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BEST OF 2012, Robert Hart
Fort Worth, TX
Project: Assignment from a media client to do principal photography, photo editing and Photoshop work for a book project profiling a Texas ranch and the family who owns it, as well as the favorite image from Texas Highways magazine story on where to take children when visiting Fort Worth.

© Robert Hart

© Robert Hart


Offering his diverse skill set to a media client, Robert Hart provided principal photography, photo editing and postproduction work for a custom-published book profiling a Texas ranch and the family that owns it.

“The owner was ecstatic with my photos and the book — on Blurb’s finest paper and at its largest format,” says Hart. “It has led to advertising work and two commissioned portraits, and my client and I are now approaching corporate clients using the book as marketing tool for our services. Art buyers and clients alike are stunned when they learn it’s not from a major publishing house.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Robert Hart: I’ve actually only been on my own for three and a half years. Essentially, my portfolio dates from January 2009.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

RH: I joined ASMP in the spring of 2009. I was starting a business and needed help learning the ropes. ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography is my constant companion. My copy is tattered, coffee-stained and dog-eared and has been run over by my Jeep.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

RH: I shoot a lot of artists for my editorial clients: playwrights, authors, dancers, actors, choreographers, artistic directors and so on. I also photograph a lot of CEOs, attorneys and business leaders. I spend a fair amount of time in far West Texas photographing the people and places of the high Chihuahuan Desert, in spots like Terlingua, Ojinaga, Marfa, Valentine and the like. Increasingly, I’m working more and more with horses and horse culture.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

RH: My work experience, work ethic and my editor’s eye.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

RH: My compass and my pocketknife. I grew up camping, hunting and fishing, and I’m lost without them. I never leave the office without my Profoto 600s. I don’t always use them, but even on my trips into the desert, they travel with me.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

RH: I make simple, elegant images. I get it right in the camera. I deliver on time and under budget. I don’t bullshit my clients.

ASMP: A client approached you about putting together a photo book profiling a Texas ranch and the family that owns it. In addition to the photography, one of the services you provided was walking the client through the process of publishing with Blurb books. Had you used Blurb in the past?

RH: I’ve known about Blurb for several years, but this was my first Blurb project.

ASMP: You advised your client to hire a professional designer for their Blurb book. Do you think this step offers a considerable advantage over designing oneself? In your opinion, should most photographers partner with a graphic arts specialist in order to create an effective and/or beautiful book?

RH: Despite decades of print and online page design experience, I know what I don’t know. A good designer is everything. I marvel at how their brains work. Most photographers think they know design, and they’re wrong. There are plenty of badly designed books and portfolios out there to prove it.

ASMP: You say that art buyers and clients alike are stunned when they learn the book wasn’t the result of a major publishing house. Do you think this phenomenal outcome is more a result of Blurb’s fine technology, your astute file preparation, additional factors or a combination of things?

RH: I think it was largely the client’s high expectations and her eye for finite detail. She’s a nationally known investigative reporter, a Neiman fellow and a producer for NBC Dateline. She’s an old hand at teambuilding. Getting to work on a project with her was a huge opportunity for me. We rarely get to choose our bosses, but in this case, I wanted to work for this person. I brought Blurb to the table early on because I’d seen their work and believed they were right for this project.

ASMP: This book has resulted in your getting subsequent advertising jobs and two commissioned portraits. What kind of marketing do you do to publicize this book project so that others are exposed to your work? Tell us about the ways that this self-published book is gaining exposure.

RH: Both the client and I are using it as a showpiece in face-to-face presentations. I recently showed it to the president of the board of trustees at an art museum, and he’s asked for a proposal on a multi-day shoot and book deal for next June. I wish it could be a leave-behind, but at $110 a pop, that’s not feasible unless I’m dealing with a very interested art buyer.

We’re about to produce an e-book version through Blurb, and that will make online marketing much easier.

ASMP: You and your client/collaborator are now approaching corporate clients to pitch your services for future projects. Is your client/collaborator acting as a rep in this relationship, or do you see this as more of a partnership?

RH: She’s actually acting as both. She’s been instrumental in getting me in front of other reps and potential clients. One of my recent commissioned portraits came about as a result of her showing the book.

ASMP: Since you are providing a range of services from photography to photo editing to postproduction work, how do you estimate costs and fees for these services? Did you price the different services out as separate line items or just provide an overall project fee?

RH: On this first book, it was an overall project fee. We discussed what we thought the time, travel, shooting and editing would require and agreed on that fee. But as we got deeper into the project and added more pages to the book, the client adjusted my pay accordingly.

