DAVE: Did you come from an arty family Rolph?
ROLPH: I did not come from an arty family at all.
DAVE: Do you remember being aware of photography whist growing up in Holland?
ROLPH: I was aware of photography at a very young age when growing up in Amsterdam.
I was about five or six years old when my father or mother took me to a friend who had a dark room. To me it was a miracle to see a plain piece of paper (that is what it looked to me) swimming in what appeared to be a dish with plain water and slowly but surely an image appeared from this blank piece of paper.
The first exhibition of photography I ever did go and see was Robert Capa in the 1950s.
DAVE: When did you take your first picture?
ROLPH: I bought my first camera when I was about 13 years old. It was a 35 mm Yahica camera which could shoot at 1000th of a second, which seemed unbelievable to me.
The first pictures I photographed was of an airplane with had propellers, as jet passenger planes were not yet in service.
I was trying to freeze the rotating propellers at 1000 of a second as I wanted to test the seemingly amazing shutter speed.
Only much later I realised I could have photographed this airplane with the propellers stationary and would have got the same result on film.
It showed clearly my naïvety.
DAVE: What was your first job?
ROLPH: When I was fifteen years old I was working during the summer holidays in a bank six days a week sorting punch cards which were processed through a machine. This was the forerunner to computers.
DAVE: Which photographer did you assist?
ROLPH: I never assisted any photographer.
On completing my M A degree at the Royal College of Art , I got commissions immediately working on editorial magazines like NOVA, Cosmopolitan, Daily Telegraph and many others.
DAVE: What was the first picture you were paid for?
ROLPH: Immediately after completing the RCA I got commissioned to photograph for BIBA, which was just about to open its new store in Derry & Tom’s building in Kensington.
DAVE: You seem to have made a conscious effort to switch from being a poppy, trendy fashion photographer to a more classical, serious photographer?
ROLPH: When I first left the RCA I took on almost any job which came my way.
I was so keen to get started having been a student, firstly for four years at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art, followed by two years at the RCA.
It was time giving up being a student and becoming a “professional”.
There also comes a time when you get bored with listening to stories of fashion models rabbiting on about their social lives.
DAVE: What was your first ad that turned out well?
ROLPH: If I remember correctly, the first advert which turned out well was for an agency called Fletcher, Shelton, Delaney.
It was a black and white advert with directors in a boardroom and a sheep.
The directors were all played by staff of the advertising agency.
The sheep was easier to work with than the “directors” who thought this was all a bit of fun.
I was really thrown in at the deep end and realised I was entering an industry like no other.
Preceding this I had only worked on editorial photography for two years.
DAVE: Who were your early photography heroes?
ROLPH: Robert Capa, Irving Penn,
Richard Avedon, Edward Steichen, Edward Curtis, Winston Link,
Man Ray, Guy Bourdin,
Sarah Moon, Paul Strand and many others.
DAVE: Your compositions aren’t very ‘advertising’. Ad photography tends to be graphic and in-your-face, your shots are calm, detailed and distant.
Take the Lloyd’s Bank ad, I love that the surroundings are dwarfing the two people talking. Not many art directors would do that or want that?
ROLPH: Because my portfolio was very editorial any art director who wanted to work with me wanted very much the look of my editorial work.
It was the beginning of a new look which was taking place.
This occurred as several ex RCA students entered the advertising industry and all had a personal vision which was very different from the established advertising look.
DAVE: It’s a bit ‘Sophie’s Choice’, but who’s the best art director you’ve worked with over the years?
ROLPH: This is incredibly difficult to answer as some gave me a free hand and other directors knew precisely what they wanted.
I enjoyed very much both disciplines.
I cannot say who is the best art director but some of the art directors that spring to mind are Paul Arden, Neil Godfrey, Fergus Fleming, Nigel Rose, Alan Waldie, and many more. There are just too many as I have worked in the industry for over thirty-five years.
DAVE: Money aside, what do you prefer shooting – advertising or editorial?
ROLPH: I truly have no preference. In editorial you can do whatever you want while with advertising you have to bear in mind there is a “product” that needs to inform on many different levels.
DAVE: I think a lot of your shots have been badly handled by art directors.
Your pictures are classic, sometimes like paintings and need to be put in simple environments, but many of your shots have been put into layouts where the coloured backgrounds and fancy type don’t do justice to the delicacy of the images?
ROLPH: Many Peoples and opinions have to be considered to get the final “ look”. The best conceived adverts are the ones where the art director knows what he wants and fights any other opinions people express.
You have to be a benevolent dictator.
It is that very quality that makes the best art directors the best art directors. DAVE: I would imagine art directors gave you very open briefs?
ROLPH: Sometimes the open brief consisted of many discussions with the art director many weeks before the shoot.
We would sit down and talk about his ideas and my vision and collectively we would arrive at the ideal situation which would make the advert look like an open brief.
Compared to an art director who may have “battled” for months to get his idea through many discussions and arguments at the agency meetings, it is important for me to understand what is possible and what is definitely a no go with my idea of solving the “problem”.
DAVE: Most photographers who take portraits focus on the face.
Well, it is a portrait after all.
So if you are shooting the artist Jenny Saville, most would try and capture her expression, like this.
Some, the bolder ones, may pull back a little to also capture a bit of body language.
And then there’s Rolph.
Few see the world like that.
It makes an art director’s job very easy, the picture does all the hard work.
Simply bung a bit of type in the corner and your spread looks amazing.
DAVE: Your choices are like other people’s mistakes.
Take the portrait above, few would be bold enough to have the face of the subject taking up only two percent of the total area, or below, few would push the window to the side to show lots of blank wall.
This bloke hasn’t been told where the camera is.
