Monday, May 9, 2016

Machiel Botman: Gazing Within
Minor White once said, “All photographs are self-portraits.” When one considers the medium from a fine art rather than utilitarian perspective, it’s hard to argue against this assertion. Despite its mechanical nature, photography not only reveals what’s in front of the camera, it inescapably alludes to the personalities of those behind it. At one extreme are photographers who make self-reflective imagery in a calculated and direct manner, using themselves as subject (Francesca Woodman is a famous example). In contrast are photographers who reveal themselves more obliquely (as White did), through choice of subject matter, visual style and use of symbolism. Prominent among the latter category is Dutch photographer Machiel Botman, whose entire body of work, begun in the late 1970s, can be seen as an uninterrupted visual diary of self-exploration. Yet he’s no soul-baring exhibitionist; Botman is akin to writers who express more between the lines than in the lines themselves. And his autobiographical impulse is subordinate to his desire simply to make sense of his life and the lives of those around him. It’s an unhurried, unstressed process for Botman, who was born in Vogelenzang, the Netherlands, in 1955.

Machiel Botman, self-portrait

What sparked your interest in photography?
To be honest, I don't know. Cameras and using them were part of life for as long as I can remember. We (my brother and I) grew up in a forest, and there were many things around us worth photographing: tree huts, dogs, cats, birds, friends, each other—and all the tools a child uses. The cameras came into the house because our father (who did not live with us) brought cameras that people turned in to his insurance company. So we could try them out. Some worked, others not.

When did you realize this was the medium you wanted to devote yourself to?
Perhaps around the age of 22, 23, when I photographed my girlfriend, Jel. Then, because I photographed someone I loved, I simply loved photography too. I began to develop film and print the negatives. I think it was the total quiet in that darkroom, for days and weeks nonstop, that won me over.

White Cat, 1965

The photo White Cat,” taken in 1965, is pretty accomplished for a 10-year-old: the composition is nicely balanced, it shows good timing in capturing the cat’s graceful pose, and it has nice contrast and textures. Is this image representative of your early work?
No, in the sense of photographic quality, this is an exceptional image and it was simply being lucky. Apart from what you say, it is how that little plastic lens of the Kodak Instamatic dealt with the white cat in the snow. Total magic and it reminds me of early Japanese photography, not very sharp, not very subtle in the grays, but with such feeling to it all. There are many more childhood photographs and some are beautiful, but this image of the cat says it all for me.

Even at this early stage, you managed to evoke a very personal response to your subject matter. Was this a conscious approach, or did it evolve naturally?
It came in a natural way, but it is not easy to put into words what that means. What may be personal to me can be something else to you. I think it is about many things, from just thinking about photography, to how one photographs, even in terms of the equipment, to how one develops and prints. In the beginning I thought more about photography than I did later on. Like: Should I use a telephoto lens for a portrait? Answer: no, because I want to be very close to the person I photograph; otherwise it has no meaning. True, you can make beautiful portraits with telephoto lenses, but when you remain far [away] from the person, you have no contact and there is no reason for the photograph, except perhaps an aesthetic reason. And that's not enough, it never is. Of course, this is all subjective blah blah, but it is my way: A small camera and one lens is really what I use 95% of the time. (Olympus OM1 with a 40mm and a Pentax LX with a 50mm). I like small cameras because they do not intimidate. It means I can get much closer to what really matters, the personal worlds within photography. 

Ijke's Hand, 1999

Another side of the answer is the subject choice itself. I only work with people who mean something to me, often in a strong way. So there are no models and I do not ask people to pose. They know I photograph them, but it doesn't matter. It is almost unimportant, I'm playing. Maybe that sounds crazy, but that's how it is. And even with objects or landscapes the better images come from playing rather than thinking things out. All I do is get close. I identify with something Robert Frank once said when asked about using family [members] in his images: “That's the soup I cook."

How long did it take you to develop a personal vision?
Not so long and very long. Some great images happened right away. But to understand it all, and mostly myself, that took a long time, and still does. At first people in the field asked me: "Beautiful image, but what is it about?" I had no answer, at least not an honest one. The real reason for people to ask that question was that my context wasn't yet clear. Some great images jumped out, but there were no other images making clear where it all came from and where I was going to. That part has only slowly changed. I just took my time, I worked for years on the same books. I made many book dummies to show myself things. Probably this made me realize things about photographing.

