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Connected and real – the portraiture of photographer Robert Houser

April 22, 2015 by


For over 20 years, Robert Houser has been shooting for magazines and for advertising and corporate clients. For Robert, connecting with his subjects is the key to a successful portrait, which seems to be very efficient as Bob’s personal project “Facing Chemo “along with his portrait work have received countless awards.

We had the chance to talk to Robert about his projects and why photography is not only his work, but his passion.

Production Paradise: How did you start your career as professional photographer?

Robert: While in college for a combined degree in Psychology and Comparative Literature, I had the opportunity to take a photography class at the Rhode Island School of Design. Two classes later, I was hooked, so I moved to California and looked for work assisting photographers on a free-lance basis. Over the ensuing six or seven years I began taking any shooting work I could get my hands on, but my main break came from a travel company for which I ended up traveling around the world shooting adventure travel. That sparked magazine work in the adventure sports arena for magazines like Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Women’s Sports and Fitness. Then later in the 90’s I took on more portrait based commissions for the likes of Wired, Business Week, Forbes and the Red Herring.

Production Paradise: How would you define your style in a few words and why these words in particular?

Robert: Connected and real. Photographing people for 25 years, I have come to realize one of my strengths is to be able to quickly connect with my subjects. Bringing them out of themselves, their day, their last meeting or tonight’s concerns, it may be as simple as noticing something small about them, their outfit, their workspace. I have always had a knack for noticing things and it’s amazing how useful this can be on a shoot. For example, I was once photographing a woman for a magazine story about computer security. An expert in her field, she wanted to come across very serious to her colleagues, but the magazine wanted images of her smiling. That was not going to happen, until I noticed a bracelet on her arm. I asked her if she owned some of the office art on the floor below the level on which we were shooting. (Earlier, during my scouting, I had noticed a painting that was the exact colors and geometric shape as her bracelet). Instantly she warmed up – I had noticed something about her, her life outside work – an immediate connection.

And real, this comes hand in hand with the connection. I don’t want to photograph someone where they feel forced, the emotion is forced or the pose is forced.  I want it to be genuine. I’ll often ask them to switch places with me so that I can feel the environment we have put them into – how does it feel, what would be natural, what would feel right as well as look good?

Production Paradise: You travelled worldwide over a five years period; what is the most amazing shot you took and where was it?

Robert: Some of my most favorite places to which I have travelled have been on the geographic extremes of continents, like northern Norway above the Arctic Circle, or the lake district of Argentinian Patagonia. But, the image that comes to mind most readily was shot in Bali. It was sunrise and I went out from the town of Ubud to photograph rice farmers planting in the flooded fields. The farmer was backlit, standing barefoot in shin-high water the color of milky tea. I was fortunate enough to get an image of a plant in his bare hand with water dripping down as he pushed it into the soil.

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Production Paradise: You do different categories of photography such as people, fitness and business; which category is your favorite one and why?

Robert: Of the varied types of projects I work on, I cannot say that I have a favorite category. Instead, the thing that makes me happiest in this career is the ability to do different things every day. I love business portraiture for the sheer challenge of making a space you’ve never seen and a person you’ve never met look great in a short period of time. You often cannot scout in advance and the subject will leave when he/she is obligated to, so you must work fast, decide fast, connect quickly, and hopefully choose correctly. I also love healthcare work when I can really take the time to connect with a patient or a family, photograph them in their environment, and tell their story in a dignified way. And, fitness, well that brings me full circle to the work I did when I began this career, only with much more experience with people so that I can bring some persona to the projects.

Production Paradise:  What challenges do you face when shooting in corporations and the subjects may not be used to having a camera pointed at them?

