When companies hire San Francisco photographer Robert Houser to shoot their annual reports or headshots, executives shouldn't be surprised if they're whisked out from behind their cluttered desks and into a kitchen, a bathroom-even a parking garage.
"I love parking garages!" Houser explains. "The light in parking garages out West is like being surrounded by linear softboxes with a roof-you get no downlight and all this wonderful sidelight."
It's this devotion to "following the light," a well-honed ability to make clients feel comfortable-even if it means telling them their tie looks dumb-and his belief that failure is not an option that have put Houser in high demand with the corporate portraiture crowd.
Getting the Suits to Smile
Cajoling a grin out of a guy whose blazer is too tight is an often-unappreciated skill, according to Houser. "Whenever I look at portrait awards books, I get frustrated, because they always show celebrities looking fabulous," he says. "Anybody can make a celebrity look good. I think those who are doing portraiture in the business realm and who are doing it well are the ones who really should be lauded, because these people are not given unlimited time and access, and a makeup artist and stylist. The other day I had 30 minutes for a cover story, and the guy showed up 20 minutes late!"
In the late 1990s or early 2000s, Houser noticed that the business-picture realm was veering into what he called a "hyperreality devoid of emotion." "There were a whole lot of disconnected profiles of executives, where they weren't looking at a camera and weren't engaged," he recalls. "I wasn't going to do that kind of picture. I stopped using hard light and started getting these caught moments with a lot of available light. It actually brought me less work for a little while, but it was a direction I think I had been going in."
Magazines started taking notice of Houser's unique look. "CFO magazine did a huge redesign and said they didn't want anything that looked like BusinessWeek or Forbes. I said, ‘Good, they don't like me anymore,'" he laughs. "So I did CFO's second cover assignment after the redesign and the magazine won a design award for it."
Houser achieves his signature look by specializing in what he calls "traveling conversations." "I ended up developing this style of just taking someone for a walk through my prescouted shot," he explains. "I'd stick them here and there, and a lot of times based on the conversation we were having, I might try something different. I'd keep talking to them the whole time. They almost don't realize they're even being photographed. It engages the person a little more. I once took the CEO from PG&E outdoors, and we did seven setups in 45 minutes. The CEO actually remarked later, ‘No one's ever taken me outside before.'"
Helping his subjects to relax is a skill he's honed through years of practice. "I'm a flippant New Englander, so I'm kind of obnoxious to these execs," he says. "It makes me stand out, because I'm talking to them without kissing up to them. I'll say, "Your tie looks stupid like that-move it over this way!" They're not used to hearing that, so as a result they're very relaxed."
Finding some common ground to chat about is also one of Houser's missions. "I always look for something-I don't know what I'm looking for, but I'm always looking for something I'm going to use later," he explains. This technique helps break the ice, whether it's a piece of artwork on the wall handpicked by the executive, where the subject went to college (often divulged by a diploma in the exec's office), or even how much the company's stock has fluctuated (a result of Houser's pre-shoot research.
Let There Be Light
Houser developed his lighting technique while he was a travel photographer, many moons before taking on Silicon Valley. "I ended up with a very strong background in natural light, since that was all I had," he says. "Now, instead of trying to find the picture and then bring my lights in, I end up looking at the light, finding where the light is already good, and then seeing what picture works there. It completely changes the way you're looking at a shot."
He still brings his own illumination and improvises in case the light is not cooperative. "The other day, for instance, for the first time in 100 years of record-keeping, it rained here in July," he says. "So I had to tweak it a little bit. On another recent shoot, I did an available-light shot and lit the guy with a handheld cosmetic mirror, catching a little bit of light bouncing off a car in the distance and ricocheting it off the mirror into his face. But it looked really harsh, and I needed to diffuse it. I didn't have time to get any diffusion, so I spat on the mirror-hey, it worked!"
Digital has helped him harness the light as well. "If the light is dark or the windows aren't working, you can change the ISO on the camera and still get something," he says. "If you work with fast lenses and reasonable ISOs, it's amazing what you can pull off in fluorescent light. Fluorescent light can be gorgeous-everyone avoided it for so many years, but I finally am embracing it."
A Penchant for Perfection
Keeping his clients happy means that Houser can't accept failure, whether that means a piece of equipment that dies or a shoot that doesn't go as planned. "I don't like to trust someone's rental equipment or knowledge or skill base, and have my shoot hinge on their software working," he says. "Someone else might say, ‘Well, my laptop died, these things happen-good thing I have a backup.' But does the software work on your backup? Someone asked me the other day if I had some sort of insurance in my contract if I have a mechanical problem. There's no clause for me having a failure, because that's not why they're hiring me. The client can hire someone for $500 and that person could say, ‘Sorry, we're having problems.' The person you hire for $5,000 is not going to say that. That's not to say errors don't happen, but when I hear about advertising photographers not backing up and then their hard drive goes down and they have to redo the shoot, I'm like, ‘What were they thinking?'"
Houser has also learned to roll with the punches. "I think better if I just show up completely raw and have no ideas or preconceived notions," he explains. "I did a shoot a few years ago where we had five hours to scout this annual report picture of a bunch of executives. We found a great room, but then they said we had to be closer to the meeting room. There were no rooms big enough to accommodate them all, so we had to shoot them outside (even though they didn't want an exterior shot) then splice them all in.