Portrait and Interview by Erika Nizborski
If you've been in the DC photo scene for any period of time, odds are you've run into Robb. Or, perhaps he's run into you pulling a nutty U-turn on G Street in his Mercedes wagon. Splitting time between DC and San Francisco, he has shot for a wide variety of advertising, commercial and editorial clients from Amtrak to Wyeth and just about every letter in between. In the last several years alone he has been recognized by the American Advertising Awards (a pair of silver and one gold in 2014), Luerzer's Archive Top 200 advertising photographers (2012/2013) and One Eyeland's 'Best of the Best' (2012-2014). He can now add 'APA|DC Featured Member" to his CV.
Q: Robb, you have been working as a professional photographer for 28 years now. When you were right out of college you spent a very brief time working an office job, what made you decide to take the jump into a photography career, and what struggles did you encounter when you first started working as a photographer?
Like most answers to ‘life decision questions’, this one is a bit lengthy. At the time I graduated from school (SFSU) I was still in a job I enjoyed - working at and helping to run a busy SF bar & restaurant. The bar (the key component of this equation) was located only three blocks from The New Lab, at the time one of the three best K-14 & E-6 film labs in the country. During my time working at the Supper Club I met and befriended many VERY noted photographers, who’d end their day shooting by dropping their film at the lab, come to the bar for a drink, and then go back to the lab/edit/walk to FedEx/ship/come back to the bar and have more drinks. This happened pretty much every day. I made a LOT of contacts.
My first and only ‘real job’ - working (in my education field) was doing research and analysis on energy resources (mainly petroleum/oil), its movements (rail/ship/pipelines) and then helping to plan for emergencies related to said oil. As you might imagine, being inside for 8 hours a day, in a cube, for a few weeks didn’t quite jibe with what I’d envisioned I’d be doing with my degree after school ended. At the least, I expected to be out in the field, ideally in some far-away land.
Around week three I went to the principal partner of the firm and asked him ‘so, this work . . . the plan is to . . . be inside . . . mainly, staring at a screen?’. He seemed somewhat surprised at the question, thought for a moment and said ‘well, yes.’. I replied ‘like, everyday? All day long? Like, five days a week, 50 weeks a year?’. Again (looking even more puzzled) ‘um . . . yeah. This is mainly how analysis and research get done. By being inside. On the phone, the computer, and by going to meetings.’ I nodded and went back to my desk. After coming back from lunch, I went to the fellow, thanked him for bringing me on-board, and entrusting me with the responsibility I’d thus far been given. And then I told him ‘as important as this work is, and as much as I understand the need for it, I just can’t do it. I can’t be inside all day, every day. Just can’t’. And that was that.
As for ‘struggles’ . . . I’m not exactly sure I’d say I had any really tough spots per se’. I started to assist, for many of the people I knew from the bar. And then went full time with one fellow, a noted advertising & editorial portrait photographer, for two years. After that time I could pretty much pick who I wanted to work with, as he had a reputation of being quite demanding, and the theory seemed to be that ‘if I could work with him for two years I must not only be very good, but also very thick-skinned.’
Ironically, I ended up full-time again a few months after that, working with Dan Escobar, a great studio shooter and one with mad lighting skills. Eventually I branched out into production and quit assisting. I was a Location Scout and Producer for four years and about halfway through that time I also was introduced to casting by my late friend Loni Weholt.
Basically my plan was to learn and excel at every part of the overall process that makes an ad campaign shoot run smoothly; and at the same time as I was learning all the ins-and-outs, to also be paid well and bank that money for when I was ready to head out on my own.
I ended my production period working with Jim Erickson, who’s been a good friend for close to 20 years. Jim’s jobs were like graduate school - LONG hours, lots of work & stress, but an incredible experience. At a certain point I knew it was time for me to go out on my own. Which I did.
Coming out of CA is like being part of a Fraternity or Club - I run into people I know, or those who know people I know, all over the globe. It’s a great place to be from.
Q: All of your photographs and multimedia pieces look like you had a lot of fun creating them. What motivates you and what photographers do you admire?
One of my rules on set is ‘if we’re not having fun, we’re doing something wrong.'
What motivates me? I'd say visual challenges, creating a tight & compelling narrative, conveying brands visually, the opportunity to collaborate with other creatives, travel & light, and great food.
I’m more motivated and inspired by painters than by photographers! However to name a few photographers whose work I appreciate: Peter Henry Emerson, Irving Penn, Michael Kenna, my friends Andy Anderson, David Burnett, Lee Crum & Jim Erickson. And also the work of Harry DeZitter, Koto Bolofo, Paolo Roversi , Simon Norfolk, August Sander, Dan Winters, Andy Mahr & Julian Calverley. I mean there are a LOT more, but that’ll do.
Q: You spend a lot of time writing, what inspires you to write and do you feel that your writing goes hand in hand with your photography?
