From the streets of Brooklyn to Vogue; Robert Billings is a photographer who has done everything, from commercial shoots for ad agencies, to model development. Blessed with the chance to collaborate with him as a model, I could not pass up the opportunity to interview him, about his genius eye behind the camera.
“I love people. That’s at the heart of everything I do, photography or otherwise”.
It was a makeup artist who worked the fashion week circuit, that saw some of Robert’s work and wanted him to pursue photography as a career. Working with him, it was evident he took each shot with purpose, never taking advantage of the digital storage his camera could uphold. “I used to run a photography clinic, where I would randomly set up shop on the street, and turn anywhere into a studio. I photographed random passerby, to show how understanding light and understanding your equipment, means you can excel anywhere with anything. Photography is about creating, by bending light around something. It’s not meant to be a numbers game where you just-click, click, click away and hope for the best”.
Since social media has stampeded into our lives, amateur photography seems to be a sport in itself, with a world obsessed with their own photographic skills. It’s people however, that bring Robert’s passion to the art. “I love people. That’s at the heart of everything I do, photography or otherwise. I just genuinely love human beings and I think that shows in my images. I’m not sure if I have a photographic style, but to define it, it would be somewhere between documentary portraiture and lifestyle. I like to call it ‘nostalgia’, because I want my images to invoke feelings of familiarity and the sense that you’ve been there before”.
Working with him, from the minute we got ready to shoot, a feeling of tranquility descended, as I knew I was in safe hands. Each outfit required a new sense of play, a character that was me and one that I had not recognised, coming out of its shell.
“Whether it is one image or a series, I want whomever is looking at the image, to be able to build a back story behind it. Visual storytelling is something that really makes me smile. Photography is so over saturated these days. It’s important for every single image to grab the attention of the viewer and hold them steady; if even for a moment”.
“I make sure the basics are accounted for. If a team is needed, they are recruited. If I have a certain lighting style, storyboard or set I need, I make sure that is taken care of. If there is a certain look I need, I make sure the model or models, have what is needed for that particular story”. Preparation before any shoot is important. What happens during, is a case by case basis for each individual photographer”. In Robert’s case, improvisation takes hold. “Once we start shooting, I let them know what it is I am looking for ,and from that moment we free fall and create things. The model models, so with a few exceptions, my direction is minimal. I want and need them to be them-I trust them”.
And I trusted him. His images do not need convincing, nor does his vast experience, that he is someone who instinctively knows how to photograph someone. With nothing but foundation, a hint of bronzer and a light eyeshadow dusted under my eyebrows, I had none of my makeup skills to fall back on. This was the modelling education I needed. If I was going to go to modelling school, this is the class that would make me learn. Just before he left, I had to take his advice. Not only for models, but for photographers who do not have over a decade of experience under their belts.
“Pay one another. Be realistic. If you are just starting out, sure; you can get a lot of trade work from other people. But trade work tends to improve things slowly. If you are a model starting out and your portfolio is weak, then to tell a photographer who takes decent photographs that you won’t pay them, shows what your opinion is about your work. You will not invest in yourself, in what you claim is a career.
Similarly, photographers just starting out-assuming you don’t just want to shoot beautiful people, if you need talent in order to improve your showing and perfect your technique, then pay models for their time. If they are good, they will bring so much more out of you than an amateur could. Lastly, treat one another with respect. The model and photographer are opposite sides of the same coin. You need one another. Treat one another as a business partner and draw solid lines that should not be crossed”.
Robert Billings is a photographer now residing in Phoenix, Arizona and travels for work.
All images © Robert Billings and may not be used or duplicated.