Thursday, May 2, 2013


by Jamie Goodsell
All images © Rob Howard
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I met Rob Howard at Bonnaroo in 2011. I was on assignment documenting the festival and morning yoga sessions were in full swing. I saw these two guys walking around together, both holding cameras. It was Rob and his agent Julian, who was playing photo assistant for the weekend. Rob approached me and introduced himself and I was immediately taken with his positive attitude, personality and outlook. Rob is the kind of person that you feel like you've known for years even if you've only just met. He exudes joy and a raw passion for taking pictures and the proof is in his work. I was just finding myself as a photographer when I met Rob and he had a big influence on the way I thought about photography. I highly encourage all of you to go to his website and take in the warmth. 


My first impression of you was your amazing positivity. What keeps you so positive? Is it the Canadian blood? 

I think there's a dash of Canadian for sure, but I also just think photography is so much fun and ever since I picked up a camera at the age of 24, I've never had a bad day taking pictures. I just seem to get a rush holding the camera and clicking away, I get energy from's just a bizarre thing. I love the ability of a camera to get me into situations with other people. It's just non-stop exchanges of energy and ideas and experiences with other people, all walks of life all around the planet. It never fails to blow me away where the camera takes me. 

What was it like growing up in Canada?

I grew up in both Montreal and Toronto - I moved to Toronto when I was 12. It was a very multi-cultural city, so I grew up with people from many different ethnicities from many different parts of the planet, and it was very inspiring because there would be kids in my class from Sri Lanka, Jamaica, South America or Eastern Europe. It just put the seed in my head that I really wanted to see where these kids came from and what the planet was all about. It inspired me to travel. Fortunately, photography has been such an extraordinary vehicle to do just that. Gosh, 140 and counting countries in the world's been a rush. And all 50 states which has been such a treat too.

Who influenced you to start taking photographs and when was the first time you thought to yourself, "this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life?"

I was studying Literature and Philosophy at the University of Toronto and my little brother got sick with Leukemia. It happened at the end of the school year and I just couldn't focus on exams, so I actually dropped out of school and just hung out in the hospital with my brother as he tried to get better. He eventually did go into remission and then by the end of the summer I was ready to go back to school, but I wasn't ready...I wasn't emotionally ready. So I just decided that I wasn't gonna go back and a friend of mine had gotten into modeling and he was meeting all these cool photographers in Toronto and telling me all of these amazing stories and it just sounded really intriguing. So the two of us went to a pawn shop in downtown Toronto and bought cameras together, and immediately it just felt really good in my hands and I'd never thought about a career in photography or had even taken pictures. It was this instant epiphany, it was was just on a whim, it was very capricious you know, and all of the sudden I had a camera and I was taking pictures and I just loved it instantly, it was just so natural. It felt like I'd been taking pictures for many years. I started taking pictures of models at his modeling agency, and the funny thing is he went on to have a wonderful career in photography as well. His name is Michael Williams, he's a fashion and celebrity photographer here in New York. 

Can you tell me about your education background in photography? Where did you learn the basics?

I'm self taught. I never went to school for it. I always say I went to the school of hard knocks (laughs). I just taught my self how to print and process film, and I would spend days in the darkroom experimenting. After a year of that in Toronto, I decided to go to Australia, so I went to Sydney during the summer and started shooting there and learning about light. I spent a couple of years there shooting for fashion magazines and those were my first jobs. Then I moved to Paris and spent a couple of years bouncing between Paris, Milan, and London still shooting fashion. Through a friend of the family, I got a funny job to go to Morocco and shoot an arts festival for the Royal Family. It was for the government in a town called Asilah and I just started taking pictures of people, dancers, artists and all of these amazing things that weren't fashion and were just fun to shoot. I went down into the desert and up into the mountains, travelled all around Morocco that summer for about six weeks after the festival and just got a collection of pictures together. At that time I was living in Paris, and when I got back there after the summer in Morocco, I just shut down my apartment, moved back to Toronto and started working for a magazine called Saturday Night Magazine and they started sending me all around the world. 

