When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
Shortly after graduating high school I began taking photographs, first as a hobby, but it quickly became something more. At that time I was knocking around, a bit aimless and unsure of where to go next. I had chosen not to go the college and was working menial labor jobs. As I got more and more involved in photography it seemed like a cool career, although I was clueless as to which particular type of photography. I really had no concept of the distinctions between a photojournalist, a commercial studio photographer and a fine artist. To me at that time it was all just photography.
I began looking for work in a studio, unaware that there were specialized schools or programs at universities one could attend to get training. In the small southern town I grew up in there were only one or two portrait / wedding studios so I knew I would have to go on the road on my job search. I went to Memphis, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Louisville, all over. In Louisville I stumbled onto a small alternative photography school, The Center for Photographic Studies and enrolled.
The school, really more of a workshop had been founded by C.J. Pressma. The focus was on photography as fine art and most of the students were graduate level. It was a fantastic experience, I was exposed to so many different kinds of work I had never seen before. We had guest lectures by the likes of Duane Michals, Russell Lee, Les Krims, W. Eugene Smith. I got to hang out with Gene Smith one night at a party and after many drinks took him out for White Castle at midnight in my old beater car. After that first year, I moved to Rochester to attend the Visual Studies Workshop for two years. Funny thing was while most of my fellow students had aspirations for careers in academia, or curatorial positions, etc. I always planned on being a working photographer.
After Rochester I spent a couple years traveling and making pictures, before deciding to once again, find work. This time, armed with a portfolio of sorts, not exactly a very commercial looking portfolio, I landed a photo assistant gig in a commercial studio in Dallas where we shot catalogs for clients like Neiman Marcus, Abercrombie and Fitch and the like. I worked for the fashion photographer initially but also helped out on still life sets and the “corporate / industrial” guy. My previous art school training had not exactly prepared me technically so this experience was as eye opening as that first year in Louisville and I was hungry to learn how to use lights, expose and balance transparency film, etc..
Finally around ’84 I began pursuing work at magazines. I showed my work to Fred Woodward who was the art director at Texas Monthly. He gave me a few assignments and that started it.
Your project ‘Wish You Were Here’ – tell me more about it. Is that an ongoing body of work or did you work within a specific time-frame?
The “Wish You Were Here” web portfolio is ongoing work that spans more than 20 years and features non-portrait work from several projects, both personal and professional. My work has always been a mix of portraits, which I’m probably more known for, and non-portrait images (I use the term “landscape” very loosely).
I’ve had a very diverse career, working with a wide range of clients on all kinds of projects and I’ve also continued to pursue my own projects, usually with a book project or exhibition in mind. It’s given me a broad experience but sometimes makes it difficult choosing what kinds of work to present when seeking assignments. Photographers aren’t always the best editors of their work and I had been struggling with making a cohesive selection.
“On Wish You Were Here”, as well as the “My Fellow Americans” portfolios, I worked with picture editor Mike Davis ( link here) to come up with a body of work to represent my work via my website. I sent him a pile of 400 or 500 pictures to play with and Mike made the initial edit. Mike has a great ability to find the core of a photographer’s work and really seemed to “get it” what I am doing. He pushed me to separate the portraits from the landscapes, which might seem natural but was something I had not previously done.
Over the years I’ve shown work that is less obviously commercial and more true to my personal work. This has been both a blessing and a curse. A curse in that many clients don’t see commercial potential, but a blessing in that those that do give me broader range to do my own work within the confines of their projects. A lot of the work in this portfolio might fall into that category.
With all of the changes in editorials – web and video components, the rise of stock photography being used in place of original shoots – what do you see the future looking like for editorial photographers?
In spite of so many titles closing shop the last couple of years there are more outlets for photography than ever before. So we’re not talking about the ability to publish work, rather the ability to earn a living. It’s never been easy to make a living as an editorial photographers but it’s gone beyond the breaking point. Ken Jarecke wrote a terrific blog piece about a year ago that suggests there are more people playing in the NBA than are making a successful career as magazine photographers (link here).
None off this is that new. Editorial fees have remained stagnant, or gone down, since the 80’s and the trend of publishers claiming more and more usage rights in their contracts continues. Photographers are notoriously bad business people and have let their enthusiasm for the work and their short term benefit get in the way of their own long term best interest.
Sadly I really don’t see the trend changing. Magazines are not suddenly going to say “Hey, those photographers aren’t getting paid nearly enough”, especially when there is always some talented young artist jumping for the chance to work for a credit line. Experienced folks understand a credit line won’t pay the rent but tell that to someone just starting out. Therein lies the problem. It’s a buyers market.
So I think it’s more important than ever to diversify your work and find opportunities beyond editorial. At least until the next big thing finally happens.
If you could go back 10 years and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Only ten (laughing)? Looking back ten years to fall of 2001, NYC was still smoldering from the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax attacks were about to happen and the dot com bubble had just burst. The bottom just fell out of the economy. Magazines shrunk dramatically, those that survived, as did photo budgets. Previously I traveled constantly for work and that just came to an abrupt halt. Digital photography was still a relatively new thing, most magazines didn’t want it and most photographers didn’t know how to do it.
So it was really a watershed moment, when everything was going through a sea change and practically everything about the business is different now. I think I probably could have reacted to the changes more quickly in some ways.
But I don’t like dwelling on past mistakes or missed opportunities. Everyone I know was going through the same experience, trying to figure out how to survive what was happening. I remember a conversation I had with a friend as we were talking about how tough things were. He just said it was time to step up, because this was the best job in the world and there was no way he was giving up without a fight. I took that to heart and have held it as guiding principle since.
Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?
Great work will always find a market, so first of all you have to make great pictures. But great work alone won’t carry a career. You also have to educate yourself about the business. Understand the value your work has for clients and never be afraid to say no to a bad deal. There will always be someone who will do an assignment for less, don’t fall into the trap of being that person.
Don’t chase visual trends, be true to your own work, what you’re really passionate about and don’t worry about what you imagine clients want to see.
Beyond that, enjoy yourself. This is the best job in the world, there is no monetary value you can place on getting paid to do something you love.
(Robbie is based in Portland, OR. See more of his work, here)