March 26, 2020

Roth and Ramberg-About Photography IV

(Dale Roth is one half of the photography duo, Roth and Ramberg. As writing is not his strong suit, he has asked his teenage son to correct his lack of punctuation and when possible, add in big words. However, Dale does know how to do a perfect scheimpflug.)

Life in a Photography Partnership

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been many photography partnerships over the years. For those who don’t know, my business partner Michele and I met in 1985 during our time together in photo school. Michele was fresh out of high school and I was a few years older, and had already worked a few jobs after I finished high school. There were four of us who began to hang together. We were the kids who knew nobody at the time and had banded together because we were all from out of town. Soon we were as thick as thieves and spent every waking moment together. We talked about photography, studied together and assisted each other. It was two years of hard work, but we had a great time doing it. 

A few years passed and Michele and I were sharing an apartment in Edmonton. Both of us were photo assistants and as a result for those few years, did nothing but photography. We learned even more about it from our employers. We began to understand what to charge for our photographs, how to invoice, and how to deal with clients. There were all new things to us, things we had not been taught in school. 

I worked for two photographers at the time. One was more of an advertising photographer while the other was a more industrial, corporate photographer. It was such a learning experience to watch what they did and how they reacted to every possible situation. I observed them and picked up on their good habits while staying away from their bad ones.

One Friday night, while living in Michele and her husband’s basement, I brought up the idea of starting our own business. Michele had recently left her job working for the government and I had offered to share my wage with her and bring her onboard the photo studio where I was working. My employers politely declined to have Michele join the team, and instead said, “Why don’t you just do it yourselves?” Start my own business? What a revelation! Of course it had occurred to me in the past, but with no money or business plan, it would be a difficult route to go. I decided to take the plunge anyway and was able to convince Michele that this was somehow a good idea.

However, we both promptly agreed we would be unable to start it on our own. With open hands and open hearts, we went to the bank of Mom and Dad and asked for $5000 to start our company. Michele's parents graciously lent up the money, and years later when I asked her Mom if she ever thought she would get the money back she smiled and said “Oh no.” 

With that money we bought some used lights and stands, sourced some used office furniture at a government sale and purchased a stamp which we used to rubber stamp our first business cards. We did a postcard as a promo and sent it out to every ad agency and government department that we could think of. We went to the library and got the addresses of every magazine we ever wanted to work with (we are still waiting for a call from the Rolling Stone), got our portfolio together and started knocking on doors.

We paid ourselves $300 a month, which covered the groceries. Michele’s husband John paid all the bills. We lived like that for two years, putting every penny of our income back into the business. We then came up with the idea of limiting ourselves to shooting only 4 weddings per year, with the goal of making ourselves exclusive. At the time we favoured journalistic type photography and the wedding world was still too posed and traditional. Our idea of only shooting four weddings a year worked well. Of course it only lasted a few years as both of us eventually decided we never wanted to do it again. 

Fortunately, after building it bit by bit, the business grew. We were trying hard to build a good reputation and become known for our photo abilities as well as our dedication and hard work.

So how does a business work with two photographers? Well, in the beginning when we arrived on set we would both have ideas of where to take the photo and how to light it. As we tried to combine our two ideas, we quickly discovered that what emerged was something in the middle. In most cases this was okay, but never left either of us reassured that we had done our best. To rectify that, if one of us had a strong idea, the other became the assistant and helped set it up. While shooting digital, the assistant photographer becomes the digital tech on the shoot. Not sure which job is tougher really but given the way work it really doesn’t matter who presses the shutter, as the both people are completely involved in the process. That assistant was also in charge of talking with the subject and making them relaxed and comfortable. 

Mine and Michele’s photo styles are similar, but not the same. I tend to shoot a photo to capture a moment regardless of if its technical aspects were correct at the time. Michele, on the other hand, prefers to get the technical aspects first and then proceed with the photograph. We get the same results, we just took a different path to get there.

That decision as to who presses the shutter is made when we first arrive on set. A large part of photography is being able to read people. I could see psychology as being a course that a photographer could use. After many years, we came to recognize the types of people we are photographing and how far we needed to push them to get the shot. Upon arrival, we meet the individual, or individuals and see who they respond to first. 

Being a male and female partnership, we came to understand that sometimes the gender of the subject determines who they respond to, most times in a very stereotypical fashion. For example the oil field worker may want to talk to me about the machines or whatever they work on because I’m a guy. We are certainly not going to get into a debate that a woman can know as much about a machine as a man, it’s who they respond to that matters. We are still at the point in corporate photography that Michele will powder the subjects, male or female. She is in charge of adjusting their clothing and getting in their personal space as it’s just more comfortable for the subjects if a woman is doing it.

I’ve told many students over the years, “If you want someone to relax, just be slightly dumber than they are.” In other words, everyone has a story or some knowledge that I do not. In most cases those people are happy to share what they do or what they are interested in. This in turn makes them a little more relaxed around us, especially as we set up and fine tune the image. It allows that natural expression to come out which we are always striving for.

So why does a partnership in photography work? It works because what I’m lacking, Michele brings to the table and vice versa. We both have our strengths and our weaknesses, but together we are stronger. We’ve had disagreements over the years but it works because we both have the same goals. We are always trying to get the best shot no matter what, to learn more and do more because we love what we do.