CD: We met years ago, when you were the voice and host of Nature’s Best. At one time you were a professional actor. Lets start there: Tell us a bit about your life as an actor and how you shifted into travel photography.
Bob Krist: Acting was my first love and although I fooled around with taking pictures with an Instamatic in high school, I didn’t buy my first serious camera, a Minolta SRT 101, until I was 19 and in college, and the local avant garde theater company I was a member of got a grant to tour Europe for a year.
So I took a leave of absence from school, moved to Amsterdam, where we had a communal house for the troupe. In those days, there was an English-language theater circuit called the Mickery Theater. We’d open a show in Amsterdam, and take it on the road to Universities and other theaters in Holland and Europe.
Another actor in the company was a pretty good photographer and since acting is night work, we’d wander around these European cities during the day with our cameras….more to meet girls than anything else, but we did get some shooting in too. Girl-hunting aside, I really loved wandering around a new city, taking pictures…it planted a hook.
The troupe went home after a year, but I moved to London to seek my fortune as an actor in my Mother’s homeland. I got jobs as a pub bartender and a grill chef to make ends meet, got a commercial or two, but I earned more money taking headshots of my fellow aspiring actors than anything else.
After a year without being discovered, I moved back to the States, finished off my bachelor’s degree, and moved to Berkeley to go to grad school, but I dropped out when I got an offer to join the Berkeley Stage Company. I spent a year there, and a year at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. And them moved back East and spent some time with the People’s Light and Theater Company outside Philly.
By this time, the mid-70’s, I was getting really good at headshots and production stills, but the economy was tanking. An actor’s pay today and in those days too, was a joke and I was running up some major debt ($800 was major in those days).
So I moved home to northern New Jersey to live with my folks and hit the auditions in NYC. I was desperate for money. The guy who grew up next door to me was working as a reporter for a small daily, the Hudson Dispatch in Union City, NJ, (we had both delivered the paper as kids) and he told me they were looking for photographers. I told him I’d never shot any news work, but when I heard the pay ($140 a week….every week), I jumped at it.
So I went down to Union City with a box of headshots of beautiful actresses, production stills of everything from Beckett to Shakespeare, and pretty pictures of Europe. The editor looked at me and told me it was clear I had no news experience. But he agreed to give me a three week tryout because I was the only applicant thus far who had come dressed in a jacket and tie!
So in that next three weeks, I had the most unbelievable luck in stumbling on news as it happened—raging house fires, an emergency plane landing on a NJ Turnpike approach road, a train and car collision. Anyway, the editor was convinced that I was some kind of an idiot savant of spot news photography, and gave me the job.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I threw myself into the work, but was only going to stay until I paid off my Mastercard. But somehow, I couldn’t quit…the life on the gritty streets of Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, was an unbelievably rich research ground for an actor, and I met an array of real-life characters and whackos that I was convinced I could “use” as an actor someday.
But instead, I got hooked on telling their stories in pictures. I didn’t like shooting spot news (when I see mayhem, my instinct is to run in the opposite direction), I hated shooting sports, but I lived for those picture pages we would get on occasion where we could explore the life of an interesting character: a muskrat hunter who worked in the shadow of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, the last living sailor in the seamen’s mission on the Hoboken waterfront, a paraplegic MS victim who supported himself selling balloons outside a White Castle. The forgotten people.
But, how are you going to keep the boy in Jersey City after he’s seen Paree? After five years, I had mined Hudson County of all it had for me.
In those days, if you were an award winning newspaper shooter, you could get an audience with Bob Gilka, the director of photography at the time at National Geographic, and so I did.
I went armed with my black and white news portfolio and a dozen story ideas. He was visibly unimpressed by my photography, but he liked my story ideas, especially one proposing a story on “the New Jersey that nobody knows.” And he gave me a crack at it. And that’s the long story of how it started for me.
CD: You’re known for your saturated colors and strong perspectives. How did this style come to you? Who were your early influences?
