Furniture Designer Eileen Gray studied art at the Slade School of Fine Art and learned the art of Japanese lacquering before heading into architecture.

Interview with a Photographer

Robbie McClaran "Delta", 1998

NAME:  Robbie McClaran


PROFESSION/INDUSTRY:  Free-lance Editorial, Commercial, Documentary and Fine Art Photographer

EDUCATION:  M.F.A. equivalent, non-credited program through the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester NY (1976 – 1979)

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST:   In additional to professional assignment work, I make photographs for personal documentary projects for books and exhibition.  Beyond work I spend most of my time with my family and kids.


What is your educational background, specific to your profession?

To be honest, I skipped undergrad school. After high school, I really wasn’t ready to focus on a career path. So I spent a couple years working and playing, being a kid. It was during this time I discovered photography. I purchased my first camera in 1974 and took a class in basic photography through a local art center in my home town. A hobby very quickly became an obsession and I decided then what I wanted to do.

I was very naive and didn’t really have an understanding of the distinctions between commercial photography, portrait / wedding photography, photojournalism and certainly no concept of fine art photography. I also wasn’t aware of any schools that taught photography. So in the summer of 1975 I went on the road in search of work as an apprentice, not even knowing if there was such a thing in photography. I traveled to every reasonably large city in the mid-south, Little Rock, Dallas, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati looking for work sweeping someones darkroom or toting their cases.

In Louisville I stumbled onto The Center for Photographic Studies in Louisville, a small alternative photography school with a focus on fine art photography. A few days later in Chattanooga I landed a job as a traveling portrait of photographer, one of those itinerant photographers who would set up shop in a drug store and shoot family portraits, etc.. I was elated that I had landed a job as an actual photographer and sped home to Arkansas to pack my things and return to Chattanooga for a training session before hitting the road.

My Father was a great believer in education and talking it all over with him, he insisted that rather becoming a portrait photographer, I should attend the Center. So I applied and was accepted and a few months later was enrolled in art school.

The school, really more of a workshop had been founded by C.J. Pressma. The focus was on photography as fine art and most of the students were post undergrad. It was a fantastic experience, I was exposed to so many different kinds of work I had never seen before. We had guest lectures by the likes of Duane Michals, Russell Lee, Les Krims, W. Eugene Smith. I got to hang out with Gene Smith one night at a party and after many drinks took him out for White Castle burgers at midnight in my old beater car.

After that first year in Louisville I moved to Rochester NY to attend the Visual Studies Workshop. At VSW I enrolled in the “Workshop” program which was a non-credit course of studies that paralleled their MFA program. It was a rich time of discovery, experimentation and total immersion. I studied with Nathan Lyons whose lectures were sometimes so far over my head, I had no idea what we had just done. All these years later I still sometimes have a moment when I suddenly realize “that’s what Nathan was talking about”. VSW had a strong artist’s books program and their own press. It was there I made my first handmade books.

I was something of a fish out water in Rochester, a southern boy in a rust belt town, and much younger than most of my fellow students. The majority were not at all interested in a career as a working photographer, something I never understood, as I had always wanted to make my living as a working professional. Most of the other students were focused on careers in academia, museum administration, gallerists, teachers, etc..

As fantastic a learning environment as Visual Studies was, it offered no practical help towards the business of professional photography. So after finishing my studies and taking some time to travel and make pictures, I once again began to seek work. I ended up in Dallas working there for eight years before moving to Portland 23 years ago.

The early 80’s were boom time in Texas and I easily landed work as a photo assistant in a studio that produced work for fashion and product catalogues, such as Nieman Marcus.  I worked as an assistant for about three years for wide variety of photographers and consider that period the second part of my education. It was completely different because I was learning technical details, lighting, film handling, as well as business.

So my photographic education was really divided, 4 years in graduate level programs and three years apprenticing in the field. At the time I discounted the value of a degree, believing a strong portfolio would land me the work I desired to pursue. For the most part that has played out well, however in recent years I have begun to do some teaching and I find my opportunities somewhat limited by the lack of an actual diploma.

What was your most valuable experience, that gave you the tools and insight to work as a professional photographer?

On my first day of school in Louisville my teacher, C.J Pressma said “No one cares if you make pictures or not. So it’s really up to you to decide”. It was a simple statement that resonated and has stayed with me all these years.

With the combination of the art school study in Rochester combined with the commercial experience in Dallas, I began seeking magazine assignments. I landed my first gig with Texas Monthly in 1985, a story on the car pound, where your car is taken when it gets towed. The art director at that time, Fred Woodward was (and still is) very influential. That assignment led to others I used to build a portfolio to take to New York. In New York I stayed with Robert Stevens, an old friend from VSW who had landed a job as the foreign picture editor at Time. Robert championed my work and seemed to know everyone in NY. He made introductions that opened many doors for me. Other doors were opened because I had worked for Fred Woodward.

