Marco Grob: Rejection to Redemption

By Jim Colton

For those of us who are diminutive in stature -- I am but five feet five inches tall -- we have a common unspoken bond with others possessing ED (Elevation Deficiency) I was always FIRST in line in public school as they entered the auditorium for assembly in size order. It was always me and Bonnie Bruman…the two shortest kids in the school. 

And I was always LAST to be picked on a team for any sporting event. But that stopped happening once they saw me play. As a teen…I was a jock…I admit it….but as a small teen, I had to run faster, shoot better, jump higher…just to keep up with the bigger guys….which I did. Even at my limited size, I could dunk a tennis ball on a regulation basketball court. (That’s ten feet high for those who don’t know)

Marco Grob by Tara RiceIn many ways, that first rejection may be hurtful, but it drives you…and makes you work harder. And the redemption is even sweeter when people realize it and say, “Hey, that guy is good!” Such is the case with photographer Marco Grob

As a teenager, Marco was rejected while applying for photography at a University in Switzerland.  And today, he is one of the most sought after portrait photographers in the business. But he is not bitter. On the contrary, he considers himself blessed. Commenting on being invited to be an instructor at the Eddie Adams Workshop this past year, he said, “After not being allowed to be a student in my homeland Switzerland - I was asked to be a teacher in my new home, the US…something that went full circle…which I consider wonderful!” 

His credentials are impeccable. His numerous awards include an EMMY for his work in TIME Magazine’s “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience,” which is also now part of both the Smithsonian Museum's and the National 9/11 Memorial's permanent collections; as well as recognition by POYi, the Swiss, German and American Art Directors Club and the prestigious Hasselblad Master in 2007.

TIME Magazine’s Director of Photography, Kira Pollack says about Grob, “Commissioning Marco to make a portrait is like knowing you will hit the bulls-eye before it happens. His elegant eye paired with his technical wizardry has yielded some of the greatest portraits for TIME since I joined in 2010. From Lady Gaga to Steve Jobs to President Bush to Hilary Clinton, Marco has proved himself across all different subjects and degrees of difficulty. He is a true pleasure to work with and he sets the bar high.”

This week, we have a conversation with the very talented and extremely personable Marco Grob.

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little about your background and how you got started in the photography business? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?

Marco Grob: I was born in Olten, Switzerland. As a teenager, I wanted to be a musician. So I worked for a concert promoter and wound up getting behind-the-scenes access with many of the performers. It exposed me to a different culture and lifestyle than I grew up with and it was exciting to see very committed people getting paid to do what they loved. 

I started shooting portraits of the performers with an old Rolleiflex before eventually buying a Canon A1 when I turned 18. It turned out to be a good thing because I realized I wasn’t a good enough musician to become a professional. It was a very interesting period in my life. The photography was going well, people liked what I was shooting and it made me work harder. 

So I went to Los Angeles and worked as a photographer’s assistant for a year and a half before returning to Switzerland. I opened up a studio and started doing a lot of still life and wound up doing that for almost 20 years. During that time, a friend of mine who owned one of the best jazz clubs in Switzerland, asked me to take portraits of some of the musicians like Dexter Gordon and Wynton Marsalis. And even though I first treated photography as a hobby, I knew then, that this was what I wanted to do.

As for some of the photographers whose work had an influence on me, they are (in no particular order); Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Philippe Halsman, Yousuf Karsh, Herb Ritts and David Lynch

JC: As a still life photographer for 20 years, how did you transition from inanimate objects to live subjects with your portraiture work? And are there similarities in shooting both? 

MG: There are rarely similarities. Except for what light does to textures and to the shape of objects. I guess I transferred many of the experiences of those years to the work I do today. I am obsessed with textures and even more with light and the look of shadows. I think it’s very easy to control light -- but it is much harder to be in full control of shadows -- not only with exposure, that’s kind of easy -- but on shapes and textures.

JC: Your portraits have included A-list celebrities and movers and shakers in the political and business worlds as well. Who was your first “major” personality and can you tell us a little about the shoot? 

MG: My first real celebrity was probably Uma Thurman who I shot for the watch company Tag Heuer in New York City. We photographed her in an old warehouse in the Bronx. At this time, it was in the beginning of my portrait career, so I knew that I could not allow myself to screw it up. I was very nervous and tried not to let anyone feel it!

