The Daily Edit – Jennifer Robbins: Gotham Magazine

- - The Daily Edit

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Gotham Magazine

Art Director: Anastasia Tsioutas Casaliggi
Photo Director: Lisa Rosenthal Bader
Photographer: Jennifer Robbins

Heidi: Your work is vibrating with energy, how do you create that on set?
Jennifer: Honestly, part of it is my natural state. People used to think I was on drugs because I was always go-go-go.  I think they’ve finally discovered what that’s called – ADHD – there’s  medication for it, which has been suggested.  (laughs) However I’m not that interested in taming it if it means turning into an automaton. I know going into these shoots that my energy has to be up, I mean, this is part of the reason I’ve been hired. So like any prerequisites for a job, this is one of mine.
For instance:

-I get to the set early and talk to everyone
-I bring my portfolio because at times, people may not have seen my work and often that’s enough to get people excited, it gives them a road map as to what is expected and where we’re headed together
-A lot of times it’s music
-Every once in awhile glass of champagne or wine can help
-I’m enthusiastic and effusive as I’m shooting and “getting the shot”
-I jump up and down, dance and I’m usually audible in my self-congratulatory behavior ( laughs )
-I also believe when people are looking at pictures, they are smart enough to know about the sixth sense… to feel when something is forced or saccharine.
-The reality is it’s fun to be a photographer and I do a few things to establish the kind of energy I need.

I’m pretty clear with models ahead of time about what I’m asking from them and when I see them “modeling” a lot of times I just put the kibosh on that pretty quickly. These are already beautiful people, so what?  They are already “pretty” I’m interested in what attraction for the viewer they can create.  I love women (and men) who are not afraid to flirt, stop worrying about whether you look good, clearly you look pretty good to be a model, now let’s have some real fun.

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Jennifer on Set

Inevitability shoots can hit an energetically low.  How do you overcome that?

As a photographer you know that at some point it’s going to come, the lull, so accepting it and not letting the wheels fall completely off the cart is a good. There are a few coping tools I use.
The first thing I do is to blow off a little steam is text my best friend and write “kill me” just to vent it. Once that’s done, I go back to work realizing I’ve got some creative problem solving to do, I can’t have a temper tantrum in the corner just because it’s not fun.

At the end of the day, it’s a job and no matter what, I promised to deliver.  Sometimes I’m honest with it and say, “Okay everybody let’s get our shit together and push on through!” inevitably we do hit an energetic low after lunch. This is exactly why I always hate having to stop for lunch!  Without fail everybody goes into a food coma and it does make my job a lot harder.

I just can’t get sucked into the undertow of blah, as the photographer, it’s not an option.  Now, when the subject is an energetic suck and no matter what music, level of energy, joke or how social I try to be, sometimes you just don’t connect, and that’s fine.  In those circumstances I have to rely on something else and that’s composition, I look at body lines, make aggressive crops. It’s much more interesting to me to reveal maybe only part of the overall scene. Understanding how to compose that and still tell a story is what I love.

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Your work is about glamorous, sexy women and their appeal,  what element does being a female photographer bring?
I’m not sure it’s incredibly profound but my mother was a fashion illustrator for The New York Times as well as department stores.  I was born in Manhattan and use to go to clubs and had pretty friends and at 19 wanted to be super pretty, sexy and be all those things young girls want at that age.
I spent a lot of time doing makeup, wearing skirts about 4 inches long, slinking around in high heels and getting into Mars and Limelight at 15. So some of it was just there for the taking… meaning the glamour, it’s NYC, it’s just more available than in many parts of the country, and it was fun. I used to go out and dance five nights a week! The visuals of a crowded nightclub and people having fun was imprinted in my mind before I ever knew that would be my style.

Plus I have no desire to sleep with my  subjects (who are usually women) so I think in that way the women I photograph can relax into every element of themselves without feeling too self-conscious or that there are any ulterior motives on my end.
 Everyone wants to look good in photos, who wants to look like crap? I make this promise with all  my subjects, simply put, my photos are not saving lives, it’s about feeling beautiful, being photographed and enjoying the process.

I think there’s a certain importance and value to beauty in this world, so much of our daily lives we are inundated with sadness and heartbreak of humanity. Beauty can make us smile and be an escape. I’m not laboring under the notion that somehow I’m curing cancer. I have a realistic perspective on my career and I think that contributes to loosening up the reins a bit and having some fun while doing a great job.

Your work is a wonderful blend of voyeurism and inclusion. How did living with a  documentary photographer change the way you shoot?
Aside from a being a brilliant photographer he taught me two important things. One was the use of  wide-angle lenses and how composition could either move a story along, convey a story, or be the story.  For a while I used a 24 millimeter lens with my “fashion” and it lent itself to a more cinematic, narrative tone.  The other important lesson I got from him was the simplicity of lighting and how to manipulate ambient light with strobe.

As a photojournalist you can’t stop and ask somebody for a do over when you’re covering real people in real-time.

Ultimately that’s how I work now, I love to roll around on the floor or get underneath a table or jump up onto a bar and the only way I can do that is to be unencumbered by my equipment because with my photographic style, just a second of having to rework something because I need to move my lights around can kill the shot.

What as the hardest part of this story for Gotham?
Actually, the hardest thing about this project was the logistics.  It was shot in just two days in different boroughs.  There was so much driving in the worst kind of NY conditions. I had no assistant, and I was carrying all my own gear, so was hard to go from the logistical obstacles to Creative Director!