Tree House, 2008

What was the biggest challenge in doing so?
To just stick to what I believed in. Mine is intuitive photography. In my case that means to be a snail.

Which photographers and/or other artists have influenced you?
Masahisa Fukase, Sanne Sannes, Dave Heath, Daido Moriyama, Johan Van der Keuken, Daniel Seymour, Gerard Petrus Fieret. The painter Constant Nieuwenhuys. Neil Young.

Is there a specific Dutch photographic tradition or movement that helped shape your creative perspective?
I'm not sure there is, but I do feel that Holland is very lucky to have (had) some photographers: In particular Johan van der Keuken and Gerard Fieret. Two opposites. Johan succeeded in making connections between very personal worlds and larger worlds: political, etc. Beautiful thinker. Fieret was the opposite: all intuition. Mostly images of girls and women he liked. Beautiful stuff, raw, modest and without a single pretense.

People take photographs for all sorts of reasons. Your bio states that for you, it’s a way to understand life. Can you specify how the process works for you?
The understanding of life comes after the images are taken, when they have come to rest. Many times to take a photograph is a violent action—you slice an instant from its past and future. To let that become meaningful you need time. To understand what you are really looking at. To understand how that image can become important within who you are. Maybe it connects to what you have done before. Maybe it shows you something you never realized.

Shoulder, Magda, 2008

Is all of your work autobiographical? Is it important to know the people that you photograph?
Yes almost all of it. From early on I had the rather fatalistic idea that if I couldn't do it with those who mattered to me, then I couldn't do it at all. Well, I am still in the first stage, trying to do it with those who matter to me. It is about my idea of what is real or not. All very subjective, but I am still quite convinced. For instance, it is not so difficult for a photographer to do a portrait of someone which suggests there is something highly personal between them. To many photographers that is their idea of a great portrait. But to me, if there is not that something highly personal between them, that is a lie. I have to say this is just about me. If I would take a photograph of a person that suggests we have a lot going on between us, then this image would always bother me if that was not true.

What kind of exploration does photography represent for you? Spiritual, intellectual, social?
Not intellectual. Spiritual is a big word. But I have learned tremendously from this profession. I have found things in my images that I never knew were there when I took them. I have understood things by putting certain images together, by sequencing them. It's always about things between the lines, or things that are difficult to give a name. I guess that could mean spiritual. Catherine Duncan (a friend and writer for Paul Strand) once looked at my work, she was over 90 years old and said: “Well now, of course we are not going to be spoon-fed.” And then, with a wicked smile in her eyes, said, "But then, how could we if we want to enter anything remotely spiritual."

I am not a social photographer, but I have learned a lot from social photographers. Philip Jones Griffiths' book Vietnam Inc. was a revelation to me. The images of course, but also how he put it together. It was one of my first photo books. Years later, when the whole world had turned plastic and uncaring, he made Agent Orange. He had never let go of Vietnam and what happened there. And again he made a special book. But not many people wanted to see pictures of unborn, mis-formed children in bottles.

Lea, 2002

Do you have an overall conception in mind when you go out to photograph, or is it more of a searching process?
The latter. I am the photographer without a plan. I just react.

Put another way, do you look for images, or do they look for you?
They find me, for sure.

Do you feel that the further you get from a literal interpretation of a particular subject, the closer you get to revealing or capturing some kind of truth about it, whether literal or symbolic?
Yes. I think precise information or linear information often takes us further from that truth. Sometimes it becomes so terribly difficult to imagine anything today. And it is in our imagination that we can reveal something, or find a certain truth.

