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.