Photographer Robert Claus Is Inspired by Old Paintings

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My name is Robert Claus. As a kid, I wanted to be an artist—a painter or composer, or preferably both. Life has a funny way of redirecting and planing down these creative (and potentially very expensive) impulses. When I returned to photography as an adult, it was the perfect means of self-expression for me. I could then bring my other passions to bear, from lighting a still life like a 17th century painting, to thinking about sequencing images in a portfolio or collection like a piece of music.

Which photographers are your biggest influences? 

On the internet, people like Gavin Hoey, Don Gianatti, and David Hobby taught me a lot of technique. Sean Tucker is someone I admire deeply for his ethos and flawless style. I owe a lot more than I can fit here to my two mentors: Gina Milicia, a top-level lifestyle and portrait photographer based in Melbourne, Australia (who was absolutely amazing—she gave me a lot of confidence), and Phillip McCordall, a retired commercial and advertising photographer, who taught photography—and especially still life photography—as if there was no such thing as Photoshop, which deeply influenced my way of thinking about capturing images. He did one shoot for Audi, which perfectly encapsulates his mastery of the craft; his was a profound influence that still guides me today.

In terms of historic photographers, I admire a wide range of masters: Eugene Smith, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander, Richard Avedon, Don McCullen, Annie Leibowitz—the list goes on! 
From the brush and paint brigade, I would call out Caravaggio, but also Claesz, Breughels, Dürer, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, El Greco, Georges de la Tour, Goya, Turner: again, too many to list here.

How did they affect who you are and how you create?

At their core, my “internet heroes” all shared an almost laissez-faire approach to gear—the emphasis was always on the craft. They would teach a technique and demand that we go out and practice! Gina Milicia in particular taught brilliant “little hacks” as she called them, that often didn’t even require a camera, but which pushed my photographic game to new levels. Case in point: you’re stuck in traffic, so look around you—what’s the light like? What kind of shadows can you see? That sort of thing really help to train the eye, and helps me to quickly recognize good light when I see it.

How long have you been shooting? How do you feel you’ve evolved since you started?

I’ve been shooting increasingly seriously for the past ten or fifteen years; I’ve evolved ever so slowly from gear-obsessed noob, frantically looking for the next “cool” thing to shoot (or buy, I’m sorry to say), to a much more conceptual and deliberate artist. Now, I will make preparatory sketches for particular shoots, and practice portrait sessions with a foam head at home. Photographing for a local youth Shakespeare group was also a real learning experience, whether I was doing headshots, documenting rehearsals, or shooting “editorials” for promotional materials. Each new shoot built directly on the lessons learned from the previous one.

Tell us about your photographic identity. You as a person have an identity that fundamentally makes you who you are. Tell us about that person as a photographer.

As I say, I always wanted to be an artist somehow. When my parents sent me to a fancy boarding school in England that viewed itself as a forge of prospective Oxford and Cambridge students, I horrified the Headmaster by saying I wanted to be a roadie for a heavy metal band. At that time, heavy metal best encapsulated the intensity of the artistic experience for me, and I knew full well that my guitar chops were not up to fronting a band myself—but as a roadie, I would at least get close to that experience.

That particular pipe dream never came true, of course, but as an artist, I always veered towards the dramatic and intense. I’ve often sought beauty where others might not think to look. To me, photographing a wilted weed or cabbage leaf is infinitely more rewarding than giving fresh specimens the beauty treatment—there’s just so much more interest on those complex, wrinkled textures of something that’s been rejected—perhaps for being past its prime—it has a more interesting story to tell then simply saying “look at me, I’m so shiny!”

Tell us about the gear you’re using. Please give us a list of the gear and the reasons why you choose it. 

I shoot a Nikon D750 with a mix of primes and zooms. My oldest lens (which rarely ever sees the light of day now, to be honest) is a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8; the other zoom is the amazingly versatile 24-120mm f/4—really a brilliant lens. I also use my Nikkor 105 f/2.8 Macro a lot, both as a portrait and a macro lens. My little Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 probably sees the most action because its focal length and angle of view are very well suited to shooting still-life in my little studio. I also use a 35mm f/1.4 and a 135mm f/1.8—both are Sigmas, and absolutely gorgeous lenses! Sadly they haven’t seen as much action as they deserve, due to the lockdown.