What was the first job they sent you on? 

The first job that they sent me on was a two month trip to Tibet, and then they sent me to Borneo with this hunter-gatherer nomadic tribe. Next, they sent me to Egypt to do a story on the Sphinx and the Pyramids - the whole history of Egypt. With all of those photographs I collected from shooting for Saturday Night Magazine, I put a portfolio together and moved to New York and instantly got a job for Condé Nast Traveler magazine to go to Ethiopia for three weeks. That was my first big break in the states and I'm still on the masthead of that magazine to this day and still shoot for them regularly and it's just been a fantastic publication to be a part of. 

Were there ever times when you weren't getting jobs? 
Don't get me wrong, there were definitely dry spells but when that would go on, I always shot personal projects and kept things moving. 

Who were some of your influences for you in the beginning? 

The huge influences for me in the beginning were Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, and Peter LindbergI'd say those three really taught me so many things. Then a little later, Annie Leibovitz. When I started shooting less fashion, I'd have to say Sebastiao Salgado. He had an enormous impact on me and I remember meeting him in Toronto and showing him some of my pictures. He was just so warm and enthusiastic about my pictures and very encouraging. His work has always had a big impact on me.

Who are some photographers you've been influenced by more recently? 
Two photographers whose work I find fascinating and inspiring are Ryan McGinley and Todd Selby. Guys who take initiative and shoot their own stuff with no fear. I dig that. 

What kind of photographer would you describe yourself as? 

Definitely more of just a photographer, I just love taking pictures. I'd say more now, I shoot advertising and personal projects. That's my passion to do personal pictures and shoot projects. Coming up with an idea and then fulfilling it over the course of days, weeks, months, whatever and just pursuing an idea to its conclusion for me is my passion. So it's not so much assignment driven anymore, it's more I assign myself an idea and then I go out and shoot it. And I shoot a lot of ads.

What are you shooting with these days? 

I've got so many cameras, I've still got about thirty film cameras. I've got two 1DX's and I shoot with a 24-70mm and a 70-200 and then I have a whole slew of others. I've got a couple of 24mm 1.4's; 35mm 1.4; 50mm 1.2; the 85mm 1.2; the 180 3.5 macro lens; all L series lenses but my two main ones right now are just those two zooms. 

Do you use any of your own lighting besides ambient light? 

I do...I often travel around with a couple of acute 600 packs by Profoto and I've also got a couple of Profoto 7b's. I love to blend strobe and ambient light, but mostly I just use ambient. I love what the sun can give us. Sometimes I'll just bring out the packs and make the sun jealous. If it's behind a cloud, it usually gets a little jealous and comes out and shines again. Usually I'm pretty lucky with the light...and I see it all of the time. I often see light before I see an object. I just love light so much. 

Could you break down the lighting in one of your images where you blended strobe and ambient light?

This shot particularly was actually shot with an acute 600 through the window. I play that trick a lot, I'll put a strobe with an umbrella or an octabank outside a window and pretend it's the sun and I play with that a lot. Also man, I use anything...I use HMI's, I use tungsten, I use flashlights, I use car lights, I use computer light, I use LEDs', there's just so many wonderful sources, I love fluorescent lights, I love desk lamps...there's just so many ways to skin a cat and it's fun to play. 

When you're with a subject, what's going through your mind? How do you get them just the way you want? What kind of moments are you looking for? 

I think the most important thing is to go into any situation (if you're going to their home or you're just entering their space) is to enter with humility, respect, and a sense of humor and just making them feel good about who they are. I think it comes from generally just digging people and I think it's really important to have an exchange, sit people down and talk to them and really, really listen. I find that helps a lot when it comes to taking pictures. If you can make them feel like they're special and that you really care, I think that goes a long way. 


What do you want your viewers to get from your images? 
I guess I'll start by saying what's important to me. Good light is important, I'm in love with beauty - to a fault sometimes. I sometimes admire other people who can shoot edgier than I do, but I just love beauty and color! Color matters a great deal to me and energy - whether it's sorrow, fatigue, or joy - it just has to be authentic. It has to be true, it has to feel true. I like the big moments and the small moments and the whole spectrum in between. I just like taking pictures.