JC: Who have been your favorite people to shoot…and maybe some not so favorite…and why?

MG: I don’t have a particular group of people I consider my favorite subjects. After photographing so many famous people -- the fame wore off -- and it became unimportant anymore. 

I consider this a very healthy situation which allows me to fully concentrate on the human aspect rather than the obvious and often superficial fact of someone being famous. I am as nervous (as in awake) when I have a sitting with a concrete worker in Chile as I am when I do a portrait of a President or a really famous actor.

JC: Do you have a favorite photograph or assignment? 

MG: That’s a really difficult question to answer because I am always trying to learn and get better and when I look back at my previous work, they remind me of all the mistakes I made!

JC: When we met at the Eddie Adams Workshop last year, you were very “emotional” about being there. Why was that and what did you think of the workshop? 

MG: Yes indeed I was! I never had one single day of a real education as a photographer…not in the practical sense or in theory. When I started in the 80’s, nobody wanted to share knowledge and nobody wanted to show me any tricks. I would have killed to have the chance to get a proper education. 

The local University in Zurich would not accept me, so I could not get an internship (not to mention any assistance) with any good photographers. Every single piece of knowledge I had to get on my own and I pledged to myself that if I would ever get to a place in my career, where people sought me for advice or to share my knowledge…I would NEVER turn my back on them!

To be part of the Eddie Adams Workshop meant so much to me. After not being allowed to be a student in my homeland Switzerland - I was asked to be a teacher in my new home the US… something that went full circle…which I consider wonderful!  Everyone --and I mean EVERYONE -- who was privileged to become successful in our profession has an obligation towards it. We have to serve photography back and keep her alive and beautiful!

JC: The work you did for TIME Magazine entitled “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience” has been recognized worldwide. It encompassed video as well as stills. Can you tell us briefly what was involved as video seems to be a required skill set for professional still photographers today?

MG: Whether we like it or not, our editorial clients will be forced to go to alternate routes other than traditional print in order to earn money. There are obviously several platforms. The internet was first -- but when I saw Steve Jobs announce the iPad I knew that this would be a game changer. It is the ideal platform to contain photography, sound, text and film and with it being downloaded -- to have a pay wall where our clients can make money.

It was at this time, when we did our first experiment with video interviews…Lady Gaga and President Clinton for Time 100. When I watch those today I am kind of embarrassed because they were pretty bad. A year later I did a short film (around 3 Minutes) with Patty Smith and Sting which turned out better. But the project Beyond 9/11 was where it all came together and truly looked professional.  

Today, many of the portfolios we produce have a motion or video element in it. Is it more work? Yes it is. Is it paid? No, not really! But for so many years I took portraits of people in sittings sometimes only 3 minutes long and walked away. Now we ask questions and actually hear our subjects and we learn so much more about them. I love it! I would never want to go back to the silence of stills only.

JC: Having heard you speak, I know you are extremely passionate about your work. Can you talk a little about the work you do for UNMAS? (The United Nations Mine Action Service) And why this particular cause is so near and dear to you?

MG: There are over 100 million landmines out there and as many UXO’s (unexploded ordinances) from 20mm shells to 2 ton air-dropped bombs. Barely anyone talks or knows about it. It inflicts indiscriminate pain and horror and cripples whole economies. After my first assignment 3 years ago in Afghanistan it became something I needed to do…to do my very best to inform the public about this issue. A problem can only be solved once men know it exists. That is where our profession gives us a chance to do our part and is a powerful tool to shed light and bring these circumstances to round tables and into politics. 

JC: What’s on the horizon for Marco Grob? Are there any projects that you are at liberty to talk about?

MG: I am always working on several projects at one time and there is always the thrill of reacting to jobs popping out of the blue...sometimes on a moment’s notice. I am working on a piece about acting….utilizing video and stills. And we are preparing a trip to Somalia for the UN in January.  

JC: Lastly, do you have any encouraging words or advice for young photographers today who are seeking a career path with photography?

MG: Find your voice! Be authentic! Don’t TAKE reverence and work…PRODUCE reverence! Think about music or musicians. Do you own any records of musicians who play blues, jazz and rock? Same with us! Find out what field in photography moves you…and work hard on it! 

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