Francois Robert's Dual Identities

by Lorraine A. DarConte

Francois Robert

April 16, 2013

Photographer Francois Robert has two very separate photographic identities. “One is commercial and the other is fine art,” explains Swiss-born Robert, whose clients have included Crate & Barrel, Coca-Cola, Western Union, Chicago Board of Trade and Yale Medical School. “As an ex-graphic designer, I was able to connect with a lot of graphic design firms in the U.S. after switching gears to photography,” he says. “I worked with a lot of wonderful, creative people, and I’ve been traveling around the world on other people’s budgets. It’s been very rewarding.” In the past 40 years or so, Robert has photographed everything from still lifes to portraits to products to travel to fine art. For his fine-art work, he typically chooses a subject or theme and then creates a portfolio of images; when completed, he looks for something else that piques his interest. “Many photographers keep going back to the same theme, perhaps with a twist. But I cannot stay in a theme very long,” says Robert. “Sometimes I revisit them later, but in general, I want to move on to the next one.” That said, one theme that has stayed with Robert for a few decades is “faces.”  

About Face

A graphic designer first, Robert taught himself photography in Chicago on a 35mm Pentax, after being influenced by his older cousin (who was also in advertising and photography in Switzerland). Back in the mid-1970s, Robert got a call from his brother Jean, who was working with the London-based design firm, Pentagram. During the holidays, the company created a promo piece called the “Pentagram Paper,” and mailed it to various clients. Each year, Pentagram created a new theme featuring such things as cigar rings or antique and unusual brushes. “My brother, the designer Jean Robert, came up with the idea of objects with faces,” says Robert, “and asked me to send him photographs of ordinary things with faces,” which he then found in everyday items such as doorknob plates, mops, cardboard boxes, power tools, electrical outlets and then some. In 1976-77, the “Pentagram Paper” featuring Robert’s “faces” was published and became an instant hit. In 1993, the brothers published a book, Face to Face, with the images, which sold out in Europe. Two follow-up books—Faces and Find a Face—were eventually published in the U.S. by Chronicle Books (2000 and 2004, respectively), both of which were also successful (Faces sold over 25,000 copies).

“From there, many other companies were interested in using the theme for calendars, advertising, children’s carpets and other products. It was amazing how the theme exploded in terms of usage,” notes Robert, who still sees faces everywhere he goes in pretty much everything he comes across. As a result of those books, advertising agencies and design firms started calling because they were inspired by those images and wanted to use them. “I was not necessarily getting jobs, but instead a form of reassurance that I knew how to photograph products in studio and on location. I think to a certain extent Crate & Barrel was influenced [by these shots] in their decision to hire me.”

Left Behind

“I was exposed to a group of people who’ve been collecting things left behind by undocumented immigrants on the trail past Nogales, Arizona,” Robert explains. “My wife and I have gone with backpacks to drop water and food [for Mexicans attempting to cross the border in the unforgiving Arizona desert] and were amazed by the amount of discarded objects. I took some of these items home and learned many other people had done the same. I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I photographed the things they had collected. I think a fair amount of photographers have documented the objects in the field, but I thought it would be nice to make more of an iconic studio image of the objects carried and thrown away by people that cross the border and risk their lives [as opposed to “grab” shots in the desert]. They wear Nike T-shirts and socks with USA emblems on them, and they carry Disney backpacks.”

To date, Robert has documented more than 200 objects in the studio, utilizing beautiful lighting normally reserved for photographing perfume bottles, fine jewelry and other high-end items. By taking the items out of context, Robert believes people will view them differently. “It brings a whole new dimension to the object when it’s isolated from the trail,” he reiterates.

Robert credits some of the success of the “Left Behind” project to the support he received from the group: The Samaritans who lent him pieces they found on the trails (from the last nine years) to photograph.

Though he started decades ago with a 35mm Pentax, these days Robert shoots with a Hasselblad H3D 50. He considers its built-in video camera to be a great asset because, while shooting, the Hasselblad is often situated near the studio’s ceiling on a Foba tripod. By moving the tripod at the base, he can reorient the framing of the photo without having to look trough the viewfinder. Robert has also shot much of the project from directly above the set to get a bird’s-eye view. “It is easier to compose a still life on the floor than on the wall,” states Robert, who also works with Speedotron power packs (2400 and 4800) because they are “great work horses,” and a Chimera light box when needed.

There are many other projects Robert has in mind, and after working on several documentary series such as “Stop the Violence” (images created with the help of human bones) and “Left Behind” (the aforementioned images of items left in the desert), he’d like to photograph something that’s less socially-oriented. “I want to photograph objects that have a more commercial, wide-spread appeal; images that people can hang on a wall,” concludes Robert. “It would be nice to do something that’s not socially-charged.”

Robert’s publications also include the books Before and After (1981); A Day in the Life of America (1986), and most recently, Crosses (2005), published by Graphis. To view more of Francois Robert’s work, visit www.francoisrobertphotography.com.  

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