Robert: When entering any business environment, I think the hardest thing in portraiture is finding a composition that can tell the story of the person or place, but not appear busy or boring. My approach is to first look for light. I try to find where the available light is best, how I can work with what is already there, how I can augment or improve it. I want to be able to set up numerous options in a corporate portrait shoot, so I use as much available light as possible. This way I can work on that connection the minute I meet my subject. Some of the set-ups might have complex lighting, but by doing a dry run with my assistant and having options, I can take my subject on a walk, from set to set. I call it a visual conversation. We keep talking as we move from location to location.  It keeps them engaged and interested. And the variety of sets helps an art director or editor see a more full story of both the individual and the business. As far as comfort with a camera pointed at them, that’s why I talk; it’s never, “Sit here and look here.” I talk, I engage, I tell stories and as much as I can, I notice. I’ll use something I read about them online, something I heard a representative say, or the accent I heard the minute I met them. Recently I was asked to bid on a project and the art director asked if I wanted someone there to talk to the subjects while I photographed them. I was surprised by the question, and replied that no, I wanted to be the one to engage them, connect with them and work with and direct their reactions.

Production Paradise: Your personal project “Facing Chemo” has been awarded placement in the 2014 APANY International Photo Contest; what or who inspired you to start it and did you expect such recognition for your work?

Robert: My Facing Chemo project began almost by accident. I was photographing a young woman for a magazine story when she suddenly told me she was about to lose her hair from chemotherapy. I instantly wanted to give her something – something that I thought could help her through, so I offered to photograph her when she lost her hair. While I could tell that she wasn’t going to take me up on the offer, I was not surprised when five years later she called me out of the blue and asked if my offer was still good. Within 48 hours I was at her place on a rainy day, photographing her by the light of a second story airshaft. I knew the pictures would be different, but I wasn’t prepared for how genuine they would depict her state. Her emotion was so raw, so present, unlike anything I had experienced in twenty years of photographing people. I became instantly fascinated in photographing people undergoing chemo, almost from an academic perspective. That first image was accepted into Communication Arts’ Photography Annual that year. As the project grew to an exhibit after photographing dozens of people, it has been rewarding to see it recognized by numerous groups including the APA show.

Robert Houser - Facing Chemo

Production Paradise: When you photograph people you say that with every project you wish to make your subjects tell their story; can you explain your thought process for doing this?

Robert: When I started in portraiture, there was a trend to use various film and lighting effects – cross-processing, flash blur, gel’d lighting etc. Later, at the turn of the century, magazine portraits often depicted a more absent subject – people were turned to the side, photographers included lights stands and plugs, the emphasis moved from lighting effects to composition without a connection to the subject. Very hard light was being used, and to me, the portraits were more about the editor or the photographer than the subject. At about this time, I had begun using a lot more ambient light, allowing my subjects to move, searching for some moment, some gesture, something to make the portrait real. I believe these images tell you something more about the person. The images come off the page and deliver more than a gimmick or a snapshot of the photographer’s lighting. I now strive for more of a connection with my subjects – finding some common link that I can use to bring them out, and into the story we are telling.

Production Paradise: What is your next upcoming project?

Robert: My next personal project has grown from the Facing Chemo exhibit. We have begun a non-profit called the Facing Light Foundation with a mission to create photography and video exhibits concentrating on various health related challenges. The goal, as with Facing Chemo, is to educate, inspire and raise awareness to these health issues through art. We are currently photographing Aging, and hope to soon begin studies on Mental Illness and MS (Multiple Sclerosis).

Production Paradise: What have you found most useful about being a Production Paradise member?

Robert: For the studio, our involvement with Production Paradise has been about exposure to new markets and new clients. We have received increased exposure, new connections with industry professionals and sound advise on marketing. Curating new portfolios for the different projects we have done with Production Paradise has been a great opportunity for us to re-examine our marketing portfolios and examine the markets in which we are advertising.

We would like to thank Robert Houser for taking the time to speak with us. You can see more of his work on Production Paradise and his website. You can find more San Francisco-based photographer in our San Francisco Directory.

If you want to show off your latest work to the industry in the next edition of Production Paradise’s Spotlight or Showcase magazine, contact us now at showcasemagazine@productionparadise.com or spotlightmagazine@productionparadise.com

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