Bob Krist: I don’t want to sound like a total cretin, but all of my background was in the performing, not the visual arts. So I never studied the great painters. But as a completely self-taught photographer, I studied the pages of magazines, especially National Geographic, Life, Look, etc. until my eyes burned holes in the pages.
When I was a newspaper photographer, my hero was Jim Richardson, who was then at the Topeka Capitol Journal. He’s a Geographic shooter now, and he’s still one of my heroes and role models and we’ve become friends over the years.
My other influences at the time were Jay Maisel, Burt Glinn, Bruno Barbey, Ernst Haas…all masters of color, light, and moment.
At National Geographic in those days, I loved the work of Bill Allard, Jim Stanfield, Dave Harvey, Chuck O’Rear…so many of the greats. I used to look at the pictures and try to reverse engineer how they did it…kind of like the way an actor researches his character’s motivation and backstory.
So if I saw a beautiful picture of a shepherd with his flock on a mountaintop in Greece at sunrise, I would think “how did the photographer get there that early, where did he stay, how did he know this guy would be there?”– things like that.
I didn’t really care much about what camera and lens he used, I wanted to know how he (or she ) figured out how to be in the right place at the right time. In the great “f/8 and be there” paradigm, I knew that “being there” was more of an art than the technical “f/8” part of things.
That’s true today too, but you wouldn’t know it with current fixation on pixel peeping, the total existential dread of a little noise—clearly these folks never shot with Kodachrome 200—, and corner sharpness.
Yes, image quality counts, but at a certain point, the only people who notice the difference between cameras are other photographers on the technical forums.
CD: I’ve have enjoyed watching the videos on your site, especially “Last Days of a Country Store” and “Steam Engine.” How have you added video to your world? How do you approach telling a story with video that draws upon your still experience?
Last Days of a Country Store © Bob Krist
2013 Highlight Reel © Bob Krist
Bob Krist: I’m totally jazzed with video because it allows me to tell a more complete story about an interesting place or character. I recently realized that I’m kind of repeating myself…35 years ago as a newspaper photographer, I would seek out quirky or interesting characters, or small people fighting big battles that get overlooked on the front page, and do a picture story about them.
Fast forward 35 years, and I’m doing the very same thing, but in video this time. This has happened for a number of reasons: the print outlets for this kind of thing, if they ever existed at all, are all but drying up, and we’re consuming most of our media on screens.
And screens seem to demand motion and sound for a richer experience.
I think still shooters are well positioned to move into motion because, compositionally, we know our way around that rectangle pretty well, and we know light.
The other stuff about shooting motion can be learned, but if you don’t have a feel for light and composition, it’s a hard slog. Probably the most difficult thing for us to learn in video is the importance of good clean audio…that’s a hard lesson.
But I love the authorship that shooting and editing a short video gives you.
So much of my career, my involvement in a story stopped when I came home and sent sleeves of slides or a folder of JPEGs to the client. Now, I’m the guy who decides the arc of the story, the visuals, what we’re going to show and what we’re not.
It’s a tremendous feeling to be in charge, but it is a huge, time consuming pain too. If I thought that learning curve from analog to digital photography was steep, it pales in comparison to learning to edit video coming from the stills world.
CD: Recently you’ve started shooting video with APS-C cameras. Any thoughts, revelations, frustrations or experiences you would like to share about using this format for video and/or stills?
Bob Krist: One thing I quickly realized when I first started shooting video with my Nikon DSLRs was that as incredible as the quality of the video image was, the ergonomics for shooting video left something to be desired. There are reasons why camcorders look the way they do.
So I’ve been experimenting with more video-centric machines along with my current favorite for video, the Nikon D5300. I recently did a long travel job with a Sony RX10, which has a one-inch sensor, but has an EVF, focus-peaking, built-in ND filter, zebras, microphone and earphone jacks, no aliasing or moire…all the bells and whistles that make shooting video easy and faster in the field.
I’m hoping that Nikon and the other camera companies realize that there is a growing market for cinema cameras and that they too come out with cinema versions of their DSLRs, like the Canon C series.
