Member Spotlight: Robert Caplin


Member Spotlight - Robert Caplin

[ June 15, 2009 ]   Robert Caplin is a Manhattan-based freelance photographer and has shot the Winter X Games for ESPN The Magazine, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for The New York Times, college riots in Ohio for The Columbus Dispatch, and street scenes in Havana as a personal project. He is currently a regular freelancer for the Times, where he interned in 2005 and has since shot over 700 assignments. He has also shot hundreds of assignments for The Los Angeles Times and worked for and been published in dozens of other national and international publications, including National Geographic, The (London) Sunday Times, Vanity Fair, and NEWSWEEK. Portrait subjects have included Alec Baldwin, Uma Thurman, Christina Aguilera, Paul Giamatti, Mary-Louise Parker, Nicole Ritchie, Amy Pohler, Tina Fey, Steve Jobs, Sasha Baron Cohen, Rainn Wilson, among many others.

When did you realize you wanted to become a photographer?
The idea of photography interested me ever since I was a kid. I can remember playing with the old 110mm cameras and taking pictures of everything and anything. I think the point when I actually thought of photography as a future career came while at my older brother's wedding, I was a Freshman in high school at the time. I can remember borrowing my uncle's Nikon N50 and taking photographs at the wedding, playing with the depth of field. After that wedding, I decided to buy a consumer Nikon from my new sister-in-law. From that point on, I was taking pictures all the time. I began sneaking into the high school dark room because I was unable to pick up the photography class. It was a month into the semester when the photography teacher realized what I was doing. I vividly remember her catching me in the act and rather than being upset, she offered to have me join the class. She was excited there was a student going to such lengths to learn photography.

What was your first news photography experience?
I began shooting pictures during high school sporting events and selling the photos to parents of the athletes. It was at that point that I realized I might be able to speak with the local newspaper about submitting my photos. I scheduled an appointment with the local paper's editor, who happened to be the husband of my English teacher, and showed him some of my pictures. He seemed to be impressed and subsequently offered me a summer internship and a year- long mentorship during my senior year of high school. I spent half the day completing my final classes and half the day working at the paper mixing chemicals, developing film, and occasionally shooting assignments.

Did you have professional schooling for your photography?
Yes, I received my photojournalism degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication in 2005. Fortunately for me, Ohio University is in Athens, Ohio, my hometown, and is well-known for having one of the best Visual Communications programs in the country. I was able to learn the fundamentals of photography from very talented professors who were seasoned veterans, all while continuing to work for the local newspaper on a daily basis.

Beyond schooling and the local newspapers, did you have any first-hand experience working for publications prior to moving to New York City?
Yes, the photojournalism program requires that students complete at least one internship in order to graduate. After my freshman year I applied and was accepted as the photography intern for the Columbus Dispatch, one of Ohio's largest major metro newspapers. I continued applying for internships in subsequent years and accepted the Los Angeles Times photo intern position after my junior year and the New York Times photo intern position after my senior year, which brought me to NYC.

How did your internships help you grow as a photographer?
All three internships helped my growth as a photographer in different ways. At the Columbus Dispatch I was first exposed to the deadlines of a major newspaper operation. I learned the workings of a large, professional newsroom and was mentored by numerous members of the staff. The Los Angeles Times was very much the same, just on a larger scale - with more traffic! The most valuable experiences I had at The LA Times were the fast-paced portrait sessions. The paper publishes numerous celebrity portraits per day, and newspaper photo-shoots with celebrities tend to only last moments. Those experiences helped me learn how to stay calm under the gun. The New York Times was an amazing experience that gave me some great access and instant credibility to my name. I learned how to navigate a very large metropolitan area using public transit and was given many opportunities to work on major news stories, Hurricane Katrina for example.