Natural light or artificial light? Why?

Just to be perfectly clear—I do not hold one to be superior over the other! They are both different forms of illumination, chosen for specific results. As I mentioned earlier, I shoot in daylight for the most part now. For me, the choice of choosing speedlights over window light boils down to purpose—what am I trying to achieve here? What story is this image supposed to tell? So if I’m doing a promotional shoot with the kids for a stage show, I would always use flash, so I have a director’s control over the light in terms of intensity, direction, and color. 

But when I’m composing a still life, I’m in the same place as the old Dutch masters—devise an image that will captivate your audience using the same light they will see it by: window light. In that sense, natural light is vastly more democratic than its flashy artifical variant—and perhaps more useful, too. 

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

Especially now, during the lockdown, photography provides a safe haven; a place of comfort and fulfilment that I can escape to. At the same time, I realize that I am in a place of incredible good fortune—I have my health and a job, I can afford to futz around making pictures with my camera at my leisure. Given what is going on in the world right now, that amounts to an almost indefensible level of privilege and self-indulgence. If I want to look at myself in the mirror without wincing, I need to do the very best work I can, that I create something new and worthwhile. Otherwise, I’m just munching lotus.

Do you feel you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why? How does the gear help you do this?

To my mind, the line between the two is blurry at best. By definition, a photograph documents a moment, the way a song or play does not. The photo only shows that one moment, all at once; the song and play unfold over time, and reveal decisive moments gradually. I use the documentary power of the camera to record a visual composition; I translate a three-dimensional reality into a flat bit of two-dimensional make-believe. When Magritte said “ceci n’est pas une pipe,” he was making a statement that holds just as true for photographers. What the viewer looks at is merely one of a subject’s virtually infinite number of possible interpretations.
To be honest, the gear itself is quite secondary in all this. I only have one camera, so that’s the one I use, and I’m very happy with the image quality. But for now, the choice of lens is dictated chiefly by the size of scene, and where I’m shooting. If my composition includes a large vase in my little studio, the 50mm is the lens of choice—I can’t back up far enough to use a longer focal length because the room is too small, and the 35mm would give me too much background I’d rather not include in the frame.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically. 

When I’m in the thick of creating an image, I feel the way I imagine scuba diving feels like—I’m totally immersed in what I’m doing. It all goes back to that description of art earlier: it’s a state of being. On the one hand, I will be thinking about the composition; fine-tuning this detail and nudging that one, but on the other, I will also be mindful of my surroundings, doing “photo yoga” between the set and tripod, always leary of bumping the camera and mucking up focus.

The creative process at this point feels more like wading into a slow-moving river until you lose your footing, and the current carries you along. This may sound like a bit of a contradiction given that I talked about the importance of being deliberate about every step of the process earlier, but it really isn’t—my subject, my scene is the river that takes me on this journey of exploration; again, it’s all about art as a state of being.

Please walk us through your processing techniques. Also, tell us about how you’re achieving your look without Photoshop if you’re comfortable with that.

I’ve become a nut about the distinction between editing and post-processing. Editing for me happens in a primary, secondary, and a final phase: once I’ve uploaded my images to my iPad, I “grade” them in Lightroom. This winnowing process eliminates all those images that are too flawed to consider further, for whatever reason; everything else gets at least one star. Then I like to sleep on it before returning to the culling process. I now consider the images left over from the previous day and look at each through the lens of “is this *really* worth developing further in Lightroom?” The lucky few that make the grade get bounced up the food chain, and receive another star.

Then the post-processing phase starts, which often takes a similar approach overall; all the same, each shot is different and needs to be treated accordingly. Some will cry out for a B&W treatment, others will want to be reframed, while others still might look better desaturated. 

