CD: You’re known for your exceptional lighting skills. How did these develop and who were your major influences?
Robert Seale: I had a great lighting teacher in college, Dr. Michael Roach….he was in the art dept, and I wasn’t getting what I needed from the limited number of courses in our small communications dept, so I sought him out in the art dept. I ended up getting a double major and he helped me a lot. We basically crafted a custom curriculum with 400 level independent study classes. One of the coolest things he did was make us go to the library and look at lots of classic photo books. We had to create our own lighting diagram books, with 5-10 photos from each decade since the 1920′s Hurrell, Horst, Penn, Avedon, Leibovitz. We had to make lighting diagrams for each picture, which he graded and corrected of course. It was really useful. We didn’t use strobes, we were in a class with cinema folks, so we only had Lowel hot lights to work with. We also had an incredibly great Photography art history class.
When I left college, the photojournalists at the paper were all using fill flash (on camera) quite often, and I was all about being a legit photojournalist, so I shot that way for a bit. Then I got a portfolio critique at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar where the reviewer told me my photos were awful and that I needed to “saw the hotshoe off my flash…”
That set me on the road to learning to use lighting, even at the newspaper. I ended up at the Houston Post, where I got to do a lot of food, fashion, business portraits, and sports portraits…..we had a studio, and good gear to play with. It was a discipline thing I could shoot this business owner or high school sports star of the week with my SB-24 speedlight, but instead, I would make myself get the strobes out of the car.
Influences: First would be Pete Turner and Jay Maisel. In college I discovered all the big Houston corporate photographers and followed their work in sourcebook ads Arthur Meyerson, Mark Green, Steve Brady. Newspaper/photojournalism influences would be guys like David Leeson, Ken Jarecke, David Burnett, J. Kyle Keener, Louis Deluca, Michael Bryant. Once I got into lighting, I really liked Annie Leibovitz, Walter Iooss, Michael O’Brien, Greg Heisler, Avedon, Penn, David Bailey, Gilles Bensimon, Patrick Demarchelier. It’s important to note, I think you can be influenced by other things as well music videos, movies, advertising, paintings, etc. I’m also a big fan of magazines, and I’ve always devoured those – and not just photography magazines, but all types, especially fashion magazines. You never know where you might learn something cool to help your photography…..and you’ll impress your friends by knowing what “the new black” is each year.
CD: You transitioned from a staff newspaper gig to Sporting News to freelance shooter. What were your most memorable shoots as a young photographer working for a newspaper and how did this experience prepare you for shooting for Sporting News?
Robert Seale: Wow, well as a newspaper intern, at the Houston Chronicle, I got to shoot the 92 Republican Convention, Astros games, Oilers games, etc….it was great. They treated me like a normal member of the staff and gave me assignments I definitely didn’t deserve. At my first real job, in Augusta Georgia, I was able to shoot the Masters golf tournament. At the Houston Post, I covered the NBA Finals, and was sent to South Africa to shoot a swimsuit fashion story for a week. For a 25-year-old fledgling photographer, that definitely did not suck. At the Post, we shot a lot of portraits and sports, so when the Sporting News gig came along, I had more lit portraiture than some of the other action guys they were considering, and I think that’s what got me the job.
As a follow on: what were your best and worst experiences at Sporting News and how did that prepare you for the big bad world of surviving as a freelance photographer?
Best: My best experiences were shooting the World Series for 10 years in a row, among the same group of photographers, going to dinner and having fellowship with a pretty fun and elite group many of which were my idols, and still are. Guys like John Biever, Damian Strohmeyer, Walter Iooss, Peter Read Miller, John Mcdonough, Mickey Palmer, Johnny Iacono, Louis Deluca, Brad Mangin, Al Bello, etc…. I definitely felt not at all worthy to be out to dinner with guys like that, and it was great to just listen to their stories.
We also had a great group at the Sporting News, and it was wonderful to get everyone on staff (there were 4 of us staff photographers, plus 2 editors, and we rarely saw each other), and combine forces on the Super Bowl or Final Four each year. We worked as lone wolves most of the time, so it was great fun to work with an incredibly gifted and ego-less group of fellow photographers. I was really proud of the magazine in the late 90′s early 2000′s.
We had to set up our own assignments, produce our own portrait shoots, write and fax letters to agents and PR reps, handle logistics, and deal with our own travel, file our own expenses, paperwork, so all of that was great preparation for freelancing and the minutiae of running a business. My worst experience was dealing with Barry Bonds, and certain sports team PR folks. Most everyone is great, and many of them are my friends, but there were a couple of bad apples. Being prepared for problems, having pre-scouted plans, a, b, c, and d, and dealing with certain primadonna celebrities with limited time made me very expedient, professional, and prepared me well for operating in the corporate and advertising world, I think.
