Robert Farber’s style has helped influence a generation of photographers through vast public exposure of his work. His seven coffee table books have sold just under half a million copies. Sixty of his images have been published as posters and distributed worldwide. His “By the Sea” book won the Art Director’s award for color photography. Farber’s fine art photographs have been published in virtually every form. His work has been exhibited internationally. He lectures widely at museums and universities and for professional groups. Farber’s commercial work includes major campaigns for fashion, beauty, and advertising clients. His editorial and advertising work has appeared in most major magazines in the United States and abroad. Farber received the “Photographer of the Year” award in 1987 from the Photographic Manufacturers Association (PMA). In 1995 he received the ASP International Award, given by the Professional Photographers of America and the American Society of Photographers to photographers who have made a significant contribution to the science and art of photography.
Farber’s involvement in the Internet began in 1994 with Farber.com, a virtual gallery of his work. Because of its popularity, Farber created what is now Photoworkshop.com. Photoworkshop.com has become the most successful and unusual way to learn photography on the internet (receiving 2 million page views a month), a 3-D interactive community of photographers from all over the world. Photoworkshop.com is sponsored and endorsed by some of the most prestigious corporations and organizations in photography.
John Paul Caponigro How long have you been photographing?
Robert Farber I started after college. I went to the University of Miami. I didn’t have an interest in photography then, my interest was in in painting, but my parents didn’t want me to go to college to be an artist. So I majored in marketing and business and it was after college that I started experimenting with photography, and the results led me to showing my work in outdoor art shows. I showed photographs but they looked like paintings. I had always wanted to paint. I didn’t have the ability to paint the way I wanted to. So I picked up the camera.
JPC The frustrated painter was satisfied?
RF Yes. It was through these shows that someone asked me to start taking work commercially. I got into fashion photography. In a Greenwhich Village show in 1970 a woman approached me and said, “Are these paintings or photographs?” I said, “These are photographs.” She said, “I’m the director of the show and I’m sorry but you’ll have to leave as we don’t allow photography in the show.” I’ve always had that kind of resistance in the beginning. There was a guy next to me with candle sticks and brass belt buckles. I had to pack up and leave. When it came to other shows I was doing well. At one of these shows someone saw an interior that looked like a painting and said, “Could you put a model in this type of thing? I’m an art director and my account is Cotton Inc.” I did the shoot. Suddenly I was a fashion photographer. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know how to get a stylist for hair and makeup or what to charge. I never assisted because my interest was the art end of photography not the commercial end. I got in not through assisting but this way. My first book came out in 1976. It came through a PR person that I also met at an outdoor art show around that time. She said, “One of my clients is a large book publisher and they would like your work.” That was Images of Women. Later they needed something on fashion photography, something more technical. I was starting to do really well with fashion, working for lots of magazines, like GQ. At the same time I was doing some of the women’s magazines like Playboy and Viva. Viva was a great outlet, it was like a European fashion magazine here in the United States that had some stories that included nudity with good photographers and good models. It was a great showcase. Even Penthouse, who owned the magazine, started doing things with me too. I started doing some things under other names. I had started building a reputation for fine art nudes and I didn’t want to use my name on these other things. When they wanted to do a technical book on fashion I said, “Let’s not do that, let’s do a book that tells people about the ins and outs of fashion photography.” How to put a shoot together. Who does and gets paid what. It became something that was interesting to the general public, who were interested in glamour and fashion photography. Professional Fashion Photography came out and sold about a 125,000 copies. It had some of my things from Bloomingdales, the magazines, it was a nice outlet for many different things. One thing led to another. Images of Women was revised, after that we did Moods, and there have been many books since then.
JPC How would you describe a classic Robert Farber image?
RF I guess the best way to describe an image that is typically me, is an image that reflects my mood, my feelings at that time. What I look for in an image especially when I photograph a still life, is to find a composition that exists only through my own point of view. In other words, anyone could pass a particular subject, and not be aware of it. Because it needs to be composed, to be separated from its surroundings, in order to create a graphically pleasing image. That’s typically what I look for in a still life or a landscape. When it comes to photographing a nude, there are subtleties in sensuality that apply in the same way. So with a nude, what I would look to do is isolate certain parts of the body to bring attention to the sensual curve of the model or some type of body language that would also incorporate dramatic lighting.
JPC Do you ever find it ironic that in the painting world color is king and in the photography world black and white is as you put it ‘artsy’? It’s an interesting thing that they’re two worlds that make pictures and yet they have the opposite bias.
RF It’s true. You’re absolutely right. I like both. It’s a funny thing. In color I like to work very monochromatically. The subtleties of the tones separate good printing from bad.
JPC It’s hard to handle a lot of color in a very sophisticated way. It’s easy to overpower the viewer with a lot of color, color alone has power, but it doesn’t necessarily make a statement.
RF I think so. I feel that way.
