New York-based Marco Grob worked for 20 years as a still life/product photographer in his native Switzerland, but it wasn’t until he packed his bags and left Europe in 2003 to focus on people photography that he feels his love affair with the medium truly started. It wasn’t where he shot, but what he focused his cameras on that made the difference. Celebrities, political figures and the "common man" in some of the most remote and war-torn areas of the globe have replaced the countless inanimate objects that once paraded before his lens. His time spent meticulously shaping light for his first photography incarnation has translated well to sculpting the light that now falls on his animate subject matter.
DPP: How has growing up in Switzerland affected your aesthetic and your working methodology?
Marco Grob: I was born in the small town of Olten, which is between Zurich and Bern. But I think what was coming out of England in the early ’80s had more influence on me than Switzerland in many ways. I’m a kid from pop culture from that period, in general, and I was drawn to the music of Depeche Mode. From age 13 to 18, I was a stagehand for the biggest concert promoter in Switzerland on weekends and worked with groups like AC/DC and Queen. I met people who loved what they did for a living and were obviously very good at what they did. I saw that you had to work super-hard to get to that level and then maintain and nourish that talent. This really had an influence on my work ethic and the concept that you could make a living at something you loved.
DPP: These musicians weren’t waiting around for things to come to them. They were creating their own opportunities as you’ve done in your career. It’s interesting that you worked for two decades as a still life/product photographer before switching to people.
Grob: I treated portraiture as a hobby while I made a living with the still-life work. I wasn’t true to myself in terms of trusting myself that I could make a living at what I loved shooting most. The lesson I actually learned from these people I just, in part, put into action early on. I was a photographer, yes, but if you’re a guitar player, what kind of guitar player are you? If it’s rock, what kind of rock? I needed to be true to myself and find my language. In 2003, I came to the conclusion that—I was turning 40 soon—I knew it was the time to try it now or I was never going to try it. I knew that if I wanted to go for the portraits I had to leave Switzerland. If you want to be a fisherman, you have to first go to the sea. And if you fish crab, you better go to the Bering Sea. I had to go to the market; it wasn’t going to come to me.
DPP: How did you go about implementing your plan?
Grob: I didn’t feel I was ready for New York, so I first moved to Cape Town, South Africa. Many of the European magazines do their editorial shoots there in winter during South Africa’s summer. I shot my first editorial at 37 years of age. Switzerland doesn’t have an editorial scene. Without editorial work, I firmly believe that a photographer can’t grow.
DPP: Because there’s so much more latitude in editorial than advertising?
Grob: You can make a lot of money in advertising, but you don’t build a personal body of work. In 2008, I felt I was ready to move to New York. New York, for a photographer, is Mecca. Most great photographers have either lived or come through here—Avedon, Penn. There’s a reason for that. Besides being home to most major magazines, you have every big celebrity, politician, scientist, artist coming through New York at one point or another. We get calls from TIME magazine or some other publication, "Can you do this portrait tomorrow?" The world comes to you; you don’t have to run out to the world all the time. That said, I’m traveling much of the year.
DPP: How has your expertise in the still-life world affected your people photography?
Grob: In any art form. I’ve talked with musicians; they say it took them 10 years to learn the guitar and 10 years to forget how they learned it—to liberate themselves from technique. You don’t play because you can play; you play it because it’s right. I have probably more inspiration in other arts in reduction than having a filled bag with knowledge of lighting and all of that to shape light. But the danger is, some people can’t let go of that. Now, I often just use one light. For commercial work, I do film posters—that’s my main source of income—and have elaborate lighting at times. I know how to handle that and I love that for a couple of days.
If people want to know who I want to be, they should watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. People apprentice with the master for 10 years. The only thing they say to him is "hai," meaning, yes, to accept the master like this. I believe in pressure, in making it tough, in working hard. I worked with a master printer many years ago in Switzerland. I’m teaching a class on editorial portraits at Maine Media, and I sit in on classes, as well.
DPP: Your lighting in remote areas of the globe shows a mastery of the balancing of ambient and artificial light. How are you achieving it?
