Robert Primes, ASC, recently returned from a week at the Palm Springs Photo Festival, where he spent time with master still photographers such as William Albert Allard, best known for his work in National Geographic. The experience left Bob transformed, rejuvenated and inspired to be “as great a still photographer as my talents will allow.”
Bob says that everything he learned in his cinematography career about visual storytelling has changed as a result of what he saw and heard in the desert. “Instead of each shot being an element in a sequence that advances a long story, each still photograph is a story with a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “Instead of each shot being viewed for a limited and carefully regulated time, a still photograph is perused unhurried, and most likely every corner will be examined closely. A considerable amount of the cinematographer’s compositional skill is focused on drawing the viewer’s eye to the principal story element as quickly as possible after the cut. Lavishing time and energy on areas of the frame away from the main action can be considered wasteful or uneconomical. I find myself shooting stills wider now to include more information, and I’m less concerned with attracting the viewer’s eye in the first twenty-fourth of a second."
“In Palm Springs I learned to take my photographs more seriously, and my self-image as a photographer more seriously as well,” Bob continues. “Instead of being content to capture what I think is a good photographic idea, I want to increase my patience and commitment so as to execute that idea as deeply and fully as possible. Also, focusing on projects rather than random shots might allow me to use more of what I learned prepping movies, as well as open up the possibility of more meaningful work.
“Finally, my belief that a tasteful, organic use of postproduction visual effects can expand and extend the power of images is even more relevant to still photography because the most advanced tools for doing that are so easily accessible.”
Bob’s interest in still photography dates to his youth, but it took a back seat to his career in cinematography. Prior to the Palm Springs trip, he started going through his photographs. “There’s something about taking your camera and going where you want to,” he says. “You own every day. I don’t get as much done, but I have a kind of freedom. You leave behind the inherent rivalry between the commercial pressures and the need to do work that is fulfilling to yourself. You have to provide your own motivation. You need to keep growth alive."
“My stills have given me a huge amount of satisfaction,” he says. “I never got into Facebook. I’d rather work quietly on Lightroom than communicate with thousands of people. And now I have a fledgling website. I’m growing more and more into still photography.”
Another recent source of inspiration was The Salt of the Earth, the extraordinary documentary about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. “Salgado took the aspects of life that are the toughest for a civilized person to deal with,” says Bob. “He just got in the middle of the worst famines and atrocities and shot the human condition. Being intellectually aware of these things isn’t enough. When you look at Salgado’s pictures, you see the emotions of the people. He puts you there and it rouses you. It changes you; it gives you an awareness on a visceral level.
“I’m no longer in my twenties, but I don’t know why I shouldn’t be just as ambitious,” says Bob. “Being exposed to truly great photography and being privileged to observe the attitudes and processes of great masters has inspired me to become much better. All the past is merely prologue. I am, plainly and simply, a photographer.”