Interview with Shoot NYC presenter David Robin

Once a design and fine art painting student, photographer David Robin began to explore the medium of photography as another outlet to convey emotion and envelop the purest form of objects through portraiture.  Filled with wisdom on human life, archival methods, lighting and the natural world around him,  Robin found that photography lent itself well to the translation of idea to image, and was a better match for his stylistic vision.

Robin attended Brooks Institute when he realized that in order to pursue photography as a career, a technical background is imperative: “You need to train yourself to see, understand and control light and it’s relationship to the medium.  All the latest and greatest advancements in photography are useless without this knowledge.”

With a new technical grasp on photography, Robin moved to LA and then NY to assist top photographers, but never tied himself down to one person; he wanted to learn different techniques and stylistic tools from each of the photographers he encountered.

“I assisted in LA for a year and in New York for a year. I knew I wanted to photograph people but that it was important to assist all kinds of photographers. Once you set up your own studio … you’re in a vacuum. No one is going to show you the ropes. It’s better to get production experience watching others than experimenting for the first time with your own clients.  Part of being a successful photographer is having the experience to anticipate where the problem areas may occur on a shoot and being prepared with solutions based on that experience.”

From there, Robin “went to work for a major department store setting up their in-house fashion studio.  It was an intense experience.” This is where he learned the value of lighting. Thereafter, he built a 4,000 sq foot daylight studio in San Francisco.

Printing for Irving Penn gave Robin interest in taking the reins and developing his own style. Now known for his black and white portraits, David Robin has always been interested in the way a photograph communicates. Unlike color photography, where the focus can be on how vibrant the colors of the image are and the semiotics of those colors, black and white photos are communicative in lighting, contrast and shadows. “I find the interplay of the positive and the negative fascinating,” Robin says. “I believe an image is reduced to its purest compositional form in black and white. To light a black-and-white photograph well is truly an art. You have to love light and love composition.”

The same goes for his “Stealing Fire” project, which detailed the lives of the scientists of Los Alamos who worked on the Manhattan Project and had been secretly testing the atom bomb in 1943 in an exclusive site on the Pajarito Plateau in Northern New Mexico.  In black and white, portraits were taken of five scientists, detailing their secret work and the impact of living life “on the hill.” The monochromatic hue and the deep context of the images brought to life a story that had been otherwise forgotten.

His personal projects allow him to digress from client visions and work on his own personal creative:

“One night I was watching a 20-20 broadcast and they did a story on the Romanian asylums that had just been discovered [after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu].  The story touched a nerve because of my father’s Romanian background and I knew that this was something I needed to document. So I called the reporter who wrote the story, and since no Western photojournalist had been in there yet, I put together a plan to do a shoot.

I committed to a one-man show of my Romanian Images at the Ansel Adams Center in San Francisco –before I even had any images, before I had even boarded the plane. But I find that’s the way I create: Light a fire under my ass, give myself an impossible task to do, and it works.  In the end the show was a success both in San Francisco and New York.

A few years later I went to East Africa to do a story on the Doctors Without Borders.  I had this unique opportunity to live with the people of a Massai village for a month. Those images are some of my favorite because they go to the essence of why I became a photographer.”

David Robin’s images can be seen in everything from CD packaging and advertising to fine art galleries.

“I believe in shooting constantly for myself while pushing the envelope.  I also ask a lot of questions. Constant experimentation coupled with a healthy dose of humbleness and failure is the only way to really grow as an artist and craftsperson…I am never satisfied with my work.  I always feel I can do better.”

David Robin Photography

Come see David Robin speak at Shoot NYC, October 25-26 at the Terminal Building. Shoot NYC is an exciting and informative professional photographic forum based on the premise of sharing knowledge through educational seminars from top industry professionals and hands-on demonstrations of the latest photographic technology on the market today. Top industry professionals will host workshops and hands-on seminars in an array of subjects, whether you’re interested in fashion, portraiture, commercial, stock or repro. For more information, click here.

Seminar Synopsis:

David Robin – Sponsored by Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

Lighting Dramatic Portraits

Thursday, October 25

Award-winning portrait and beauty photographer David Robin, whose clients have included Levi Strauss & Co., Gap, Sony, Coca-Cola, American Express, BMG, Blue Note, and PolyGram Records, explains and demonstrates his techniques for achieving meaningful portraits, covering the gamut of editorial, beauty, advertising, and journalism. In this workshop, David aims to briefly decode the mysteries ofportraiture and review techniques, through live demonstration, to help participants consider their own unique voice and style.

An Interview with broncolor Featured Photographer Elias Wessel

We caught up with Elias Wessel on a shoot this week.  Here’s what he had to say:

CK: How did you become a photographer?  Describe your career development?

EW: I would have to say that graffiti was the catalyst for my love of art. At the age of 16 meeting Sigmar Polke at his huge retrospective in Bonn, Germany made me even more interested in fine arts. Following that, I started to draw and then  had paintings exhibited about 2 years later.   Also during that time, my best friend, who I had a crush on, moved to London.    Our only source of communication was through mail. I wanted my mails to look good and make her feel special on top of what I wrote to her.   I created my own envelopes by cutting out my favorite pictures out of hundreds of magazines.   I collected thousands of tearsheets and still remember vividly pictures by David La Chapelle,  Guy Bourdin,  Jeff Koons and others who caught my breath.   Since then I have always wanted to be able to re-create these wonderful feelings that those pictures gave me and started to draw pictures and take photographs of everything I loved.

CK:  More specifically, was there one or more life changing moments that helped you move to the next level and become the photographer that you are now?  Perhaps a big break, a perfect mentor, a movie, a mystical moment?