Reading, and writing BOTH work to help strengthen your skills as a storyteller. It’s simplistic to think that any of us is always (or even often) creating something ‘new’: rather we all follow on the shoulders of giants. Much the same as writers are inspired and fed by what they’ve read, the ability (or opportunity?) for photographers and other visual artists to actually step away from the ‘creative process’ of photography, and immerse oneself in reading & writing narrative only helps to hone our OWN skills as storytellers. But in the visual medium.
I’d challenge you to research any noted (and posthumous) photographer, and find that he or she was NOT a skilled writer. That ability, to create a visual narrative, is EXACTLY what our clients want, and why, in this ever-increasingly visual age, is why ‘a picture IS worth a thousand words’.
Q: I can tell that you are very passionate about film photography and the craft. When you show up to a shoot with your large format camera how do your clients react, and do you feel that your technique and tools help set your work apart? ‘How do they react?’ . . .
The older I get, the more puzzled they seem to be when they see a 4x5 or an 8x10. And the comments (priceless) range from - ‘wait, it’s broken! The picture’s upside down!!!!’ to ‘well, I keep looking at the back of this, where’s the “zoom in” button?
Seriously though, I don’t often have the opportunity to shoot film, esp. LF sheet film, on jobs anymore. Especially on ad jobs - the premise of ‘there’s not enough time’, and ‘well, if I can’t see it, how can I approve it?’ seem to be working against that. Now, if we COULD get LF Polaroid film back . . . maybe. But, that being said, I always bring a film camera along, and I’ll shoot a few sheets, and send them in along with the digital edit - I usually scan the film first. I must say though, that sending a FedEx package with a box of 4x5 or 8x10 chromes to an AD or AB (and photo editors too) who WERE skeptical when I was shooting with them on set . . . I can always tell when the FedEx has reached them, The phone rings, and they’re just in love with the tangibility, the look, the dimensionality - all of it. I have spent about the past 15 years collecting an array of unusual, rare and oft-times VERY fast old LF lenses that I LOVE to shoot with. And, I don’t care how much you muck about in post, you’re not going to get the same look. It’s just different. Plus the process of shooting LF slows things WAY down, which is a good thing, in my opinion.
Q: You mentioned that it is very important to be able to work fast, and that much of your work is shot with one lens. At what point in your career did you realize that “less is more” and in what way did your work change?
I think instead of ‘working fast’ I prefer to think that I work decisively. That comes from years of experience and practice. After being a location scout for about 18 months I found that I was submitting fewer & fewer locations to my clients. Same with my casting choices - you hone your eye, and just know instinctively - this will work, this is it - the location, the composition, the talent, etc. That’s part of it. And then, by using (primarily) one lens, usually the equivalent of the 50mm, I’m seeing like our eye sees - in terms of spatial relationships, DOF, scale, etc. My work on some level has always (according to clients and friends) been ‘very graphic’ and ‘almost simple’. But that’s HARD, not easy. It’s EASY to clutter up a frame, put in lots of visual detritus and hope for the best. The challenge is in making a simple AND powerful SINGLE frame. Every time. My goal nowadays is to do that - to take away every superfluous element until I’m left with something simple, graphic and compelling.
Q: Personal projects keep you inspired, what are you currently working on?
I always have a few projects going on, always. I’ve been working on three books for the past . . . well, one of them was started back in 2004. Almost done with that one! The other two . . . one will (should) be done in late 2015 and the other in 2016. Most of my projects start as simply things that I find interesting. And then, when I show them to others they tell me they feel the same, so I keep pushing.
I’m lucky, because I’ve been doing this a long time, and as a result it’s easier to get the work shown, and that builds (and sustains) momentum. Clearly paying jobs take priority; so keeping the momentum of personal work going takes discipline and focus. Ideally one finds a balance and if possible a way to combine the two! Incidentally I just started another project about three months ago - that one should be ‘done’ - by the time I’m 50? I hope.
Q: What advice do you have for photographers starting out today?
First off, before anything else, be patient. And humble. Please.
I’ll never understand the belief that simply having a degree in photography or art, and owning/knowing how to use a camera makes one ‘a photographer’. I mean, if you went to cooking school, and bought some knives - would you call yourself a chef? Does owning a full set of copper make you a better cook? Similarly, just because you went to law school and passed the bar doesn't give you the qualifications to be a partner in a firm. You EARN that.
Be nice- always be nice. Because, odds are, if you’re a jerk to someone, that someone will have more power over you than you’d ever expect. I watched a photographer I assisted for, who’d been a jerk to a janitor we met, suddenly have to contend with having no power in the location he wanted to use.
• Courtesy and hard work are two things that are ALWAYS appreciated and oft-times overlooked.
• Assist. And be prepared to work harder than you ever have.
• Be early, being on-time is late.
• Always have a grip bag, a watch (on your wrist), and a sharpie. Sharpies are key.
See more of Robb's work