ASMP: Did you have any written agreements in place — with your client/collaborator, with the designer and/or with the family who commissioned the book — to govern the terms of this project? If not for that first project, do you anticipate drawing up any agreements now that you’re pitching this concept to corporate clients?

RH: For this first project, no. I have a very long history with this client, and we’ve partnered before. Her handshake was all the guarantee I needed. These books, done right, are very time-consuming. Hence, they’re very expensive to produce when you’re hiring a top-notch team. So, in pitching to a corporate client, I’d want to have a detailed contract in place before I set to work. This book was a great opportunity to figure all that out.

ASMP: For one of your seminal photographs for this book project — a portrait of the owner — you explain that part of the success was serendipitous: A cloud covered the sun at the perfect time, diffusing the natural light you were using to make the photo. Do you often find yourself in the right place at the right time when photographing? Is it just pure luck when you are, or do you believe that you make your own luck?

RH: I learned early on that luck is 99 percent preparation.

As a former director of photography and photo editor, I’ve worked with far too many brilliant photographers to believe in luck. The best of them are always prepared, always anticipating, always looking for “the moment.” Even in the case of that photo, I’d been out to the ranch the week before to scout locations. I knew exactly where I was going to shoot from and which lens I’d use. The light was a gift.

ASMP: For another recent project, Texas Highways magazine assigned you to illustrate a story about locations to take children when visiting Fort Worth. Although you had photographed several destinations and your deadline was just days away, you admit that you felt you hadn’t yet made any memorable photos. How do you deal with feeling that the work you’ve done thus far for an assignment is inadequate? Does it make you anxious? Competitive? Excited? Creative?

RH: All of the above.

Like Charlie Sheen, I like the win. Ergo, I put a lot of time into preparation and shooting. That was my first assignment for Texas Highways, and I wanted an eye-burner. I kept going back to this one location because I knew there was a great photo there, I just had to find it. I got the shot of the four kids on the fence rail and felt like I’d pulled my ass from the flames once again.

I see every shoot as an opportunity to add to my portfolio. So I’m making photos that will meet and hopefully surpass the client’s expectations. Ultimately, I make photos for me.

ASMP: In time, you found a quartet of cowpokes and a cowgirl on the patio of a popular burger joint who were perched on a fence as if they owned the place. You were able to expose five or six frames before the moment was gone. Once children become aware of being photographed, it can be difficult photographing them in candor. How did you stay stealth enough to capture these subjects without them noticing you? Do you have much experience in working with children?

RH: I made that image with an 80-200mm lens, so I was out of their immediate field of view. Plus, they were just kids enjoying themselves at a birthday party, and when kids are having fun, they’re oblivious. That’s the beautiful thing about kids, they’re pretty much perfect the way they are. My job is to get that in an image. Every photojournalist has experience working with kids. I’m no different.

ASMP: After photographing these children, you knew this image would be the opener of the six-page magazine spread. Do you find that you frequently have these eureka moments at some point during an assignment? Or do you more often discover the standout images in the editing phase?

RH: Actually, I didn’t know it would be the opener, but I knew that it should be. I certainly knew it was my best image. It was my editor at Texas Highways, Griff Smith, who worked with the layout editor to make it the lead photo. I typically know the moment I’ve made an eye-burner, so the editing process is where I get to tweak.

ASMP: Fill in the blank: The most compelling images are …

RH: Personal.

Ultimately, I shoot for me. My clients hire me because they like my vision or because I’ve come recommended to them. My job is to exceed their expectations. I’m fortunate that most of my clients turn me loose to do it my way.

ASMP: For one cover of the Fort Worth Weekly, you photographed the band The Burning Hotels for the album Novels, but your images were transformed into something that looks more like an illustration. Was that your idea? Who did the artwork on this particular assignment? Did you enjoy stepping out of the box a bit, aesthetically, for this job? Did the fact that the final product was altered from a photograph affect the fee you received in any way?

RH: The concept was the art director’s. She wanted them on a background she could drop out. I knew from the start exactly what her intent was, and I was delighted with it. I knew that in an hour-long shoot, I couldn’t make an insightful, compelling portrait of four guys I’d never met before, so I was totally on board with her concept. She’d sent me a mockup via e-mail, so it worked out well. The idea was to emulate a 1960s album cover, and I think we pulled it off. My fee was the same.

ASMP: Because you come from a photojournalist background, “found moments,” you say, are your “first love and first priority” when working on a magazine piece. Can you describe what comprises “found moments” with any clarity, or are they too elusive and ever-changing to pin down to a specific description, feeling or scenario?

