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.