through juxtaposition. Many incorporate the moon, with a brightness and clarity that contrast with an often darker setting. In one, a white egret takes flight against a darkening Accabonac Harbor with a sliver of moon overhead.

Mr. Robbins sometimes paired images to droll effect. In “Lunar Locator,” stars are configured into a large arrow that points to the moon. In “Leaf Pointer,” its companion piece, the same arrow points at a leaf hovering in the night sky. “Sunglasses,” in which the object’s shadow is distended, would be a dramatic still life in its own right, but the dual reflections of the sun in the lenses’ shadows adds another dimension. It also has a companion piece, “Moonglasses.”

While the landscape figures prominently in Mr. Robbins’s work, he also brought his sensibility to bear on still lifes, buildings, nudes, streetscapes, and even a crowded, bustling kitchen in Wiscasset, Me. In “Louse Pointillist,” pixilation brings a touch of Seurat to a view of a sailboat. His work was said to have been marked by restless inventiveness. In a review in The Star in 2006, Robert Long wrote, “Mr. Robbins has always been one to extend on traditional means.”

Kenneth Alan Robbins was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 18, 1945, to Joseph Robbins and the former Sadie Gonikman. He was raised in West Orange, N.J., and earned a B.A. from Cornell University. His first job was as an editor at Doubleday, the Manhattan publishing house, where he met his future wife, Maria Polushkin, who survives. Editing the work of several notable photographers led to his interest in the art.

The couple moved to East Hampton in the early 1970s and founded the Old Post Office Cinema, an art house movie theater on Newtown Lane. He launched his career as a photographer in earnest in a darkroom above the theater.

Over the years, his work was shown in galleries, such as the Pamela Williams Gallery here, in museums, such as the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, and monographs, including “100 Views of the Hamptons.” It also appeared on book jackets, record album covers, and in magazines. He also wrote and illustrated 23 children’s books. 

According to Kathryn Levy, a friend, “For many years, Ken and Maria Robbins were at the core of a vibrant group of artists, writers, and editors. His wide circle of friends looked forward each year to his irreverent Christmas poems, characteristically down-to-earth Christmas day gatherings — with the only decoration being one long candy cane — fascinating dinners, and lively Sunday volleyball games.”

He was a member of the board of directors of the East End Special Players and had volunteered to photograph its actors and create publicity materials.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by an aunt, Sheila Robbins of East Hampton and New York City. A memorial service will be held on April 17 at Ashawagh Hall in Springs.

Correction: The original version of this obituary incorrectly described Kathryn Levy as a cousin of Mr. Robbins. She is a friend, not a cousin.