RH: They are those rare, fleeting little instants, gifts really, that occur when we are seeing, rather than looking, through the lens. Cartier-Bresson called them “a composition or an expression that life itself offers and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

ASMP: You recently started a blog, in June 2012, to be exact. What inspired you to begin blogging? Who is your primary audience, and what do you hope to accomplish via the blog?

RH: I’ve actually had a blog since 2006, but I recently moved my Web site to PhotoShelter, and I’m in the process of importing the old blog files there. My primary audience is my clients. I also blog for my students or anyone else learning about photography.

ASMP: What other forms of social media do you use to connect with others and market your services? Have you found these to be effective in giving your business and services a greater presence?

RH: The bulk of my Facebook friends are other photographers, editors and art directors. I haven’t found it to be particularly effective in bringing me work, and I’ve been on Facebook since 2005. But that’s not necessarily Facebook’s fault. I tend to tweet each time I publish a new blog entry, and that has driven some traffic back to my site.

ASMP: What equipment do you work with now, and how has this changed in the past ten years? Assuming that you shoot digitally, do you do your own digital postproduction?

RH: I’m a Nikon guy, and I shoot with a D2X. I own multiple Nikon speedlights and Profoto 600 monolights. In terms of change, I try to upgrade when I see a clear advantage for my business. I started with the D1X, and I’m about to buy the D800. Regarding postproduction, I’ve done it myself, and I’ve farmed some out.

ASMP: Have you explored in the past, or do you have an interest to incorporate in the future, motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

RH: In 1999, I produced my first multimedia story for the Web. I wrote the story, shot both stills and video, captured audio and did the bulk of the postproduction. I’d like to do more because great audio and great video combined with strong still images makes for superb storytelling. Bill Frakes is doing some awesome work for Sports Illustrated in that vein.

ASMP: You formerly worked as director of online content for the Belo Corporation, where you and your team were responsible for publishing local and national breaking news coverage and feature content to 19 Belo Web sites in 14 U.S. markets. In your experience, did you find there to be any major differences between content suited to online readers and content suited for print readers?

RH: Content producers must be device-agnostic. Increasingly, I don’t see the need to distinguish between the two readers (users). I think it’s our responsibility to provide both the breaking news, which must remain fresh and current, as well as the deeper, longer perspective pieces. That’s on us, the content creators, to deliver both via whatever device our readers are using.

Dave Winer makes the analogy that devices are like a family of instruments in an orchestra: “So I think we’re looking at a scale of devices. In an orchestra you have piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. They’re all woodwinds, played in similar ways, and they produce similar sounds. But you use them differently.”

ASMP: In 1994, you won a Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for your work on The Dallas Morning News team project “Violence Against Women.” For those of us who can only imagine garnering such an honor, tell us what this experience meant/means to you. Did you experience a bump in business as a result? In your opinion, what distinguished your project from other submissions?

RH: The project, “Violence Against Women: A Question of Human Rights,” examined culturally sanctioned violence against women in several different countries.

The project is dear to me because it’s indicative of the caliber of work we were doing every day and the caliber of people who were doing it. Anyone who worked at a major metro daily in the mid-’90s will tell you those were the salad days.

The project reporters and the five photographers were all female. We knew that female victims were much more likely to open up to another female, so it was a no-brainer. We published 14 stories. Of those five photographers, Judy Walgren and Paula Nelson are currently directors of photography at major metropolitan newspapers, and Beatriz Terrazas is an author and Neiman fellow. The project manager, Gayle Reaves, is editor of Fort Worth Weekly and is both a good friend and one of my best clients.

In terms of impacting my business, the Pulitzer is definitely a talking point, and I’m always careful to point out that I was part of a very talented team. But at the end of the day, my images, my work ethic and my get-it-done attitude are what keep my clients coming back.

What distinguished our project was the intimacy of the storytelling. Seeing the scarred face of a woman who had been set on fire by her husband and hearing the anguish in her words was extremely compelling. Judy Walgren was the first American journalist to visually document female genital mutilation. The entire series was groundbreaking at the time. It’s comparable to Lynsey Addario’s recent work in Afghanistan. I was a guest at the National Geographic photographers meeting in 2011 and heard Lynsey’s talk about her work with abused women in Afghanistan. She’s making images that no one has ever seen before. She’s having a positive impact on the lives of the women in Afghanistan right now, today. To me, her work is some of the most important photojournalism of the past two decades.

ASMP: The bio on your Web site begins with some humor, suggesting that a real-life interaction with you could be quite fun. As a photographer, is humor and/or light-heartedness an integral part of your process or professional persona? If so, please explain how you use these disarming qualities to your benefit.