Ijke Flowers, 1993

For me, the images are all about dualities. They are strange yet familiar, inviting yet distant, transparent yet oblique. Do they strike you in this manner?
Yes, for some reason they are never very singular. Some have really confused me, because I slowly began to see things that were conflicting with what I had seen before. There is the image “IJke Flowers” from 1993. I use it on the cover of my book Heartbeat. The instant of photographing my five-year old son IJke with the flowers lasted just seconds. There was no plan, it just happened like a short silence in a storm. When I saw it I knew it was the cover image I had wanted to find for more than two years. That book I began after my mother had passed away, and in a sense it is about that too. But it is also about my boy, who was born not long before, about my relationships, my people. At first that image is a young boy holding out white flowers to the photographer, to you. However, because of the light and the absence of focus in the majority of the image, something ghostly enters. Something like death. Something not very easy.

We should talk again in a few years, when I have had (and you too) some time with the image of “Horse and Church,” from the book One Tree. I know it has many layers to it, but I can't yet put it into words. It is basically a mistake; my camera was not fully transporting the film. And I kind of willingly refused to deal with it. But after that it is only about the image we see. A sleeping horse? I am not sure.

Horse and Church, 2008

What I ultimately take away from your work is a profound sense of innocence. You seem to evoke a kind of primeval emotional state.
I think I never grew up. I simply do not accept many grownup reasonings, and I do accept very much the unfinished child. Him or her I can relate with, without any problem.

Do you consider yourself a romantic?
No, to the contrary.

Do you feel that photo books are the best way to disseminate your work?
Yes, but not only. Simply, a table can be great too. Let's say shows are smaller moments in time; they have an end to them when we take the pictures of the wall. Therefore the afterlife of a show is relatively short. It’s so different with a book. We keep coming back to it, so the ideas in a book meet a changing person. Or, the viewer can change how the book affects him or her. In exhibitions there is something terribly distant about standing in front of a framed image. To hold a book in your hands feels more like real life to me. It is a strange medium, the photo book. To me, it gets most interesting when the books have nothing explanatory and when it is the object you hold in your hands that somehow gives away its identity. You know, like when you first pick up a new book and leaf through it from the back to the front. And you simply know you are going to love this book. Now that is very photo book! It’s difficult to pick up a novel and do some fragmented reading from back to front . . . well, for me it is.

Elswout, Haarlem, 1999

How important is the darkroom to expressing your particular vision? It looks as if much of the darkness in the images is enhanced during printing.
I know my prints have a lot of contrast, but to me that is normal. I like a beautiful print, but I don’t have to get the total nuances the medium can give me. That is not my holy goal. I want secrets, emptiness, mistakes and all the stuff that makes life so interesting.

I like how you open up unusual visual perspectives through sequential imagery.
I find photography beautiful when it shows small steps in life. When I photograph someone it is always quite quickly. I don't like to put through through endlessly being stared at though a camera before taking the picture. It means it is over before we know it. But then, when the camera is just in my hands and not in front of my eyes, I always shoot some more. Many times that's when things really happen and when the person becomes alive. Then it is often nice to show two or three images in sequence.

What are the most important qualities a creative photographer must possess?
I think it is all about imagination. I don't know if having a certain kind of imagination is a quality. But I like it best when a photographer's imagination surprises me, when it really works. Then I see an identity of the one who made the piece. We are at a strange point in photography: Digital printing is taking over. So many photographers let labs print their images. Of course, they give directions for the printing, but it is not the same as when one always does his or her own prints. That brings you much closer to the photographer also having an identity in the printing. That's about touching stuff, struggling, being a human being. We are losing that, and that means we are also losing the knowledge. Scary stuff. All of this to say that I prefer a photographer to make his or her prints, to see the specific quality in that.

Julia, 2007

(All images copyright Machiel Botman. He is represented by the Gitterman Gallery in New York and the Mica Gallery in Milan. His books include Heartbeat (Volute, 1994),Rainchild (Schaden and Le Point du Jour, 2004) and One Tree (Nazraeli Press, 2011). His work is included in numerous institutional collections, including the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Tokyo Museum of Photography and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. To see more of his imagery, visit