I had such limited time to come in, find my location and get the shot. Any photographer knows its hard to have all the images hang together in a collection when shooting so many different unknown locations, there’s not set plan. I made sure to give the client several options for each portrait so we could have options for the edit. I love Gotham as a client, they have a lot of faith in me, I’m grateful for that. Subsequently the more freedom they’ve  given me, the happier everyone involved has been with the images.

I know you’re working a personal project shooting plus girls? Tell me about it.
Right now I am laying the groundwork for exploring the world of Plus Size girls. I realize it sounds a little weird as if they’re some other species but unfortunately the world really is divided like that. A few years ago I had my first foray into working with plus size models for Ashley Stewart. I worked with two of the best girls out there: Marquita Pring and Tara Lynn both of whom had posed nude for Steven Meisel for the cover and an editorial in Italian Vogue. While I was fortunate enough to work with the top girls what has stayed with me years later was the experience of their freedom in their bodies and their acceptance of not fitting into what most of us have been conditioned to think is normal but actually is unattainable. For years I said I wanted to work with plus size girls more and more but it doesn’t just materialize. I’ve realized that I have to take it into my own hands and explore this world creatively on my own. Right now I’m in the preliminary stages of exploring what plus size fashion looks like in my style.

As someone who was inundated with this world of fashion that’s compromised of skinny and young, I’ve reached a limit of finding that interesting anymore and personally feeling like the separatism women have.There’s skinny-girl-fun which usually includes skinny dipping, jean shorts and really hot guys around and then there’s the rest of us behemoth-girls-fun often limited to diet coke and bowling or some shit, full piece bathing suits with built in skirts and other “normal-sized” women. Lame.

I think that as I get older I am far more interested in the variety of beauty, personally the kind of work I do I definitely needs women who are confident, comfortable and happy with who they are because that energy comes through in the work.

I’m looking for an added dimension to a woman’s beauty and that only comes from inside, who they are who or who they want to be. In acceptance is their freedom and in that, is my enjoyment of photographing them.

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During your career you spent time in both LA and NY, which has served you better and what are the differences creatively?
Ah, The Los Angeles vs. New York conversation.  It’s an unavoidable comparison that gets made in all facets of living in either city. The truth is, as a native New Yorker you would hope that your hometown would be the biggest cheerleader, but in actuality Los Angeles has been so supportive of me from the beginning of my career and it continues to hold that reception for me.

I started my career in Los Angeles on a whim vacation. Detour magazine hired me on the spot and I started shooting a lot of celebrities/covers which obviously brought in a lot more work.  My current agent Marilyn Cadenbach is based in Los Angeles and some of my best jobs were shot in Los Angeles not necessarily for clients from Los Angeles, Nieman Marcus is a good example of that.

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Clearly the pool of models is different because of the Hollywood factor. There are more actresses available and for me that’s ideal.  I’m looking for someone who can go beyond their looks, embody a character that I need in order to get the job done, get the feeling I’m in search of.

For obvious reasons the weather in Los Angeles has always aided in successful photo shoots, blue skies and warm weather don’t often interfere with the kind of projects I’m out there to do. Aside from the convenience of the weather in Southern California the topography of LA just lends itself to a different aesthetic.

You’re a self described energy ball. Where does that come from and why did you choose to channel that into photography?
Where does my energy come from? My answer may just be a result of many years is therapy but maybe its a combination of things. My parents are extremely funny  and even divorced they’re great friends. My grandparents were WWII generation,  tough people.  My grandfather didn’t believe in being bored, if I told him I was bored that he would say it’s because I’m boring! I love that. Also I was an only child so it required a lot of energy to entertain myself. My mom is really silly, she would make up the most ridiculous names for our cats (names: akkaduka, mafalda, scapaloopalah, piscina, inky, bialystock, bloom, Olaf and shitka) or for anything really and I think she passed on silliness which is a part of myself that I enjoy, it’s the part that keeps me young. Maybe it’s being a Leo? Maybe it’s just more fun than being NOT energetic?

I don’t know that it was a conscious choice to be a photographer.  I was always an artist of some sort and I did know I was creative. I remember my mother had Helmut Newton photo books in the house I was intrigued and fascinated by his work but even then I wasn’t thinking about becoming a photographer, I was still quite young.

I found photography when I was at NYU. Originally it was because I ran out of classes to take. To my surprise I liked photography immediately, experimented alot and had many girlfriends who were willing to pose for me, so I shot all the time. When I realized this was something I can do as a job I thought, “That’s awesome!” and at 21 I really thought I was the greatest photographer! Mainly because at the time my work looked so different from what was going  on at NYU where fashion was looked down on, the trend was to shoot on the street, typically black and white photos of the homeless.

I liked that my work didn’t look like everyone else’s, and despite having a professor who gave me a B- for three consecutive semesters, I still thrived.  She took photos of dead people, literally. So what did I expect with my half-naked red lipstick girls pouring milk over their heads while smoking a cigarette?!?

Heidi Volpe

There Are 4 Comments On This Article.

  1. WOW. Her energy is bouncing off this web page, and I can’t help but feel happy and energized and refreshed! I can only imagine how wonderful her sets must be. LOVE!

  2. Jen is the embodiment of confidence, humor, fun, and passion! If you’ve ever met her, you know that she is one helluva powerful woman! And that comes across sparklingly clear in this interview.