EW:  What incredibly changed me and my work was the break up after 8 years with my former personal and professional friend and partner in 2008.   I had to start all over and ask myself what makes me unique as a photographer.   I figured the only possible answer can be:  Myself!   Beginning with my “Falling Up” story my work tells so much about me and that what makes it special.   However I am very often asked how I consider myself as a photographer and my style. There’s no straight answer which feels totally adequate to me.   You can say it is the way I play with time and freeze a moment or a motion.   V magazine recently published a selection of my work and wrote “When time stops, your pose had better be fierce”.   You can mention the saturated colors or the sort of magical realism.   It can be cheeky happiness,  subliminal concepts,  beauty or sensitiveness.   It always depends on the content of the story I am working on.   Those who know me can say it may be my personal experiences which are always somehow reflected in my photographs. I would say as everything changes and develops in life all this can change and develop from picture to picture as well.   There are moments every day which make me and my work more and more sophisticated.   You just have to be aware of them.

CK: How do you learn your techniques?

EW: Working at advertising agencies, design bureaus as well as assistant, production and studio manager made me understand the different parties who are involved in the process of creating photographs.   I know about their expectations, their thinking, their needs, their fears and about the whole process from the point of view of all participating sides.   Studying with a huge focus on theory helped me to achieve a general idea about any field of the arts, a basic knowledge about anything which deals with art, visual communication and its reception.   It can be a deep source for new ideas. Schooling didn’t really teach me about the technical side of photography or lighting.   That is something I learned by assisting and working in the fields of photography but even more by realizing one personal project after another.   It taught me how to create, communicate and realize ideas. And it can give you the time to experiment and to develop.   A while ago I met David La Chapelle here in New York and I remember how he reminded me how fortunate I can be of being able to do my own thing.   Even if it is not without a struggle.   Studying also taught me to get up and motivate myself every single day to work on my ideas because nobody really cared about what I did.   It can be dangerous depending of what kind of character you are but it also can teach you confidence in what you do and that you are the only one who is responsible for anything you do.

CK:  Who are your photo heroes? Or who has inspired your career?

EW:  There are so many.   It wouldn’t make sense to drop names.   Most of all I´m inspired by the reason why I´m doing this. I want to experience a feeling, that goes into bowels.   But I also want to create a transcendency so that this feeling reaches the viewer.   I also find very interesting the intersection between fashion and fine art photography and how to merge those genres. Typical fashion images focus on beauty and clothing as their central elements.   To me it is not fashion itself but the image that suppose to fascinate the viewer.   I believe that this is what appeals to clients who really care about being exclusive. At the end it all comes to the feeling you get from the picture you are looking at, not just the picture of the product.

CK: What is the worst part about doing what you do?

EW: If I could I would be out there taking pictures everyday. A huge part of photography deals with everything else than creating and taking pictures.

CK: What is the best part?

EW: All my works you see in this story have given me the most satisfaction because there are a lot of photographs that don’t make it. Every picture I’ve taken is from the past but it is the ones in the future that I’m looking forward to taking most.

Learning from the Pro

EW:  What are we going to shoot today?

“Falling Up”. A personal project which will be exhibited in New York and also be published as editorial. Falling is something involuntarily. Something threatening you get forced to.   In contrast “Up” is a synonym for success.   This aporia results out of the two contrary moving directions: Down = falling and Up = Up.   A conflict which was indissoluble at that current period of my life.   “Falling” as well as “Up” relate to my very private and professional areas of life which were strongly linked over 9 years.   “Falling Up” is based on personal experiences, thoughts, symbols and metaphors. Analogies to “Mary Poppins”, “Rumpelstiltskin” and the “Shock Headed Peter” finally allow to express my emotions as well as making a statement about the current art and fashion industry.  “Falling Up” is a modern fairy tale out of my personal past, present and future.

CK: How did you learn how to do what you are about to show us?

EW: It’s probably the same answer I gave when asking me how I learned my techniques. To sum it up in one word I would have to say it’s experience.

CK: What tools are you using to make this image?

EW:  503 CW Hasselblad with a Leaf Aptus II – 7 with lenses from 25mm to 150mm. SBI ParaFb 170, Pulsoflex 80×80, Verso A4 and A2, beauty dish and P70 reflector, 2 Pulso heads, Ringflash P, the sun, clouds as well as my heart and my brain.

CK: Why did you choose these tools?

EW: “Falling Up” was shot on location in Long Island City, New York with a great mix out of different set ups including day and night shots. So being flexible without sacrificing quality and to be able to control every situation on set
was my first priority.   I took advantage of the para 170 using it as a soft filling light. With the heads and reflectors I was able to adapt to every single situation, setting highlights, focus on different parts of the scene. The Verso allowed me to add crunch and a little magic at the best possible speed.

CK: Did you use competing products in the past? What made you change?

EW: I worked with pretty much all available lighting and camera equipment and used everything from 35mm to large format cameras – film and digital.   I’m in the lucky position that I got into photography by using film and digital equipment at the same time. The experience of working in the dark room, processing my own films, making my own contact sheets and prints help me to understand what happens in digital photography and post production. Same with the lighting gear.   I always like to test all equipment which might be of any interest.   Currently I prefer working with the 503CW Hasselblad and the Leaf Aptus II always in combination with broncolor lights.   It just works for me and gives me the consistency and flexibility I need. The decision of the equipment I use as well as the decision of shooting in studio or on location depends on the pictures I have in mind. Not the other way around. The cooperation with Bron Imaging Group is based on how I use my lighting which plays a big role in my work and gives it it’s consistency.   No matter if I have a huge set up of lights or just a bare bulb in combination with available light. It always defines the look of my pictures and bron recognizes this.   But this cooperation is more than that.   The guys from bron are part of my team, part of my photo-family and they care about my work and about photography just as much as I do.   That is what really matters to me.