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bob Peterson: Old School Pro
There is a fundamental directness and decency about Bob Peterson, qualities that are visibly manifest in a celebrated photographic career that encompasses sports, photojournalism and advertising. He began taking pictures at 12 when his father built him a darkroom in their Berkeley, California home. It was there that Peterson “saw my first little deckled-edge contact print floating in the developer tray turn from white to a real picture. That was magic, and I was hooked.” Encouraged by his mother, Peterson rapidly progressed, winning an Eastman Kodak photo contest while in high school. At 15, he was shooting sports for the Berkeley Daily Gazette. While still in his teens, he freelanced for Time and Sports Illustrated. At 19, as a stringer for UPI, he covered Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy when they campaigned in Seattle during the 1960 presidential election. Although sports photography was his first love, his priorities changed at 21, especially after interviewing with Life picture editor Dick Pollard. That initial contact eventually led to a steady stream of news and feature assignments (plus several covers) for the iconic magazine. When Life folded in 1972, Peterson reinvented himself as a successful advertising photographer specializing in journalistic-oriented imagery for a wide range of top agencies and companies. Along the way he added television commercial directing to his resume. Peterson is still working, albeit at a slightly slower pace these days as editorial and advertising needs have changed.

Bob Peterson

What inspired you to switch from sports photography to photojournalism?
Shooting sports was fun, but I came to realize that it was not important or significant in the overall scheme of things. So I started hanging around Life and trying to get assignments from them. I had done a few things for Life here in Seattle before I moved to New York, little freelance jobs. I was very lucky because I was able to get in on the last six years of Life. I was eventually put on contract, but I was a freelancer at first, wandering the halls and talking to people, getting to know a couple of editors.

What else appealed to you about photojournalism?
It was real. It was honest. My earliest hero was Alfred Eisenstadt. I remember when Popular Photography did an issue celebrating his 25th year as a photojournalist called “The Eye of Eisenstadt.” I was knocked out by his stuff. I sent him a letter asking what film he used, what light meter, etc. Two weeks later this letter comes to my house, and it’s got a Life magazine logo in the upper-left corner. It was a letter from Eisie. He said he’d been using Super XX, but was using TRI-X now because it was a little faster, and he used a Weston meter, but he generally didn’t need it. I had also invited him to our family’s house for dinner if he ever got to San Francisco. I was 14, 15 then. He wrote that if he ever came to San Francisco, I would be his guest for dinner. Well, it never happened. Fast-forward, and I’m standing on the 28th floor of Life magazine, and here comes Eisenstadt. I stopped him and said, “Mr. Eisenstadt.” And he said, “Just Eisie.” And I said, “My name’s Bob Peterson, and years ago I wrote you a letter.” “Oh, wait a minute. You lived in Berkeley, right? You wanted to know about my film and my meter.” I was just amazed that he remembered.

F. Lee Bailey, Boston, 1967

By all accounts he seems to have been a pretty humble guy.
He was out here in Seattle on the last tour of his shows about 20 years ago, and they had a show and then a question-and-answer period for a lot of young photographers. They asked him questions like, “What do you think of hand coloring?” “What? What is this hand coloring?” Or, “What do you do about burnout?” “What is burnout? I’m just a photographer.” For him, it was just a job. You took your cameras and you went where somebody told you to go and took pictures of people and brought them back to the magazine.

What did it mean to you to be a Life photographer?
There was this wonderful thing about Life magazine. They didn’t really screw anybody. I mean, they would go after bad guys and so forth. But if Life wanted to do a story on someone, nobody turned them down. What was the circulation back then? 12 million? Giant circulation. And they gave you time, the writer and photographer, to do a good job. I did a story on F. Lee Bailey, and we went up to where he lived just outside of Boston. The first day we went out I took just one camera over my shoulder to let him get used to it. The second day I started shooting more, and the third day more and more. You had time to work with people and you got to know them a little bit. It was a wonderful experience. In contrast, I remember the last assignments I did for People magazine, where you had a half day with a celebrity, and you’d have to make them change clothes twice so it looked like you were there for more than just three hours.

John F. Kennedy campaigning in Seattle, 1960

Walter Gropius, 1968

How many days would you typically have for a Life assignment?
Five to a week. It varied. Some days you’d go out and have one day. There were a lot of one-day things, but something like the Newark riots in 1967, I got called in the middle of the night and went over there, and was there for a week.

