Pop Culture
Aug 21, 2015, 06:45AM

If You're Going to Sell Your Soul, Get a Good Price

A Q&A with photographer Andrew Rowat.

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SPLICE TODAY: What's your name and age?

ANDREW ROWAT: My name is Andrew Rowat. I’m 38 years old.

ST: What would you say is your profession?

AR: Travel photographer.

ST: How long have you been doing travel photography?

AR: Full time professionally, nothing else in my life, 11 or 12 years.

ST: So you came to it a bit late in the game. Most people I speak to, you know, they’ve been doing it since they were much younger. They go straight into the university path.

AR: I’d say that I came at it slightly obliquely. I think that I was given my first camera at 16. Had a very love-hate relationship with it at the time. When I went to university, I studied marine biology and a few other things; business... I think I switched major 3 times. While I was at university, I did a great deal of photography. That’s where I’d say the love was really kindled. I’ve been doing photography for a long time. But doing it professionally, that’s been 11 or 12 years.

ST: Commercially, of course, everyone has to shoot digital. What was the first format that you started shooting on? 

AR: Well, the first cameras I started shooting on were Brownies, the ones you have to throw out. And then in high school, the first images I shot were pinhole images. I built pinhole cameras and exposed onto photographic paper. Then in I graduated to 35mm B&W on a Pentax K1000. And that was all the way through high school into university. In university I got into medium format. The first camera I shot on was a Mamiya 220 which was a 6x6 2-1/4" format. A square. Then I got into an Mamiya RB67 and then a RZ67. The Mamiya 220 was a waist level finder. You had an option to buy a clip on viewfinder that you look through. A second mirror, the prism. The RB67 was the same way, it had an interchangeable finder system. So you use it waist level or viewfinder style. I quite like using the waist level finder with portraiture because it changes the interaction with the person. I don’t have a camera between me and the person. There is eye contact. The camera becomes less a part of the interaction.

ST: Do you wear glasses? 

AR: I do.

ST: I ask because I do too and I personally enjoy having a waist level finder because with a view finder I can’t see anything with the machine crushed up against my eye.

AR: I am wearing contact lenses. Nine times out of 10 I am wearing them versus glasses. I would say the greater argument is the interaction difference with prism vs. waist level. The other thing is with waist level is that it’s half a stop brighter. With the prism finder you lose some light with the prism bounce. With medium format I think that’s reasonably important because lenses for medium format aren’t usually that fast. They’re usually around an F4. A really fast one is a 2.8.

ST: You're doing large format these days?

AR: Yes.

ST: At what point do you get into that? How does that happen?

AR: I think that happens as a result of my OCD tendencies, sometime when I was living in China. I lived in China from 2002-2009. Somewhere in the early 2000s, 2002-2004, I bought a Toyo studio camera with two lenses for about $500. And I said to myself, “If this is something that you like and that you value and that you’re good at then you can spend more money and get a nice one.” But I bought it dipping my toes in to see if it was something I enjoy doing. I didn’t want to buy a Rolls Royce right off the bat. I shoot a lot of interiors and architecture too so all of the movements allows me to indulge this perfectionist tendency to see if all the lines are where I want them and how I want them. And that was a 4x5 camera. I got a nicer one eventually. The last few years I’ve shot a bit of 8x10 and enjoy that a great deal.

ST: Have you shot 8x10 commercially?

AR: No, not for clients. I’ve only shot it for the Collision Yangon project.

ST: And we will get to that later. So when you are going on client shoots?

AR: Generally I work for travel and leisure magazines, any of these high-end gorgeous looking magazines. I’m usually shooting medium format color negative film. It has a particular feel, like fabric. You know, silk feels different than cotton than nylon and medium format color negative film feels a certain way as opposed to digital 35mm. It’s not to say it’s better or worse, I’m just saying that it lends itself better to that category of photography. I was just working for the Smithsonian in DC and that was shot all on 35mm digital with architectural lenses for two reasons. One because we had a huge volume of things to shoot in a relatively short period of time and you need to be equipped to move quickly, so 35mm is better at that than medium format. Two you have this wide array of architectural lenses a 17/24/45/90, whereas you are slightly more limited with medium format digital, especially on the really wide end. So the expression of “horses for courses” really fits here. One job may demand digital or it may demand color negative. My first trip to Burma for the Wall Street Journal, that was a mix of medium format and large format film. The client sometimes there is an issue of turn around. For a quick turnaround typically it’s digital. If it’s a portrait for a business magazine, nine times out of 10 it’s probably going to be digital. 