What are some of your most memorable shoots?
I've been fortunate to have many memorable experiences. It's always exciting to meet celebrities during the quick portrait sessions. Some of my favorite actors I've photographed were Sasha Barron Cohen AKA Borat, Christina Aguilera during a closed-door listening session with Sony Executives, standing on the ledge of a Manhattan Skyscraper with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The list goes on. One of the most surreal shoots was a self-assigned trip to Cuba where I spent three weeks documenting the daily life in Central Havana. Working as a photojournalist in NYC affords me the opportunity to be shooting a story with a homeless man under a bridge in the morning, in the penthouse of a billionaire in the afternoon, and on field shooting a Yankees game in the evening. News is happening all around this city and pictures practically make themselves.

By far, the most memorable shoot was when I received an assignment from The Los Angeles Times to take a portrait of Alec Baldwin for his Emmy nomination for 30 Rock. I was asked by the editor if I had a studio where I could photograph him, which I did not, but I suggested my backyard. It was set, Alec Baldwin was coming to my home for a portrait! I set up the backyard and prepared a day in advance for the shoot. He had a groomer (hair/makeup) person there, a publicist, the writer was there, along with my assistants. He showed up 20 minutes late and was DRIPPING with sweat. Not just a little, but as if he'd just run a marathon. Actually, he lives only a few blocks from me and got that sweaty just from walking over because it was a very hot, humid day. He quickly decided he was too hot to take the portrait, locked himself in my air-conditioned office and made numerous phone calls. After he cooled down he and the writer took over my office for the interview where, I'm told, he took over my computer to find out what music it was I was playing. Bummed that we had to reschedule the shoot days later in the Hamptons, at least we got a photo of us together in my backyard.

Fast forward 5 minutes after he left, I heard a random buzzing on the floor of my office, looked down and noticed he'd left his cell phone, so 30-minutes later he came back and retrieved it. Eventually we connected in The Hamptons for the brief portrait and when I read the accompanying article in the paper, it was written about his rather ridiculous visit to my apartment!,0,547321.story

How did you get the opportunity to photograph so many celebrities?
Definitely my affiliation with the Los Angeles Times has given me the most access to celebrity. As I mentioned before, they tend to have many celebrity portrait assignments. Typically I am given just a brief couple of minutes with the celebs during a press junket for whatever movie they're staring in. Most of the time the production company rents out a hand full of rooms in a fancy hotel and I'm given 30-minutes to conceive and set up a portrait within one of the rooms. The subject will typically walk in with a group of publicists who want to critique and sensor everything I shoot, which can be very difficult, but you get used to the rush and their entourage.

Do you have any personal projects you're working on?
Yes, always. Ever since I moved to NYC I've noticed the difference in light from the Midwest. The lack of horizons makes the days typically shorter, but one of my favorite things is the shafts of light that are created because of the shadowing buildings, which create a wonderful contrasting light. I noticed a trend in how I shot this light so I began working on an ever-growing photo series titled "Urban Sunshine."

Have you dabbled with video given the advancement of the SLR cameras and their capability to capture HD video?
Yes! My first project was creating a music video titled This Time for my 15-year-old sister Etana who is a singer/songwriter. Having enjoyed the experience, I decided to shoot another music video for Etana six months later entitled Maybe. While working on the music videos, I began discussing the idea of collaboration with my good friend Josh Grossberg, a talented screenwriter and filmmaker. Together we assembled a talented crew of visual storytellers, producers, and actors (including actors from HBO's The Sopranos and The Wire) and created a short film tentatively titled Betrayed that is currently in post-production. Along with running 2nd unit camera on the Betrayed set, I produced a behind-the-scenes movie documenting the four-day-long production.

Have you ever considered exhibiting or selling your photos as fine art?
Yes, as a matter of fact I just recently had my first exhibit at SB Digital Gallery in Manhattan's East Village (running through June 24, 2009). The exhibit was titled "Rebirth" and consisted of my works since I became a professional photojournalist in New York City four years prior. Along with the images I screened footage from my latest project, Betrayed. (Limited edition prints still available!!) ;-)

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