You did hard news coverage, but specialized in personality profiles. What personal characteristics helped you excel in this regard?
My parents raised me to be a confident person, but not pushy, and I seemed to be able to get along with people. I would go in and follow [the subject’s] lead and be more of a fly on the wall, even though I’m a large guy. I was able to kind of let them set the standard of what they were doing. During the first moon shot, I was assigned to meet with Pat Collins, Mike Collins’ wife. He was the pilot of the spaceship and stayed in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the moon. I just hung around and was the guy in the house with Collins’ family.

I did a story on Peter Boyle. Remember a movie called Joe? He lived about 15 blocks from me in New York, and the writer and I would go hang out with him every day. Just kind of be friends. Everybody knew what was going on. You’re Peter Boyle, you’re an actor, you’d love to have a story on you for Life. So everybody is going to cooperate with you and let you get the best pictures and interview possible. The wonderful thing about Life is that the writers were incredibly good. To some of the photographers they took a little bit of a back seat, but the quality of the work they did, guys like Barry Farrell, and Paul O’Neill, was outstanding. They were very bright, interesting folks, so they were nice to be around.

Newark riots, 1967

Your subjects didn’t primp and preen for the camera, they just let you photograph them in a very natural and candid fashion.
Well, part of that was because you had enough time. We did a story on Joyce Hall, the man who started Hallmark Cards. We went to Kansas City and hung out with him for four days. People were willing to do that. We did a mafia murder story about a guy named Ernie “the Hawk” Rupolo, who had been stabbed and tied to cinderblocks and dumped into Jamaica Bay outside Long Island. The guys that did it hadn’t been careful enough, and they didn’t completely slice his stomach open. He was underwater and starting to ferment and his stomach filled up with gas and he floated to the surface. We were doing a story on the prosecutor in that case, and I think I went to Queens every day for three months. Just hung around with the prosecutor and the detectives as they were preparing their case. Three months! That’s a long time. The story was going to be on the cover, but the week it was scheduled to run was the week the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and knocked us off the cover.

What was your first cover?
I got my first cover with Norman Mailer when he was writing Of a Fire on the Moon (1970).

What was Mailer like as a subject?
He was just a regular guy. I photographed him twice. Once for the moon book he wrote, where I only spent a day with him because the magazine just wanted that one portrait. And then I went back when he and Jimmy Breslin were running for mayor and vice-mayor of New York City. Their platform was that NYC should become the 51st state, and their slogan was “Cut out the bullshit.” Mailer and Breslin would go out and campaign, and the writer and I would follow them around. Even in New York back then there would be maybe one TV station picking up on it, and you’d just hang with them the whole day. It wasn’t a mob scene the way it is today.

Norman Mailer, 1969

August 29, 1969 Life magazine cover

What do you remember most about him?
I really enjoyed Mailer. You’d go into a bar with him, and he would talk to anybody. He was a contrarian, and he loved to argue. He would stand with his arms up and his thumbs by his lapels, almost like a boxer, and combatively take the other side of an argument. But he was very cool and down to earth. He had his job and I had my job.

It seemed like you were able to go deeper into Mailer’s personality than some of your other subjects, like, say, Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood was making Dirty Harry at the time, and a lot of my coverage was on the set. And he kind of stayed to himself off the set. There was one day when we were at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, when I got the shot that was used on Life’s cover. His son, who was not in that photo, was sitting next to him. And Eastwood was very relaxed in that setting. But he was becoming a pretty big star then. He was busier, more focused on his work. With Mailer, a lot of my time was spent just hanging around with him, whereas Eastwood was focused on his acting job. And I had less time with Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, 1971

Did any of your subjects ever discourage you from taking pictures?
No, but I remember when Eastwood invited me and the writer to a screening of Play Misty for Me, which he had just directed. It was a private screening at somebody’s house. That was an evening where I don’t think I even had a camera with me. It just seemed out of place. There were certain times you didn’t take pictures of people, just out of respect for their privacy.

What other rules did you have for yourself?
I felt it was okay to ask somebody to repeat what they had just done for the camera, but I would never have suggested they do something of my invention. You let the person do what they actually were doing, and tried not to influence that. Like that F. Lee Bailey in the courtroom shot. He was wandering around the room telling my writer and me a story about the Boston Strangler, and how he defended him. Obviously, he was giving us a tour, and he took us to the courthouse, and we went in there with him, and all of a sudden I saw this shaft of light coming through the window, so I backed up and asked him to walk through it one more time.