ST: You said you came to photography obliquely. You’re given a camera when you’re 16 and you decide to ship off to university. How much were you invested in the craft and learning about it while you were in university?

AR: That was huge. I think that the genesis of any sort of long-term relationship with a craft or person is that there’s sort of a love. I just loved taking pictures and I loved learning and experimenting. I was fortunate that my best friend at the time, who is also a professional photographer today, was doing mechanical engineering and he was in the same place. There was this sort of ping pong. We would learn and teach each other; back and forth. It’s important in any endeavor that there’s a co-conspirator where you can grow together. Had it not been for him it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t be a photographer today.

ST: After university, were there any gigs on the horizon?

AR: In Vancouver, where I went to college, we started a company. We photographed anything and everything that came our way. Products, we were your guys. Weddings, events, some crazy, you know, shoot for a student government body, we were your guys. We said no to nothing and took everything. Also, after my degree for biology, I went back to school. This was the height of the dot-com, 1999-2000. I went back to school and did a program that was geared toward web design, multimedia, CD-ROM design. It was a digital media program, so the idea was I would get these skills that I could fold into the photography business. Then post that I was getting quite restless in Vancouver and didn’t think that I was doing the type of photography that I enjoyed, and I traveled. So I felt like I was slowly strangling this love that I had. I was itching to get out of Vancouver in the full throes of a quarter life crisis and this opportunity came about where the Canadian government had an internship program for university graduates either unemployed or underemployed, i.e. not working in a job related to their degree. They had these positions all over the world. So I applied and got a phone call. They said, "Andrew, these two guys are in town from Shanghai interviewing for some positions on Friday," so I said, “I’m not doing anything on Friday.” I went in and interviewed with them and promptly forgot about it. A couple weeks later the coordinator of the program called me. He said, "Andrew, you’ve been offered the position of a graphic designer at China Worldbest Carpet Company Ltd. It’s a carpet company in Shanghai." So I said  to myself, “Shanghai not Vancouver? Let’s do this.”

ST: How long did that last?

AR: I did a six month placement with them and then after that I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I wanted to be in Shanghai and so I did a 3 month language program in Shanghai and I started slowly rekindling this love of photography. I think, for me, there had always been a real love for photography, but I hadn’t mustered the courage to pursue it because there’s not really a road map to follow.

ST: You said that you felt almost like you didn't have the courage to pursue it, which is interesting to me because it seems to me that you had a photography business in Vancouver where you guys said no to nothing. That seems to me to represent an actual professional endeavor.

AR: It certainly was. Was it steady work? We got things here and there as with anyone building their business. I think the crux for me was the type of photography that got me excited to begin with, being out, doing travel, or portraiture, there was an adventure component, a learning component that really engaged me and excited me. And a lot of the stuff I was shooting in Vancouver didn’t hit those notes. That isn’t meant to disparage people who were doing those things. They are wonderful and difficult to do well. For me, the key didn’t fit. So when I say that I was strangling my love it was just that I wasn’t… if you are going to do it, do it the way you want and not the way circumstances dictate. What’s the adage? “If you’re going to sell your soul, get a good price.” When you end up in a situation where you’re not necessarily making that much money and not necessarily doing what you want to be doing it’s sort of the worst of both worlds. If you’re not going to be well compensated at least be doing what you love. And if you’re not doing what you love make sure you are well compensated. I managed to take those and put them together. That’s where the impetus came to change. I said, “What am I doing?”

ST: New York is a very interesting place because there are a lot of photographers that wear different hats. Be it fashion or whatever, they will do the job. What do you think about that?