As a big Caravaggio fan-boy, I love deep shadows, stark contrasts, and rich, yet slightly muted colors. So I will almost always begin by lowering the highlights (often dramatically), lifting the shadows, then pushing the whites and blacks to just shy of going over the edge, before adding a bit of texture and clarity. Again, this is a matter of taste; I season accordingly. Then I delve back into the image for finer adjustments. Let’s say we’re looking at a still life with a draped backdrop. Now I will go in with a selective brush adjustment, and carefully brush in those highlights I had squished earlier, to bring that drapery to life. The other elements of the composition will be treated similarly until the whole image really sings—then it’s time to dial it back down a bit, usually through selective desaturation. I might add a vignette, sharpening, and noise reduction, but by then—about forty or fifty minutes in—I’m usually done. 

After that, the process is repeated with the other shots; this can take a few days, depending on how many images there are. But when everything is done, I let it all rest again, and then revisit the collection of processed shots for round 3 of editing—which ones are good enough now to make the final grade? This sometimes ends in a rude awakening… But the point is that I can do everything in Lightroom Mobile on my iPad, even retouching—there really is no need to involve Photoshop at all, unless I want to make a large print, but even then, it’s literally just a quick in & out, and I’m done.

Tell us about the project or portfolio you’re pitching to us. 

This project is a reaction to the pandemic, with the lockdown as its most tangible manifestation. After being sent home from work, I found myself in what felt like a very surreal situation: I was safe at home, I had a job and a roof over my head when it soon became quite clear that many other families weren’t nearly as lucky. I began to feel a sense of unease that soon bordered on guilt at my good fortune, and needed an outlet for all this pent-up negative energy—so I decided to explore this peculiar situation as an artist, and the idea of (inside) was born.

Still life was the perfect primary genre for this project, partly because my life did feel very still then, but also partly because almost every image was shot in the same house, in the same room, and lit by the same window. This mirrored my experience perfectly, and demanded a lot of inventiveness to keep the imagery engaging, which in turn made this a deeply rewarding project from a photographic perspective.
I would love to know whether any of these images resonate with your readers, and if so, why!

What made you want to get into your genre?

As ever, there is no single smoking gun here! My grandfather was a printer specializing in what we would now broadly call marketing materials, and when my dad apprenticed under him, he learned to shoot promotional and advertising images—using medium and large format cameras at that time, of course. So maybe it’s in my blood, but I also find that despite my weakness for large-scale theatricality—whether that’s Roger Waters performing The Wall, or the latest Bayreuth production of the Flying Dutchman—I am even more drawn to contemplative, introspective art. Still life is what I call the “quiet music” of visual art—whether that’s a basket of fruit by Claesz or a full-frame bell pepper by Weston. These images draw you in, they grab your hand and take you into a secret yet obvious world of utterly captivating beauty, that asks for nothing other than being explored.
Sometimes, the same can be said for a portrait, or a landscape—no question—but still life is and perhaps always will be, my lotus of choice. Because when you come right down to it, a portrait is of a person that sits very still, and a landscape doesn’t tend to move that much either. Both present their own challenges of course, but for me, the utter joy of shooting still life is that I can create a world on a tiny stage that exists entirely outside of trends, fads, or fashions—if I do my job right, the resulting image will be timeless, and engage future viewers just as much as those of today.

What motivates you to shoot?

I surprised myself by jotting down several answers, only to throw them all out! To be honest, this is a very selfish game: I want to make compelling images, to take an ordinary object, then transpose it into an extraordinary visual context, and thereby reveal hidden beauty. At the end of the day, that is what drives me. I’m lucky that I am privileged enough to pursue this peculiar passion, but that does not stop me from questioning its moral validity.

Explain why the readers want to see your work, or why your project is really cool.

I wouldn’t describe the (inside) project as cool—it’s more of an extended meditation (or monologue, if you will) on what the lockdown felt like for me, using photography to give it a voice. It’s a very inward-looking work that sometimes asks some difficult questions, but that is also honest in what it reveals through the images. I offer it here, reaching out through the lockdown, in the hope that this project might resonate with someone else out there, confined to their home.

Want to be featured for not using Photoshop? Click here to see how! All images by Robert Claus. Used with permission. Check out his website.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.