Grob: It’s finding the right ratio between the ambient light and flash, not to have it look too lit. I have a basic kit of Elinchrom lights that we bring wherever we go. I just came back from Ethiopia. I direct my first assistant Tara to walk around holding a light with a five-foot softbox. Elinchrom’s Ranger RX is a really fantastic piece of gear plugged into the Quadra Hybrid AS RX battery pack, which is 400-watt seconds and hardly weighs anything. I shoot with Hasselblad cameras, which allows me to sync at high shutter speeds, sometimes 1/500th or 1/800th, to bring down the ambient light for the look I want.
DPP: You’ve been using this setup to create many of the images for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). Can you tell us about that?
Grob: Since 2010, I’ve been working with UNMAS to help educate people about the 100 million land mines around the world. I believe strongly that photographers, filmmakers, musicians—artists, in general—should get involved in whatever they can to make the world a little better place. Removing mines isn’t a political game; it’s not like peacekeeping missions where you get a lot of nasty politics involved. We travel extensively for the Mine Action Service to places like Afghanistan and Cambodia. Pol Pot said a mine is the "perfect soldier." It lies there for 30 years without food, without anything, and it’s ready to do its work.
DPP: It’s fascinating how one week you’re off shooting these kinds of assignments and the next you’re photographing Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg or Michael Douglas. And now you’re incorporating video, at times, as part of your assignments at home and abroad. Are you using hybrid cameras to do this?
Grob: We worked with HDSLRs along the way, but now we’re experimenting with 4K. I love the RED camera; I think it’s a mind-blowing piece of equipment.
DPP: So, does this necessitate working with a larger crew?
Grob: We actually don’t. We did Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience for TIME magazine with a team of three people. We won an Emmy® for it. We even did the sound ourselves because of budget considerations.
DPP: How did you handle such a vital part of a film production? There’s the expression, "An audience can live with a bad picture, they can’t live with bad sound."
Grob: Sound is key. I have deep respect for sound people for their knowledge and skills. I understand the limitations we have. When we were awarded the job to do Portraits of Resilience, it was a big deal for a magazine to go full multimedia. When I was confronted with that, I told my assistants, we had three weeks to get our sound skills up to a level where we could play the project in a movie theatre and not feel ashamed. We got a Tascam DR-100 and a preamp with two channels. We worked with a lavalier and a pretty nice shotgun mic. It’s basic what we do—recording a person being interviewed with two mics under controlled circumstances. It’s a simple fact these days. If you want to be part of the game, down the road it’s either you’re multimedia or you’re not at all.
DPP: It’s not down the road; it’s next door. I gather you’re not using the Elinchrom modeling lights to illuminate your video projects.
Grob: You can’t because of the ventilation noise. We had to make our setup travel-friendly for a small crew. For Beyond 9/11, we lit the white background with two 1Ks, and in front of the subject, we had one. We shot the video first because the setup was more elaborate; then we did stills and switched to strobes. For Beyond 9/11, we shot the video with three DSLR cameras. For the new One Dream on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, we shot with four cameras. This was done for Red Border Films, the new documentary filmmaking unit and interactive digital platform on Time.com. We did interviews with 17 participants from the movement, including Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte.
DPP: No matter if you’re shooting video or stills, your lighting is so precise. That seems like it came from your days shooting product and still life. When you see a face, you sculpt the light to it.
Grob: That’s certainly true. I’m an observer. I love light, I observe light. I see what it does. I look at the work of other photographers and filmmakers. I sat in on a class for a week up in Maine with the great cinematographer Russell Carpenter who shot Titanic. It’s a constant learning curve. It’s something I love. I’m always asking myself, "How can I improve my storytelling abilities?" I know I’m a lucky bastard. I’ve got this enormous front-row seat to history at this particular moment in time, which I want to keep myself strapped into for the rest of my life. Being a photographer is the most interesting, most daunting, most fantastic way to make a living.
See more of Marco Grob’s photography at www.marcogrob.com.
What I Use
"I use Hasselblad cameras exclusively, the H5D 60MP," says Grob. "For lenses, I use the Hasselblad 80mm, 50mm, 35mm and 120mm macro." For lighting, Grob has been a longtime Elinchrom user. "I’ve used Elinchrom for almost 25 years," he says. "We use mostly monoheads. I love them because of their weight-to-power ratio, fewer cables, etc. We have several 650ws and several 1200ws heads. We use quite an array of Elinchrome light modifiers. The Ranger Quadras with travel battery packs are absolutely fantastic! We used them in Africa and in the cold, and they’re just amazing—powerful and light!"