Mario Puzo, working on The Godfather screenplay, Paramount Pictures, 1969

What was Mario Puzo like to photograph?
Puzo was a very gregarious guy, and talked about himself in the third person. He was writing the screenplay for The Godfather in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, and I went and hung out with him. He would say, “So, they came to me and they asked, “Who should we get to write the screenplay of The Godfather?’ And I told them, ‘There’s only one guy that can write the screenplay. And that’s Mario Puzo!’” He typed the screenplay on the typewriter that’s in the portrait shot of him with a big cigar. He was pretty relaxed. I remember we went to Vegas on a quick trip, where I photographed him shooting craps in the casinos. On the plane back to Los Angeles I said, “Well, how’d you do?” He said, “I did great. I only lost $7,000.” “What? $7,000!” “Oh, yeah, that’s good for me. Sometimes I really get hurt there.”

Do you think you would still enjoy working for Life if it were still around?
I would like to think so. I enjoyed doing the kind of advertising stuff I’ve been able to do, but there was something pure about the Life magazine coverage. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it wasn’t like the kind of stuff Vanity Fair runs.

A lot of that is basically stunt photography.
Yeah, it is. I know that Life magazine back then wouldn’t use that kind of stuff. There was a purity to Life. It was very honest and real. You wouldn’t use some of the tricks that are used today. And a lot of it was black and white. Color started coming in, but a lot of the assignments were done in black and white. And of course they had that great lab that did beautiful fiber-base prints. All full-frame. Everything was printed with the black edges around the image. You could see the way things were composed. They would crop to fit layouts and things, but there was a visual purity that I don’t see today. I feel badly for photographers today who don’t have that big, splashy vehicle to display their work.

Joan Baez, Newport Folk Festival, 1969

Nelson Rockefeller campaigning in 1968

The canvas has shrunk a lot.
And Life was expensive to print. I remember someone telling me they were going to take an eighth of an inch off the top and side of the magazine. Just trim it so the magazine was ever so slightly smaller. And they would save millions of dollars in newsprint. One of the things about that era was that people actually got news from a weekly magazine. Today, it’s the Internet, television, CNN and MSNBC, and bloggers and Twitter. There are fewer and fewer places for photojournalism. We lost a newspaper in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer. It’s now strictly an online paper. The Seattle Times is the last print newspaper in town. I don’t know how many staff photographers they have, maybe 15. Some of them took early retirement. There’s just no room in the paper. It’s the same in advertising. I’m on the advisory board of the Seattle Central Community College, and they’ve got a world-class commercial photography program, and every year they have 30 graduates, and I don’t know where these kids are going to find work.

Do you feel that the people you photographed back then were less guarded than they are today?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Someone once told me that nobody ever turned down being interviewed by Fortune magazine, because Fortune never screwed anybody over. And when you worked for Life, doors were opened because people knew that they would be treated fairly by the writers, photographers and editors.

Philip Roth, 1968

Gotcha journalism wasn’t as prevalent then.
Not at all. If you hung around with F. Lee Bailey 12 hours a day and had a drink with him at night, and he said something off the record, you honored that. You’re right, there wasn’t that gotcha factor. And security was less stringent. Some of the pictures I shot of Nixon and Kennedy arriving in Seattle during the 1960 presidential campaign … I mean, you’d never get that close to the candidate today. I was stringing for UPI and working for the University of Washington Daily. Those were my credentials. And there I was, five feet away from Kennedy when as he arrived in Seattle. And there was some girl even closer talking to him as he got off the airplane. Security was much less back then, but people seemed to trust more back then.

Did you feel a sense of history taking those pictures, being so close to the candidates, and later, to some of the era’s cultural heavyweights?
In retrospect, yes. But at the time I just felt it was my job. I didn’t have a sense of history. I have a good, solid ego, but I never would say, “Wow, this is Peterson taking a picture of Norman Mailer that’s going to be remembered forever.” I mean, that kind of thought never entered my mind. It’s just like when Eisenstadt was asked about burnout. You know, he just considered himself a photographer.