AR: New York is a tough place. I was very fortunate through no insight and planning of my own, in a part of the world which happened to just be blowing up when I went there. So from 2002 to the end of 2009, by throwing a dart at a dartboard, I ended up in that part of the world. It meant that prior to moving I had to become excited again about photography, and I got a lot of help from a good friend in New York, who is a photographer. Him and his wife were very generous and critiqued and supported. Then I was on trips to New York and London to meet editors and I got to work with all these clients that I had no business working for because I was in a place at a time where they needed someone. I can’t claim that was because of any particular bold, forward-thinking plan. I was very fortunate. In New York, it’s very difficult starting out. I think it’s probably the most difficult place. Pick an industry, whether it’s finance or photography, and the best people in the world are there. So to be able to differentiate yourself in this environment is very tough. That being said there’s a great number of people to learn from here and all these things. If a young photographer were to ask, “What do I do?” I’d say, “Leave New York. Go to Istanbul. Go to San Paulo. Go to Moscow—okay, maybe not Moscow. Go to a place in the world where there’s a huge amount of stories being generated and energy and all of these sorts of things.” Why did I get the phone call? Because I was the third guy in the Rolodex after the first and the second guy. So when there’s a limited pool from which you can draw you are always at the top of the list. And I think that was one of the reasons I had the modicum of success that I did.

ST: I’m reminded of advice I heard from a photographer out in Seattle. He was a lawyer by trade and said that in order to get representation at galleries, he felt better about his decision at not having moved out to the Big Apple. He felt that in Seattle he could breathe. Now Seattle isn’t Istanbul or Moscow but the pool is smaller out there. You may not be the best guy doing it, but if you do get that call then you think, “Wow, I can do this,” which leads you to becoming better.

AR: It’s clear. You’ve hit the nail on the head there. A lot of the initial jobs I did, editors took a risk on me. Man alive, am I grateful to them! Every job you got under your belt meant you were better. And then the next one and the next one.

ST: Let’s talk about the early gigs where you think, “I have no business being here,” yet you got the job?

AR: It’s interesting. I was in Shanghai and what would happen typically is I would get an email saying we need such and such. Prior to that moment, I was in an office here in New York City after maybe having cold-called and gotten through to maybe one editor. I remember when I made a decision, I was in Barnes & Noble and pulled out all the magazines I wanted to start shooting for and started writing down names. And then I started cold calling. I had help from my friends here for a number of magazines. It wasn’t all me. It was never all me. Any time I went into these offices you feel like you’re a fraud. You're in the office of Travel + Leisure, or Vanity Fair, or The New Yorker, or a place in London or any of these places for the first time and of course you feel like you have no business being there. The first big shoot that I did—Rick Booth was the editor at Business Week at the time. It was a story called "The China Price" and it ended up not going on the cover, my photo, but it was the cover story. First gig ever was the cover piece for a Business Week thing, a double-page opener. I remember getting the job while I was still in North America, prior to heading back to China. I had been away for a week or two, and I remember being in Vancouver and thinking, “Oh, I better buy a camera that can handle what they need delivered,” and I think it was a Canon 10D or a 20D. I think it was eight megapixels. And you think about it now. It ran full-bleed, double page and it was no problem. It looked great. So you think about the whole megapixel thing now and you think we did that no problem.

ST: Well, the whole megapixel thing is a sham. If you do a thought experiment: What was there before digital? People just shot 35 or medium format and there was all sorts of learning curves and frustrations. But all of that stuff, those prints are museum quality. It’s old—it’s old technology.

AR: An oldie but a goodie, right?

ST: Let’s shift gears here. More of a theoretical discussion. I’m not much of an internet person. I'm buying monographs at bookstores or going to libraries. They're a great resource here in NYC. I lived in Baltimore for 13 years and the art section in the city library, comparatively that was basically crickets chirping. What are your thoughts on referencing material on the internet with computers? Are you looking at new ideas?

AR: Not really. A friend of mine who came to Burma with me a few times to help out, help with gear and film, we’ve worked together a bunch of times. He will say, “Oh, this reminds me of so and so’s work,” and I'll just look at him and stare blankly, because I have no idea who he is talking about. And these can be giant names that he can be referencing. It’s maybe a bit embarrassing for me to admit there are gaps in my knowledge that can be facilitated through technology or a tome in a library. There is a big gap in my knowledge amongst peers, contemporaries, the giants that came before. It can be a double-edged sword. You can be iterating something that you didn’t know you were iterating, but it means that you get to come to something with fresh eyes. You can just be excited about what your shooting without the baggage. There was a South Park episode once called “Simpsons Did It,” where at some point there’s something new under the sun. So being able to approach things with fresh eyes has been a benefit. But it also means every time I see new work, there’s so much more new work to see. That’s still exciting because I haven’t experienced it before.