With camera sales plummeting, manufacturers are going to have to be more creative in their approach. You could make the D5300 into a monster video machine with a few firmware upgrades to get focus peaking, onscreen audio meters, etc. It would result in tens of thousands of more sales. But it means coloring outside the lines a bit, and so many companies seem reluctant to do that, even when the bottom line looks worse every quarter.
CD: How have the incredible and rapid changes in travel photography impacted the industry?
Bob Krist: The recent move by Getty Images, giving away free usage for over 35 million of their images, was the coup de grace in the long and slow death of editorial stock photography in general, not only travel images.
It completes the total commodification of most types of photography, especially the stuff that is fun to shoot—travel, nature, wildlife. The same thing has happened in the music industry, and in writing. It is a hard time for any individual content producer. They say that “content is king” but you’d be hard pressed to find anybody willing to pay for it.
At the same time, mass tourism has commodified a lot of travel. The great sites—from Venice to Machu Picchu, to the Taj Mahal, have become Disneyfied, crowded, and regulated to the point where you cannot get half of the angles you used to be able to on most great sites because there are fences, regulated hours, and security guards to handle the influx of tourists.
Even a fairly remote place like Iceland, where I have been photographing since the 1980s, has become kind of like a golf course for photo tours…if you linger too long at one of the sites, there will be a photo tour behind you wanting to “play through.”
So I don’t know what the new career model is for a “travel” photographer. It’s not clear how journalism in general is going to survive as a profession in which earning a middle class salary is an attainable dream.
I think it’s still possible to travel authentically. But it means going alone, and not on a photo tour, and interacting with local culture, and maybe skipping the “Disney” spots and going to the “second cities.”
For instance, you can get much better pictures, and a better interaction with the Italian way of life, if you spent time in a place like Bologna, than if you go to Florence. In the latter place, you’ll only be photographing other tourists and photographers like yourself. In a smaller, less famous city, you’ll see real Italian life.
But that means that you have to be interested in really documenting a different culture and not just collecting trophy shots of the great sites. It’s easy for me to say, I realize, because I got to go to a lot of those great sites while they were still special and not overrun.
But when I travel now for myself, I never go to the great sites…I go off into the small areas. I don’t seek out places where all the photographers go. I’d rather go to places where I still have a chance of seeing and documenting the real life of an area, rather than a familiar view of a famous site.
CD: You are known as a workshop leader. The Day of the Dead Workshop in Oaxaca is coming up soon. How will you teach a workshop in this city?
Bob Krist: I started teaching workshops 25 years ago, and I’m actually trying to step away from teaching to concentrate more on shooting video. But my good friend, the great international news shooter Richard Ellis, convinced me to teach a location workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico for his new venture. He’s getting some great shooters, some new on the workshop circuit, to work for him.
Of course, he didn’t have to twist my arm too much to get me to go back to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. Richard and I covered it as a personal project last year (he shot stills, I shot video) and we are looking forward to sharing it with students next year.
CD: What advice would you give to young photographers considering a career in travel photography?
Bob Krist: I advise them to marry well, or have a trust fund.
But if that isn’t possible, I advise them to think beyond the labels of “travel” and even “photography” and to think of themselves as more of what I would call a “new media specialist.”
While the old business paradigms of the editorial photography business are quickly being torn down, nothing clear has popped up in its place. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there is a boom in outlets and appetite for information. But until a new professional paradigm works itself out (and hopefully it will), young people need to become jacks of all communication trades.
And that means knowing how to shoot stills, video, how to edit video, how to design and create websites, how to edit audio, how to write, etc. etc.
To drive this home, I’m going to attach a real world want ad for the new paradigm. This is from the Museum of Natural History. As you read the list of qualifications they are looking for in a candidate, you’ll notice that it basically describes the functions of what would once be an entire audiovisual division of a museum or a corporation.
So I advise young photographers to be versatile and flexible (and strong and patient!).
What’s in Bob Krist’s bag?