There certainly were stars hanging around the halls of Life, like Gjon Mili, the man who made strobe photography famous. And Ralph Morse, who took all the famous pictures of astronauts and figured out how to mount cameras on stuff. But anybody could go up and talk to them. Morse would be in his cubicle and would share information with anyone who asked him questions. In retrospect, it was significant time. But at that time I didn’t have a sense of history. I was just hoping for the next assignment.

Richard Nixon and family celebrate 1968 election victory

Were you generally happy with the way Life laid out your pictures?
A couple of times things didn’t run, or a story got killed, and I was always disappointed with that. This is interesting because as you get older, you start to wonder what’s going to happen to all your stuff. I’ve been taking pictures since I was 12, so that’s a lot of images. I’ve been going through stuff to figure out how to archive it, and I’m looking at the contact sheets, and I realize that Life had some very good editors. I can see how they did the editing. And they were right on. They did a good job. Rarely would I find a frame before or after that they missed. So I was very lucky in that regard. And they generally used stuff well.

When Life was cancelled in 1972, you began a transition to advertising work.
In 1970 we were all told that Life was going to start using fewer photographers in New York. Because they had all these guys on staff that would be paid whether they worked or not. And they were going to start giving the staff guys the good assignments in New York. I was a freelancer, and I could see the handwriting on the wall. I was having lunch with a Life writer, who said why didn’t I just ask them for a contract. I didn’t think I was important enough to the magazine, but I went in and talked to the picture editor and said I was thinking of moving to San Francisco or Seattle and asked could I get a contract. He said that if I went to Seattle he’d give me a contract. And he did, and it guaranteed me a thousand dollars a month. For the first time in my life I had a real job, which gave my wife and I (who had just had a baby) a stability we’d never had. So for the next two years with Life I was under contract. In November 1972 they renewed my contract for 1973. And then the magazine was killed in December. But they sent a letter saying they were going to honor my contract for 1973, which I thought was pretty incredible.

Real Change ad

Nike ad

I started doing more stuff for Sports Illustrated, but by then it just wasn’t very interesting, and Seattle wasn’t a big sports town then. And Time magazine wasn’t much fun to shoot for, because they ran the pictures tiny and didn’t really care about photography. I had some friends in the ad business, so I put together a book of my photojournalism stuff, and went around and tried to sell myself as a journalistic-oriented advertising photographer. And people liked the realism of my work, and the fact that I could think on my feet and react. At that time you had ads that had a photojournalistic quality to them. That kind of evolved, and then I did some commercial directing until I realized that as a film director I was much lower on the scale than as a still photographer, so I drifted out of that.

Then the sort of conceptual lifestyle advertising thing started, and some young art directors here in Seattle liked that journalistic approach, and that’s when we did stuff for Sims snowboard, where we faked the Tiananmen Square thing with snowplows. It had a journalistic feel to it. But the third snowplow was Photoshopped in, and my photography changed a little bit. Now I’m doing less and less stuff. I’m not retired, but the kind of work I did, that lifestyle photography, people aren’t doing it as much.

Sims Snowboards ad

Anything else you’d like to say regarding the multiple paths your career has taken?
The thing about Life was that you went out with a writer, and the two of you worked together but tried to stay out of each other’s way. In advertising, you go out with a team. You have assistants, lighting people. Photographers used to go out by themselves, whereas today there’s a whole gaggle of people that go out. On a recent job I had one guy just downloading stuff into the computer and another guy working on lighting. It’s a bigger deal; it’s harder in a way. You used to go out with a camera bag and a few lenses and a pocket full of TRI-X. Nowadays you go out with a Canon 5D Mark II and a couple heavy zoom lenses, and it’s a different style. I don’t know if it gets in the way or not — it’s just different. I’m still doing pictures the way I’ve always done them, although I suppose I’m a little pushier now in terms of getting people into position. But if you’re respectful of your subject, they’re going to be respectful back and try to help you as much as they can.

(All images copyright Bob Peterson. Visit to see more examples of his versatile, award-winning work.)