Interviewed By Jimmy Steinfeldt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/5/18 – Jimmy Steinfeldt: Robert, how often do you clean your lens?
Robert Whitman: That’s a very good question. I don’t clean it enough. Sometimes I look and if it’s smudgy I’ll clean it. Lately I’ve started cleaning it a bit more often.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
BW: My main influence was Guy Bourdin. His work really, really inspired me as a young fashion photographer. But as I’ve matured as a photographer I started getting into shooting more real and human moments. For instance I like the Bruce Davidson book Subway. I like photographers who shoot real life like Bresson, Lartigue, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and others.
JS: I believe you were also inspired by the movie Blow-Up.
BW: Yes. I was a hippie back in the day; sex, drugs and rock n roll. There were three things I didn’t want to live by back then. 1. I didn’t want a nine to five job. 2. I didn’t want to cut my hair and shave my beard. 3. I never wanted to wear a coat and a tie. In Blow-Up this young hip photographer has beautiful women running all around. He’s got a great car and an amazing studio. Before seeing the movie I had no idea what I wanted to do. This movie hit a chord and I decided I want to be a photographer.
JS: Who else influenced your photography besides photographers?
BW: My hippie lifestyle. Traveling and being exposed to so many different people and places. I’m totally self taught but I looked at as many photography books as possible. Also many books on travel. I especially love Cuba. Also books on dance, which I was always interested in. I always thought it was a beautiful art form. I ended up marrying a famous dancer with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company. I photographed many dancers and choreographers including Baryshnikov.
JS: What was your first camera?
BW: An Olympus half-frame which my father gave to me. Normally a roll of film is 36 pictures but this camera shot 72 pictures and the frames were half the size. I’ll never forget that camera. My father was a horrible photographer but he loved camera equipment of any kind and he even had a dark room.
JS: What cameras are you shooting with now?
BW: I go very simple unless I’m doing an advertising shoot. I travel with a Nikon D750 with a 35mm lens. I also carry the Sony RX100 point and shoot. I travel the world and document my life traveling around. I just came back from a really cool road trip to Arizona (Flagstaff, Tucson, Bisbee) and Silver City, New Mexico. I use available light whether it’s the sun or a street lamp.
JS: Is there a camera you always wanted but never got?
BW: No. I’m totally opposite my father’s photography, I’m not into equipment. I’m trying to shoot just what I see the way it is. It’s not about the camera but rather something that allows me to be free and move around. Half the time I don’t even look in the viewfinder. When I was a young photographer I was told you have to find your own style. I’m wild, crazy, shooting all over the place. I edit the photos later. Editing is crucial to my process. When I was a young photographer a mentor said “It’s not about taking a great photo it’s about knowing the great photo you’ve taken.”
JS: Robert, did you ever get a photography assignment that took you outside the type of photography you usually do?
BW: Yes. Most photographers have their specialty and although I’ve never been a still life photographer people like my eye. Some people thought it would be really interesting to hire me to do a product shot. I thought how did they think of me for that? Clinique hired me for some reason. I was shooting the bottle but in my style. People kissing in the background, out of focus lips, and beautiful light.
Surprisingly it came out great and their ad agency hired me again.
I enjoyed doing this type of shoot even though it was out of my comfort zone. Back in the day everything was very specialized. If you were a recognized car photographer but you didn’t have a photo of a red car in your portfolio you probably wouldn’t get the job photographing a red car! I was in the midst of doing the Dewer’s Scotch Whisky campaign which was one of the top ad campaigns of the 90s. They were lifestyle images all shot in black and white. The art director who hired me was also working on Coca-Cola. He told me the client from Coke said “I really like Whitman’s work but its all in black and white. Can Robert shoot in color?” and I said to the art director of course I can, I just put color film in the camera!
JS: Is there anyone you wished you could have photographed ?
BW: I really wanted to photograph Fidel Castro. I got close to being able to do it but it just didn’t come together. I’m not into celebrities. I love shooting artists, dancers performers, and also normal people. Twenty years ago I was traveling in Bisbee AZ. I met a very cool artist by the name of Peter Young. I was in his studio and I noticed in his bookcase a book on Twyla Tharp. I took the book out, opened it up and turned to a page with a photo of my then wife. I said to Peter this is such a coincidence this is my wife. He takes the book away from me and he holds it up in the air and points to the book’s cover photo of Twyla and says this was MY wife! This is one of those things that happens that is so bizarre yet so cool.
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue photography as a career?
BW: You have to feel inspired by something. There are so many different kinds of photography. Also today with digital photography there are so many things you can get involved in. Just to say I want to be a photographer would be a bit difficult. You need to feel strongly and passionately about some subject that you want to document. It’s a great field and photography really taught me how to see.
JS: What’s next for Robert Whitman?
RW: I want to keep traveling the world. Travel inspires me. For some reason people really open up to me. This is my gift as a photographer. I get different kinds of pictures then you normally see in a travel magazine (body parts, people living off the grid). I love doing portraits but I also love shooting bodies without the face. Since people feel so comfortable with me I also shoot a lot of intimate photos. Young couples and old couples in the heat of passion.
JS: Anything else you wish to add?
RW: I’ve been very lucky and blessed to be a photographer. It’s given me an amazing life. I’ve been able to travel the world and meet people. I’ve been shooting Baryshnikov on and off over the years. Photography also allowed me to meet and photograph Prince before he was famous. The three days we spent together collaborating on those great shots featured in my book Prince Pre Fame was an amazing experience.
To learn more about Robert Whitman and his photography