There’s a big black thing in shot.ROLPH: Just a few words about the Jenny Saville image, because her paintings are very large I photographed her small intentionally. This was the whole idea of photographing her.
In almost all cases I cannot explain how I compose an image.
It is not about size of the person or product; it is about what feels right and gives the sort of emotion I get when I see the location or person.
It is about what feels right to me.
When I worked in the “editorial word” and had to photograph famous people who only gave me ten or fifteen minutes maximum, I had to make quick decisions, it developed my skill to see a composition.
This was especially true during my work for Management Today magazine, working for Roland Schenk, as all the people I photographed were the creme de la creme of business people and felt very uncomfortable having a camera shoved up their noses.
This was the beginning of me showing more about their environment rather than their faces.
This way the captains of industry felt more relaxed and comfortable.
For some reason most of these CEO’s expressed to me they preferred going to the dentist than being photographed.
I presume they tell the dentist a preference to being photographed rather than visiting them.
DAVE: Do art directors find you easy going and flexible, or immovable, like a rock?
ROLPH; This question makes me laugh.
With bad art directors I was immovable as they were very indecisive of what they wanted and therefore relied on my input, whilst working with good art directors became a team effort and was very much open to exchange of ideas.
DAVE: Your work looks as though you were inspired by painters more than photographers?
ROLPH: I am inspired by painting as the artist has a clear understanding of what light can do and how light creates an atmosphere as well as texture and space. If I could paint ( which I can’t) my passion would increase by 1.
DAVE: What’s the favourite ad you’ve done?
ROLPH: Impossible to answer as I am very proud of many advertisements I have worked on.
I am proud of a Benson & Hedges ad I worked on which took me 12 days and a 28 minute exposure and I am proud of an ad which took me 1 second and four hours to set up.
Also other factors should be considered with this statement; enjoyment, difficulty, stress, problem solving (no Photoshop or manipulation), teamwork, weather, etc, etc. DAVE: What’s the favourite ad you haven’t done?
ROLPH: Anything by Guy Bourdin.
DAVE: What’s happening, are you doing a selfie with Putin?
ROLPH: He watched my masterclass and the students working with ballet dancers.
He just talked to me about an “Englishman” teaching at the only campus University in the whole of Russia, (with over 20,000 students and about half living in dormitories on an island with many thousands from all over the world).
DAVE: CGI vs In-camera?
ROLPH: No contest; anything achieved completely in camera shows the craftmanship of the photographer.
Photography has become an illustration and can no longer be said to tell the “truth”.
DAVE: Digitisation has made photography easier, less expensive and allowed everyone to do it, but has it helped the images themselves?
ROLPH: I am not against digitisation.
However it should only be used if a conventional method makes it impossible to get the desired result.
Nowadays it is just used because it is easier and time-consuming, but it makes you lazier. It is software that stops you thinking and using your brain.
The job of the photographer has been reduced as somebody else takes over part of his job he was responsible for himself.
If he makes a mistake the software will correct his stupidity.
The result is; he will be less involved with the process of taking the picture.
DAVE: When I get the results from a photographic shoot today it’s like it’s from Ikea – put tab a into slot b, just hundreds of pieces shot to get the lighting just so, but the end results aren’t better?
ROLPH: You are absolutely right about your statement.
I was told the following story by a colleague in our industry.
A well-known agency commissioned a “trendy” fashion photographer to take a car shot in the studio.
He had never taken a car picture in the studio.
The agency hired two assistants who had a great deal of experience doing studio car photography.
In order to save educating the fashion photographer and save time, each part of the car was photographed separately and then put together like a puzzle.
Why not use the expert in the first place rather than creating a patchwork of images that never looked complete.
DAVE: Which of your rivals did you respect most?
ROLPH: It was not rivals but more the sort of photography I admired but could never do myself such as Lester Bookbinder,
DAVE: I sense that you’re enjoying photography as much now as you ever have?
ROLF: I have always enjoyed photography and always worked on my own projects when I was not busy working on commercial projects.
However, I miss commercial work as I enjoy the challenge of solving a problem set by others . It pushes you to think beyond your own world and comfort zone.
It is very rewarding to overcome a problem in the context of being part of a team and meeting a deadline.
To make a comparison; If you are a skier, skiing by yourself you probably take the comfortable route downhill that does not challenge you too much but if you go downhill with somebody equally good you probably try to be more adventurous and try to push each other to the limit.
I enjoy this challenge of getting to the finishing line=end product.
DAVE: Which photographers do you admire today?
ROLPH: Salgado, Helmut Newton,
Tim Flack, Nadav Kandar,
Donald McCullin, William Eggleston,
Weegee, Cindy Sherman,
Diane Arbus and many others.
DAVE: What is Lensmodern?
ROLPH: Lensmodern is an internet online gallery and picture library selling prints and licensing images to the media industry.
Our aim was to create this company selling images of photographers who did not want to be with agencies like Getty and Corbis which are run by financial institutions.
Our organisation is run by photographers and for photographers.
Our aim is to occupy a niche market not covered by the corporations.
Presently we have over 40,000 images and have agents in many countries representing our many photographers.
DAVE: “To me, people are like lighthouses in a very big ocean , with wind and rain and waves trying to break them and make them go under”.
I love it, what does it mean?
ROLPH: The lighthouse represents a human being and the ocean and wind represents your life in this world. The ocean and wind are unpredictably like life itself; it changes all the time.
From birth to death your life is equally unpredictable and people through circumstances try to overwhelm you with ideas, rules, regulations and telling you what to do.
They try to break you down and become like everybody else.
But you must not become like everybody else and fight for your individuality that distinguishes you from everybody else.
Your strongly held beliefs and conviction must never be drowned by insipid substitutes.