ST: I always think of The Beatles. The Beatles invented all of the chords you need to know. In some bizarre alternative universe people would have said, “Okay, we can shut down rock and roll. All music stops now.” Everything in a way went on to be a permutation of that. So many acts that went on to rehash the same music, but there’s always one element, a voice that can do an inflection over those chords and you can say, “Okay, this comes from a tradition, clearly, but it is slightly inflected. We can still make new things.”

AR: Clearly or else we're in trouble.

ST: I was going through your portfolio, under the travel section “Burma.” Is that a temple or a monastery? 

AR: I believe that’s of Sule Pagado. That’s the entrance gates. It’s the most holy site in Burmese Buddhism.

ST: How long did you stalk the premises to get that shot?

AR: I wouldn’t say that was a stalking case. That shot ran in the WSJ magazine. That was medium format color negative. Typically on magazine shoots you are cramming a huge amount of people and places into a short period of time and so typically you don’t have the luxury of spending too much time in one place. So, for me, you go into one place and play a game of pool. You look at the angles. “Is this going to work?” and you methodically move your way through a space or area. So I don’t remember how much time we had there. It was a huge complex. It was as if you had one hour to shoot Times Square. It was a large area that I had to cover. You can do that a million different ways. With this I climbed over a fence to see—“How can I lead someone into this place?”

ST: I bring that one up because I am attracted to things that are liminal, that are in between. I don’t really know the starting point or the end point. I try to not use the word "timeless" because it’s loaded. In looking at that photo, do you have any specific emotions or memories? I didn’t know it was a client job. I would have assumed it was some deeply personal project.

AR: So here is the dirty little secret of working with clients. They are hiring me because of how I see things in the first place. So for what I do, unless I’m shooting something that’s very commercial, there's typically not much space between how I shoot a photo for myself and how I shoot it for a client. They are, most of the time, one in the same thing. I would have shot that photo for myself absolutely. Here is the crux, I am being hired and not hired equally for how I see things. To your point about something being "timeless." The photography company I had in Vancouver was called Kairos. The Greek have two ways of looking at time, Kronos and Kairos. Kronos is our chronological time. Right now it’s 6:32 p.m. Kyros by contrast is a moment in time. Maybe a memory in time. The summer of your youth where maybe that memory is maybe of climbed trees and beach and sun and cool nights. That’s a Kairos moment. That, I think, is something that always impacted me, maybe with a dash of melancholy. There are moments which may be fleeting but also make an indelible impression on me. When I am photographing I am cognizant of this. You in a single image can conjure a feeling of a place. So now in NYC we are here on the second floor of an office building in SoHo, “Can I transport you from here to Burma?” For me, there is a hook of wanting to transport you from where you are into a construct of how I experience the place. 

ST: It does answer the question, but you talking about that—when you talk about Kairos it makes me think about the past as sort of being possible, whereas Kronos is the reality of the moment in the moment. A sequence of real moments that are either the present or the future and anything beyond that is kind of irrelevant. Roland Barthes talks about that a bit. He talks about the tragedy of a photograph in that it represents the death of a moment. I think that’s related to what you’re saying because there’s an urgency to photographing a moment because that’s the reality of how our brains work. We are interpreting the present all the time. 

AR: The Burma project is, in a sense, reconciling those two things. The photographs that I’ve taken there you’ll never be able to take again because that intersection is gone. You know, the plane that was unpainted is now painted. The counting of money in a bank by hand. We go to an electronic, cashless society. So in a way there is this pain of “no more.” You can’t capture this anymore. But, on the other hand, that twin of what your saying is, there is this continuity, a way of inhabiting that past feeling or moment.


ST: This Burma project, what's it called?

AR: "Collision Yangon."

ST: What is it?