The most important of those doors that were opened to me belonged to Kathy Ryan the picture editor at the New York Times Magazine. Kathy began to give me assignments and my career really began to take of from there.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with some of the most talented and demanding clients in the world. Knowing they have the opportunity to work with anyone they wish is a great motivator to do the best work you possibly can.

As a working professional, what changes have you seen in your industry that have significantly affected how you work?

The obvious answer is digital. However I think an equally important change is the consolidation of magazines published under large media conglomerates. With a focus on bottom lines rather than excellent content magazines have seen their art budgets slashed. One might think this is in response to the decline in readership. However I believe this trend pre-dated the readership decline and in fact the dramatic cuts to art budgets and the subsequent decline in the quality of content have led to the decline in readership.

So now you find magazines run fewer original images, more stock than before and picture editors are forced to hire artists locally rather than send the best person to the assignment. Travel for assignment work has all but ceased for me and many of my colleagues. Only a handful, most of whom are based in NY still regularly travel for gigs.

Of course digital has also had an enormous impact. Along with the advancement in digital technology with regards to cameras has come the democratization of the art. Anyone with 1500 bucks (or less even) can now call themselves a photographer. The cameras are so good, they do everything except point the lens, so there is less need to learn the craft of photography, you can just go out and make pictures. There is such a low barrier for entry so we are witnessing an explosion of available practitioners.   With so many individuals available to hire the downward pressure on fees has increased, so I find myself working for less money that ten, fifteen even twenty years ago, just to make ends meet. This is a great thing if you are a consumer of photography, but not so much if you are working professional.

There is just an enormous amount of photography being produced. The web offers numerous places to showcase work, but few that actually compensate the artist for showing it. So financing projects or simply paying the rent has become a much more complicated process.

There are other factors as well, such as the consolidation of the stock photography agencies into only two large players, Getty and Corbis (Bill Gates) has all but killed stock as a viable business model. Add that to the ease of piracy via the web and you have a toxic mix for someone who wants a real career. It’s never been more difficult and I don’t see it getting any better.

I have had to adapt by becoming more nimble, working faster and with less. My clients still demand quality so I have to find ways to deliver within the budgets.

All that said, one would think I am nothing but doom and gloom. But the odd reality is I love my work as much now as ever and still get a huge thrill whenever the phone rings with an assignment. I still can honestly say I have the best job in the world.


With regards to the new generation of talent making their way as professional photographers, what are the skill sets that you are seeing?

The young people I work with have such a vastly superior knowledge of digital media, I learn almost everything I need to know from my assistants with regards to the new cameras, software, etc.  And of course they have the whole social media thing wired.

Also, interestingly, I believe in a direct response to the pervasiveness of easy to achieve digital images, I see a resurgence of interest in antique or alternative processes and methods, such as wet plate collodium and tintype processes, that have the look and feel of antique photography. There’s a wonderful sense of experimentation in many young photographer’s work, no matter the process they work with.

What would your advice be to aspiring photographers &/or to the institutions and instructors that are providing them with the education & “tools” they need to make their way as professionals?

It’s not enough to simply make pictures. One has to also be a business person and understand the marketplace. In this post Napster age of web sharing, I think many young people devalue their own work and don’t understand the importance of maintaining control of how and where their work is used, much less the concept of compensation for use. Understanding the value of the work is critical and don’t fall into the trap of selling the work short. In a buyers market such as this, there is always someone who will do it for less, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart business. A credit line will not pay your bills or advance your career, no matter what someone might tell you. Signing one bad contract can have implications for many years. I could go on…. Anyone wishing to work as  a professional or even as an artist should understand it’s a business and if they don’t operate like a business they will fail.

But I also wish more young people would take time to learn the history of the medium. Knowing the work that came before can help you understand where your own work fits in.

Robbie McClaran is a freelance photographer who specializes in environmental portraiture, landscapes and documentary projects. With 30 years experience and thousands of assignments completed for magazines, corporations and advertising agencies and an ability to work with people, think on his feet and work quickly in pressure situations, he has gained a reputation as a photographer who can handle difficult subjects and situations.

His personal and editorial work is primarily concerned with documenting the American people and landscape. The entire collection of prints from his critically acclaimed 1997 book, Angry White Men, is in the permanent collection of the University of Oregon.

Robbie was born and raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and still speaks with a southern accent but is actually much smarter than he sounds.

Robbie is also the chief mechanic and pit crew for the McClaran Soap Box Derby Racing Team.

Robbie’s magazine clients include Time, Business Week, Forbes, Inc. MagazineBloomberg Markets, Runner’s World, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone and People.

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