JPC Seeing in color and seeing in black and white are two different ways of seeing. Do you find it difficult to switch between the two?
RF Not at all, because like I said when I shoot color it is very monochromatic anyway. So, my subject and point of view is not about color.
JPC Interesting that you seem to oscillate between populated and unpopulated spaces. Many of your images are filled with solitary figures
RF When you bring it to my attention I say, “You know you’re right. Ha!” There’s a single African tree on the plain, a single log on the beach, a single figure by the window. I like to bring out that loneliness and solitary quality. I favor a wide lens to give it that feeling.
JPC I do understand that impulse. Is it solitude or loneliness? Any thoughts on what draws you to that sensibility?
RF I think solitude. I like a lot of space. A lot of space and a lonely object being there.
JPC In many of your images there’s a heavy atmosphere, things are hushed and soft, often painterly.
RF Some images are not visually soft but soft in mood. The softness doesn’t have to be a technical thing. It’s part of a style — the mood of a model, the surroundings, the feeling, the quietness of the image. My idea about soft focus is that there’s something that looks good about it but you don’t know exactly what it is. When it looks like its soft focus for the purpose of being soft focus then it looks like a Hallmark card. The technical thing takes over.
JPC How do you overcome that?
RF Shooting it the right way with not too much diffusion, just enough to get the edge off and the right f-stop.
JPC I think managing a device successfully has a lot to do with the way one looks. Everyone will see differently and use a tool to serve their own ends. Placing technique in the service of a vision seems to be the great challenge.
RF What do you mean?
JPC Any device (a filter, grain, the texture of a print, focus, the quality of light) is part of a visual vocabulary that helps shape the statements we make. If an artist’s vision is clear these devices take a subordinate role, if it’s not they can overwhelm, replace, become a substitute for vision. I make a distinction between vision and style. I’m sure there are many other ways to use these words but this is the way I use them. Vision is a way of seeing, it comes from within and it can’t be duplicated, style is a way of making the images or a process that is arrived at externally and can be duplicated. One’s artistic sensibility is communicated most clearly when the two are united. The danger in confusing the two for the artist is that one might feel compelled to limit one’s vocabulary and subsequently one’s growth. The danger in confusing the two for the viewer is that one might confuse superficial qualities for depth and originality. Gimmicks are novel, a fresh vision is original.
RF If you feel that you’re going to create a great image because of a particular filter or technique, then you are taking the wrong path in your thought process. The photograph has to be created by your inner being. The type of film and accessories used should only be an aid to help deliver the story or emotion you want your image to carry.
JPC What about subject matter? Does a preoccupation with particular kinds of material necessarily indicate the presence of a clear vision?
RF My subject matter is all over the place. So is my technique. When I shoot, I do it without intellectualizing it.
JPC That approach has many merits. If you’re fresh and spontaneous the work will likely be fresh and spontaneous.
RF In many cases I find vignettes, details, or other images as I’m photographing things. My favorite thing is to go around, looking on my own, not having to answer to anyone. With the commercial work you’re answering to other people, making models comfortable, and what have you. This way I’m on my own, without an assistant, I don’t have to answer to the models, I don’t have to answer to other people, walking around with the camera, just relaxing, looking. Even when I’m shooting commercially, I always find time to do work on the side for my self. I catch it wherever I can. I like composing things that people pass by. I redo it the way I see it. I isolate the image. The cover of my By the Sea Book, with the red boat and the dock. How many people passed it by? But, if you compose it in a certain way, it becomes an interesting graphic.
JPC So amid varying techniques, varying media, varying subject matter, varying places, varying business concerns, how do you maintain a singular vision?
RF The answer is simple, it is still generated from one persons mind.
JPC So, you are your own answer!
JPC Your work seems instantly approachable.
RF I think so.
JPC Interesting that you got instant response and also ran into things that were stigmatic. Photography wasn’t considered art by some more popular venues. And I could easily see someone with a more avante garde viewpoint thinking that the work was overly romantic.
RF It was more than that. In 1980 I had my first offer to do a poster, it was a flower. It was one of my best selling posters. Second to that in sales were nude posters. Over the years I ended up having some 60 odd posters. That greater exposure of flowers and romantic subjects, made my work into decorative art.
JPC Is this because of the type of object made or the venue it was distributed in?
RF It wasn’t so much the venue that it was distributed in. It was more the subject matter. As a matter of fact, the largest selling posters were of flowers, still lifes or landscape, or some of my by the sea subjects. The popularity of this type of image was more acceptable to the non-art collector, or the more conservative mind, who, when it came to my nudes shied away from hanging them up in their home or office. Therefore, the subject matter of the nude was thought of more as art and have been accepted by collectors in fine art photography world.
JPC I would think that some might take issue with your nude work, they’re romantic for the avante-garde, risque for the conservative.