RH: I take my work, my clients and my profession very seriously. But I don’t necessarily take myself seriously. I want the people paying me to know they’re getting their money’s worth. I want my subjects to feel like we’re collaborators. If the situation is appropriate to humor and I can put them at ease, then I’ll do it. If I’m getting the best from my subject, then it stands to reason that I’m getting the best for my client.

ASMP: You fell in love with photography at 17, while a sophomore English major in college. First, what was it like being in college at such a young age? Second, what was it exactly about photography that titillated you so?

RH: I was raised to expect four years of college right after high school, so graduating high school didn’t seem like the end of anything. I knew I still had at least four years of school left. In my mid-teens, I wanted to be a writer. Fortunately for the Western canon, I chose photography. I took a class and fell in love with visual storytelling. The way I see is most heavily influenced by what I’ve read.

ASMP: Please tell us about your most challenging assignment or project of all time, and describe how, in spite of the difficulty, you managed to come back with “the shot.”

RH: In 1978 I was covering a manhunt for two escaped prisoners from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlister, Oklahoma. Nicknamed the Thrill Killers, the pair’s month long killing spree had left a bloody trail across four states. The manhunt was centered around the Texas/Oklahoma border near Caddo, Oklahoma. All the television networks were there on the first day of the manhunt, and the area was teeming with media types. But as the day wore on and deadlines became more pressing, they all boarded their helicopters and headed back to Dallas and Oklahoma City. They had their sound bites and film footage so, for them, the story was over. My reporter caught a ride back as well. I made my decision to stay based on one fact: Legendary news cameraman Darrell Barton stayed behind, and if he was staying, it was because he figured the story wasn’t over. Barton is one of the greats whose work still defines the news magazine 48 Hours.

At the time he was working as director of photography for KTVY in Oklahoma City. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and said, “Mr. Barton, if you’re staying, I’m guessing this story ain’t over.” Barton said, “It ain’t over till they catch the bad guys, so I’m sticking around.”

That night, Barton and I slept in our cars outside the command post set up by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. At sunrise the next day, Barton, his reporter and I were the only remaining journalists. Sometime around 10:30 a.m. a call came in that the two suspects had tied up a farmer and his hired hand in a farmhouse a few miles away. Troopers sped out of the command post with Barton, his reporter and me in pursuit. When we arrived at the house where the suspects were cornered the gunfire sounded like a war zone. Bullets were whizzing everywhere. What I didn’t know was that in the ten minutes since we’d left the command post, the suspects had killed three Oklahoma State Troopers. Barton and I were able to photograph one of the dead troopers’ partners being bandaged while he wept for his buddy. He’d just seen his friend killed in the front seat next to him as they took fire from the suspects. His return fire was responsible for killing one of the suspects.

The images were powerful, and Barton’s footage was superb. We both had exclusives. My images won a bunch of awards including a special commendation from the Associated Press. I also filed a story that won an award for spot news coverage. I was nominated for a Pulitzer as well.

ASMP: You also work as an educator, teaching at both Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University. Have you established a set teaching philosophy as part of this job?

RH: I teach my students that photography at its most basic level is all about problem solving. I teach my students how to be successful freelancers. The days of “staff photographer” are gone. I teach them how to register and protect their copyrights. I teach them basic HTML and SEO techniques. Increasingly, my students are expected to write, produce and shoot video as well as still photographs and to publish all of that on the Web.

One of the best teachers out there is Joe McNally. Joe is teaching you that all the greats — and he’s definitely one of them — they’re all out there busting their asses daily, trying different stuff and learning as they go. Joe is the ultimate “what if” guy. “What if we put three speedlights here? What if we put the Ranger, gelled with a half-cut CTO over there? What if we put a gobo here?”

Joe makes everything inside his head accessible to his students. Despite all the great images he’s made, in a classroom situation he never talks about “how I did it.” He leaves his ego out of the process.

It’s all problem solving.

ASMP: What methods do you use for uncovering student potential in the classroom? How do you foster growth in a student?

RH: I look for the passionate students. They’re what my friend David Leeson calls “the inevitables.” They’re the students who are consumed with the desire to make images.

I can teach you to be a better photographer; I can’t teach you to be passionate. You either have it or you don’t. I have plenty of students who are going on to journalism careers as reporters, editors, anchors, producers, public relations and so on. I try to teach them how to make the photographer’s job easier.

ASMP: What is your overall perception of the current generation of photography students? Can you compare or contrast this with the overall perception you had of your peers when you were a student?

RH: I think the current generation is phenomenal. The best of them are inquisitive, and they’re not the least bit intimidated by technology, and they learn so much faster because digital lets you edit as you go. I think they’re excellent multitaskers too.

My peers and I were no different; we were just dealing with a different technology. In 1975 my Nikon F had two settings. Today my D2X has close to 7,000.