What's the biggest mistake that you've learned from? 

I'll just say many and that I never stop learning. Every day I'm learning something new, it never gets old, it never gets boring, it's always a journey that's very much alive. I never feel dead. I never feel like I've learned everything, that I know everything, it's always fresh. I'm always learning. That's what's so cool about photography, it's just so alive. 

Can you tell me about shooting for Oprah? 
I had a three year contract with a magazine called Men's Journal and one of their editors moved over to O, the Oprah magazine, when it first started and she just thought of me for a shoot and I got along really well with Oprah. I photographed one of the very first issues of that magazine. I went down to South Carolina and went to Dr. Maya Angelou's house with Oprah and photographed the two of them together. Over the course of the last thirteen years she’s been so good to me and she’s introduced me to so many amazing and wonderful people and I’ve learned a lot from her and her work ethic. I’ve never met anyone who works harder than Oprah does. She’s extraordinarily smart and very dedicated to what she does. I’ve also been very impressed with everyone who works with her and for her. They've done so for many many years, she’s just a very loyal person and she’s been very generous to me and I feel very lucky.

I was really lucky to meet President Barrack Obama because of Oprah. We went to the White House last summer before the election and we got to spend the morning with both the First Lady and the President. It was such a nice energy because Oprah and the Obama's are good friends and the Obamas are just super cool people. We got to explore the White House together and hear a lot of wonderful stories, listen to the President's experiences being President. It’s a time I’ll never forget.

Can you describe your ideas and experiences from taking pictures at Bonnaroo?
When you go to a place like Bonnaroo, it’s really easy to take pictures because there’s so much. The most difficult thing is to edit how you’re going to photograph within a certain idea, how you’re gonna approach it rather than just shooting everything. You’ve got to come up with how to edit it in your own way to make sense of it and shoot it through a certain prism of an idea or a concept. So I came up with the idea of shooting the kids with a long lens to kind of separate them from everything that was going on around them. I didn’t just wanna take newsy pictures you know, I didn’t wanna set up a studio but I still wanted to separate individuals from their environment and focus on what they’re wearing, a sense of style, a sense of feeling and just isolate them from their surroundings and focus in on the kids, whether they were in pairs or individuals. That was one series I shot called Summer of LoveWe met so many amazing kids and everybody was really into it, so it was a great experience. I loved it!

Is there one image you’ve taken that sticks out in your mind?                         
One of my most iconographic images that is not on my website that had a huge impact on my life was a picture I did on 9/11 with the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I shot it from my living room window when I was living on Wall Street and Broadway. That whole experience had a huge impact on my life. It encouraged me to leave the city and spend more time up in the Catskills. It’s because of that one day that I now live a much more balanced life between rural and urban. That picture, I don’t show it…if you look up Rob Howard 9/11 it’ll come up on all kinds of different conspiracy websites and stuff. Some guy even did a movie about how it’s a totally fake photograph and that Rob Howard's a liar or something like that, which is pretty funny. But anyway, it’s a real photograph…I shot it with a Pentax 67 and I just happened to have a roll of black and white in it when the second plane flew over my building. So that one picture has just sort of stuck with me over the years.

By the look of your images, it seems that the subjects were all very comfortable with you being there. What are some ways that you create that atmosphere for them, especially if you don’t know them? What advice would you give to all of the aspiring photographers out there in the world?
Get people talking about themselves, don’t just talk about yourself and get rid of your ego…you just gotta be giving and make people feel good about themselves and ask them questions and listen to them, let them talk. And music, play music…it’s so good. I always travel with music. Be interested. Be interested in them and they’ll totally respond. I guess that’s the secret to it all. 

See more of Rob's vision here:


  1. Wonderful interview! Very insightful Q&As.

  2. Fantastic~ That's really neat about Oprah. His shots bring out the best in people.