AR: I went to Burma initially for the WSJ on assignment on the heritage and architecture of everything that was changing in the country and I immediately fell in love with the place and it resonated with my own experience. I had been living in Shanghai and it’s the city divided by a river. Once upon a time the river was all rice paddies and there was this Jetsons landscape of skyscrapers. At the river’s edge you have all these former British colonial buildings and you go to Yangon and it has more than one river. On that colonial strip you have all these buildings and rice paddies. In my own mind I was overlaying these maps and thinking about the similarities. Being in Shanghai I saw the place undergo incredible change. Parts of the city were basically paved over. I felt compelled to capture this moment in time. I imagine Yangon as this crucible where all of these different things are coming in and being heated and being purified. You’ve got democracy and dictatorship as that teeter-totter moves from one place to the other. What comes out of that? You’ve got these traditional ways of life, but you’ve got development. You’ve got these malls that are built by the Vietnamese and the Singaporeans and the Chinese and you’ve got money flooding in. And Japan and the U.S. are there trying to act as a hedge against Chinese influence in the region, so you have this great game that’s being played a hundred plus years later. You’ve got the religious collisions that are happening. The Muslims are a persecuted minority. You’ve got Buddhists and Christianity too. There’s a synagogue in Yangon. The Jewish population I was told is six people. You have Chinese Confucianism. You have all these religious overtones and undertones that are colliding. Yangon is the part of the country where all of this is coming to a head. If you go into rural parts of Burma you loose your anchor. You become untethered in terms of familiar points and context. It becomes so exotic on some level that it's like you're on safari and that doesn’t help to inform your perspective on things. Yangon is reasonably modern by the standards of the country. For me, I’ve done 3-4 trips there now, and I’ve asked, “Is this about the country as a whole?” and the more times I went back I said, “No, it’s not.” Yangon is the place where this is concentrated and where it’s happening. If you leave the city, you lose the plot. I wanted to keep the project concentrated and focused to Yangon. It’s still a pretty big project, but for me, it’s heuristic for all the collisions and everything that’s happening in the country as a whole. 

It’s about circumscribing this project—if that’s a verb. You see these people, you see these buildings, but there’s still something uniquely different about them. I want to anchor you in something that is familiar, but show you something that is unfamiliar.

ST: Looking at your work, if I can use a Calvin and Hobbes term, it’s as if you are avoiding transmogrifying something into a symbol. Symbols are loaded. You are very interested in saying, “Okay, look, this is real.” 

AR: With the work, I am trying to be quite forceful in the way an image is photographed. The way an image is presented versus a strict documentation of something and saying, “I’m here. This is important.” For lack of a better fit analogy. This is a contemporary art approach to a moment in time. You’re not shooting from the hip. You’re saying, "Okay, what is it here that I want to capture?" and then you spend 15 or 20 or 30 minutes setting the camera up. Typically, any element that is in a photo or out of a photo is like that for a reason. As far as symbology, the images that I have up from Burma on my website speak to different elements of these collisions that I’ve talked about. Whether it’s a shot of an engine block amidst this sea of engine blocks—you say this is unique to the space, but it also speaks to the state of technology. That this is this recycling and reuse and things not of a disposable nature. Here in the U.S., a car reaches the end of its life and it is junked, maybe recycled for scrap. In Yangon, you take a car and rebuild it and resell it. You are in amongst acres of this stuff. You say, “This is emblematic of where this society is right now.” Symbolic? Maybe. Or you look at a simple shot of urban density. This compressed photo of all these buildings, one on top of the other. And that is a very straight play. Here is how people live. Here is that density. Here is that color. Here is what everyday looks like. All the pictures are a thread that I’m trying to weave together of this greater picture of transition. I try not to hammer you over the head with things. Maybe symbolism is about being blunt.

ST: What are the plans for "Collision Yangon"?

AR: I need to go back at least once more. Of course, it’s the story of the film director and the edit is never done. Eventually there will be a book that comes out of this. There was a solo show in Toronto with this work. There’s a possibility that I will have a show in Hong Kong in the next year. I’d like to do a show in New York. I think it’s a very traditional end game or play that I’d like to do, which is I’d like for it to be taken seriously in academic and art circles and for there to be an art gallery associated with it in New York. I’d like for the book to be well received. Ideally this project ends up being one of the seminal works for Burma at this moment in its development.


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