CD: Tell me more about your personal photo projects? Anything cooking right now? Also, I love the quiet portraits of military aviators in your Aviation and Space gallery. How did this project come about?
Robert Seale: Still working on the pilots. I have many more I would like to photograph, and they are disappearing from us fast. I wish I had started 10-15 years ago. It started with me always being interested in military aviation….I read lots of military history stuff when I was younger, and I thought for a time it would be great to join the Air Force. 20/400 vision dashed that dream in 8th grade, so I became a photographer instead. I’ve just always been very passionate about aviation heroes and their stories, and it seemed like no one was really documenting them the way we should. Anyway, I did a portrait assignment with some astronauts for one of my favorite magazines, Air and Space, and then after that introduction, pitched them another idea, which worked out, on the remaining Doolittle Raiders, and I’ve done several assignments since then. I’ve set up others on my own as personal project portraits. It’s a very small and tight knit community and many of the pilots know each other, and attend the same airshows and events. I have a couple of really great people who have helped me contact some of these guys and have really been advocates. Other projects I’ve always wanted to do a big portrait project on Texas Musicians, and Barbeque (although Wyatt McSpadden, a great photographer in Austin, beat me to the BBQ!).
CD: You have started teaching lighting workshops. How did that come about? What do you enjoy about teaching? What are the positives and negatives that you come away with after teaching a course.
Robert Seale: Bert Hanashiro invited me to teach at one of his first Sportsshooter Luaus in LA, I did those for 4-5 years, then the legendary Rich Clarkson invited me to his workshop and I’ve since taught there many times. I’ve done a few ASMP and NPPA events. I would like to do more if I had the time. Positives are, again, getting to commiserate with peers and other instructors at these things. I sit in front of a computer screen or am traveling on my own away from other photographers now, so it’s good to see people and talk shop. It’s great to see students grasp concepts and start improving their photography. I don’t think lighting or photography is that difficult, it’s just seeing and solving problems, and it’s fun to share that. I went to a couple of workshops early on (one was Arnold Newman at Santa Fe), and I’ve just always thought it’s important to try to pass things on if you have opportunities. Downsides are that I feel like more and more, the workshops are being attended by advanced amateurs rather than young photographers actually working in the business. Which is fine, they are nice people and they are learning too, which is cool, but it bums me out a bit I would like to see more college photography students and 1st or 2nd year folks at some of these talks who are serious about the business.
CD: Your blog goes into great detail on how your light your subjects. I find it fascinating to see how people light a shoot to give yourself and your client maximum flexibility. How do clients respond to this? Is it a benefit? Does it help draw students to your lighting workshops? Any negative or positive outcomes?
Robert Seale: No idea if it draws anyone, as I haven’t held my own workshops or done any surveys I’ve just spoken at events when people have asked me. I don’t think most clients know how much we plan things out and test, and scout to allow many locations and different looks in one location but a few do, and I think they all appreciate and benefit from it. I think it differentiates me somewhat from people who need to fiddle with their gear between each shot. Years of dealing with people who have only 5 minutes helps.
CD: How can young photographers in college and starting to assist, better prepare themselves for the real world of editorial and commercial shooting?
Robert Seale: I think they need to first, do a serious reality check. It’s tough, and much more competitive now, but I try to be positive and I tell them that if it’s something you MUST do, that you can’t imagine your life doing anything else – the way people are drawn to be missionaries, musicians, or something like that, that they should do it…..but don’t enter this business lightly thinking it will be easy. With that out of they way, I think you need to study not only photography, but business. A minor in business or marketing would be a plus. Art History is incredibly important (I took some 27 hours of it), and also expose yourself to philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, etc….photography is a field where you need to know a little something about everything, because you’ll likely be photographing all sorts of people from all walks of life. I think working at a newspaper is great preparation, although finding a job these days would be difficult. Also, I think learning all aspects of visual communication: not just photography, but graphic design, video, filmmaking, editing, is incredibly useful. It’s unlikely that you’ll make a living just doing one of those. Also, don’t graduate with any massive student loans or debt if you can manage it. You need a lot of cash to start a photography business. Most people think if they just buy cameras and a laptop, they are ready, but there’s marketing, advertising, websites, storage, cash-flow to pay assistants and produce shoots, printers, accounting, legal help, keeping computers and software current…..AND, you need a 6 month reserve before leaving your assisting gigs to survive at first. It’s a tall order, but if you’re careful, it can be done.