RF I never had a problem with that. I went around to different shows, like The Today Show, when my Farber Nudes came out. In Philadelphia I was on a show with Gloria Steinem and an attorney. They were talking about the Vanessa Williams Penthouse scandal. Gloria Steinem saw my work and said, “This is really nice. It shows respect for women. I don’t have a problem with it.” They asked me about the Penthouse. I said, “First of all I haven’t seen it. Second, I’m sure Henry Ford or John Rockefeller made decisions as ruthless businessmen. Think of Guccioni, as a businessman. By the way, you can’t tell by his photography, but Guccioni is an incredible oil painter.
JPC It’s interesting that Steinem was generous. I’ve heard feminist critiques of Weston nudes. For some any nude image, particularly of women but not exclusively, can be perceived as having one or more flaws; it’s indecent, it’s chauvanistic, it’s voyueristic, it’s intrusive, it robs the model of their subjectivity by depersonalizing and objectifying them. The notion exists today that it’s misguided to simply look at the body as beautiful form. It’s not politically correct in some circles. Yet there are other sectors of society that, for differing reasons, see such images as having a timeless beauty and appeal. To some the nude figure represents the height of beauty and this notion has persisted for centuries. As a society we tend to place these kinds of images into two contexts, fine art or pornography. Any middle ground becomes confusing.
RF I did an image for Caress. The model is nude. They had no problem. Later I did another nude image for Bass shoes. At the last minute they got cold feet. I’m constantly going through it. I’ve had it with corporations, I’ve had it with educational institutions, I’ve had it with galleries and museums.
JPC When you say “it” do you mean censorship?
RF Yeah. I’m talking about stupidity.
JPC What do you think the notions underlying this subject are?
RF It’s education. It’s background. Some people who deal with nude photography don’t have the same experiences as I do. I did an interview with David Fahey, from the Fahey Klein Gallery for my Internet Photoworkshop. We discuss similar issues. His experience is not the same as mine, because he deals exclusively with nude images in the art world. I deal with nude images in the corporate world and in the outside world amongst the general public.
JPC Some of the objections raised have validity depending on the kind of work and the context it is presented in. Artists have been known to censor themselves. It’s possible that all artists do but they call it editing, but really the two are fundamentally different because of their motivations. Have you ever censored your own work? And how do make decisions revolving around these issues?
RF I do sometimes censor my own work. Sometimes I shoot something because the mood or emotions of my feelings on a particular day, then when it comes to publishing or exhibiting this work, I sometimes have second thoughts. The reason is, my feelings or my mood at the time of the shooting were different from what they are at the time of making a publishing decision.
JPC What makes a good Farber nude?
RF Something that’s naturally shot, impulsively, when everything is right. It’s not set up, it’s caught impulsively. It’s just the same with my still lifes. I like the nude. It’s challenging. If you’re planning to do a nude or you’re looking at pictures you get the sense that it’s all been done. When I shoot it I don’t think of it like that. I think of it as something pleasing. Otherwise I’d have to concentrate too much on what I’m not there for. It could become forced. The pictures that I come up with are made impulsively, based on where the model is or the light is. I try to give the image more mystery. I think it can be an invasion of privacy if you’re looking at the person and you’re also looking at the face. It’s either a portrait or you’re looking at form. When you have some talent and you’re lucky, you’re in the right place at the right time, the model doesn’t have to have a great body but it has to work well with what you’re doing. I don’t cast a model like they do for a fragrance or soap ad. There the skin has to be perfect or the legs have to be perfect. I want to go as far away from the commercial work as possible.
JPC Yet your work is clearly not driven by any avante garde theory meant to challenge the establishment, it conforms to classic notions of beauty. And it is highly successful commercially. So how far do you mean?
RF I mean staying within my own sense of beauty, mood, and emotion. Where these feelings are generated by me alone and not dictated to me by an advertising agency for the purpose of commercial usage.
JPC You’re right in the middle of many things, between painting and photography (Is it art?), between black and white and color (Which is more artful?), between the many uses of nudity (Is it art or pornography?), between art and commerce (Is it fine art or commercial art? Can you do both successfully?). And you’ve worked with both ends of the spectrum in each case. How do you sort it all out?
RF I’ve always been lead where the interest has been. One thing led to another. My career has naturally taken me in different directions.
JPC To one degree or another, business has shaped and reshaped your career. How is the world wide web changing things for you both from a business standpoint and from a personal standpoint?
RF The Internet has been an incredible addition to my career. First it has been a great marketing tool, with Farber.com. Then because of this web site and all the e-mail we received (with questions that were similar in nature to what I would be asked when doing a lecture or teaching a workshop) I decided to start what is now called Photoworkshop.com. This is an interactive photography workshop on the Internet. The tremendous positive response to this Internet Photoworkshop has made the greatest change in my career because it brings me into the world of education, and this is incredibly satisfying.