Face-to-face with the talent of two generations

MAY 2011 – World-renowned photographers Gerald and Marc Hoberman have published more than 70 coffee-table books of their iconic travel images. So what makes this father-and-son team click?

Starting with you, Gerald, what inspired you to focus on photography?

GH: At the tender age of eight I borrowed my sister’s Kodak Baby Brownie camera and never gave it back! I am, after all these years, unable to explain the continuity of my unbridled enthusiasm. Every time I pick up my camera I am freshly infused with creative passion and inspiration, like a kid in a candy store.

And when did you begin to involve Marc in the business?

GH: Well, before the idea of starting a publishing company and creating a career out of photography, Marc and I started our ‘journey’. At age five he began to accompany me on photographic expeditions around the world. I allowed him to borrow my Leica cameras and introduced him to the excitement of photography, which he took to immediately, much to my delight. By the time Marc finished high school, he had already experienced more than many photographers do in a lifetime, and at that point he joined me in the early days of The Hoberman Collection.
MH: By the age of 12 I had lived with dad in the Amazon for three months, and we’d been to the Galapagos together.
GH: Marc’s school friends dismissed his stories as bull dust!
MH: I always used to tease my friends and tell them to choose something to eat from the fridge – but of course they found it full of film. I used to say, ‘There are rolls in the fridge if you’d like some!’ I really appreciate how my dad introduced me to photography. He never gave me a formal lesson but just let it develop naturally. I took terrible pictures for at least 12 years!

How do the two of you work together as father and son?

GH: We are both card-carrying members of the mutual admiration society. Our circumstances and complementary skills are such that nowadays we only occasionally manage to work on the same projects together, but we usually collaborate on the content of our books.
MH: My father has been my mentor and photographic partner since the age of five, so working as a team comes naturally to us and is always great fun. We’ve shared so many experiences around the world together and grown side-by-side as artists, so I think Team Hoberman works really well. These days, with so many different projects on the go, we unfortunately have to work separately more often than not, but we always regroup for our traditional show-and-tells.

How do you both describe your styles?

GH: Technical excellence is a prerequisite and Marc and I don’t understand the word ‘compromise’. I love to reveal the subtle nuances of light, colour, texture and form. With people and wildlife photography, it’s the ability to anticipate and capture that fleeting moment. My work often includes a dollop of serendipity to ‘add spice to the gingerbread’. I aim to evoke an emotive impactful response to every photograph I take. My work ranges from intricate numismatic fine art macro photography to helicopter perspectives and dramatic landscapes.
MH: My photography style has become more romantic, if I had to put a word to it. I’ve become obsessed with natural light and what can be done with the bare minimums. For me, it’s all about glimmers of light in shadows, or chiaroscuro. I’ve somehow gone from photographing out in the African sun to preferring dark spaces!

Tell us about how you made the transition from being a studio photographer to being a wildlife photographer?

GH: In studio I worked with highly controlled precision using Hasselblad cameras to do fine-art coin photography, which was my specialty at the time. One day a friend invited my family and I on a bush holiday. I took my cameras with me but quickly realised that my noisy Hasselblad was totally inappropriate, and I found that I was an atrocious wildlife photographer. But before long, the strong element of luck and the thrill of the chase brought out my primal hunting instincts. It was a defining moment that changed my direction. The bug bit and I had to go back. My cameras were traded in – I moved on to Leica cameras, until the digital age arrived and we changed to Canon. I’ve since done a considerable amount of wildlife work and photographed over 75 lodges. Both Paul Smith and Ralph Lauren sell Exclusive Safari Lodges of South Africa in their international fashion boutiques.

When did you make the switch over to digital? And who did it first?

MH: We held on to film for dear life while others around us were changing to digital. So much of what we enjoyed was the romance of the film process – the anticipation of not knowing what will come out until the rolls are processed, the late nights in front of the noisy slide projector talking for hours about each image blown up life-size on the wall, slide mounts, acetate file sleeves – it was all wonderfully tactile. I loved that slightly mysterious world that could only be accessed by someone who took it seriously. Digital has taken the mystery out of it. It spelt the end of an era and it definitely did change the way everyone worked: suddenly, as a photographer, you needed to learn how to retouch. You can’t separate Photoshop from a photographer today. We both value the fact that we’ve had classical training though. In 2005 I received a commission to photograph Elton John over a gruelling two-day schedule. Having to keep up with other people’s deadlines, which we rarely did back then, I realised that I had to change to digital. Intrigued, my father followed several days later, and we’ve never looked back.
GH: Digital is great though: imagine you’re shooting at sunrise or sunset and not sure of the light. You might choose to shoot the same shot every minute or half minute and you’ll get results because you can evaluate what you’ve got and make adjustments as you go. The economic possibility of doing slight nuances on different exposures would bankrupt you on film. That said, it’s only a tool and the fundamentals of what constitutes a good image have not changed with the advent of digital. If one goes back to the work of early photographers, you’ll find they were pretty sharp. Clever composition and lighting was a real skill. We can run circles around what the old guys did but still respect and salute them for what they achieved. They didn’t have great lenses in those days but those shots have a special magic – they speak to us.

What makes a good photographer, Marc? And what gives you both the edge?

MH: Having a father so passionate about his craft and so generous with his time has definitely been a factor for me. For around 15 years we’ve enjoyed photography together as a hobby without any of the difficulties that come with the profession. I think that allowed us to really find our styles and build experience in a meaningful way. The genuine place that our photography comes from gives it an edge, I would imagine. We haven’t spent much time looking at others around us or getting involved in photography ‘culture’ – it’s the simple act itself that we enjoy so much.

Tell us about the most extraordinary shoot you’ve ever done?

GH: Doing tight wheelies around the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter to get aerial shots of Manhattan one week before 9/11. I also survived a crash into the sea near Knysna: the back rotor of the helicopter blew clean off.
MH: It’s hard to choose one, but for travel it was probably 12 hours of aerial photography over the Namib Desert – the landscape is surreal and like nothing I had ever seen. And every year I cover the BAFTA Awards in London as the official photographer, which is a constant treasure trove of extraordinary situations and stories. One year, BAFTA invited 10 of London’s leading entertainment photographers to shoot the award ‘masks‘. They were all quite aggressive – clicking away, getting every angle, photographing like crazy. I sat quietly in the corner and thought about the light until they’d all left and the cleaner came to take the awards away. With the spotlights off, I took just one quiet picture of her holding a mask with a white glove. A week later the image was chosen for BAFTA’s national ad campaign and is today displayed as an art piece at its headquarters. Digital encourages excessive shooting but it’s that one moment that counts.

What tips would you give to our readers who would like to improve their travel or safari photography?

GH: Observing animals and their behavioural patterns is not only fascinating but also allows the photographer to anticipate what the ‘next move’ is going to be. For instance, I noticed that moments before a bird of prey takes to flight it defecates, making its body lighter. It’s at that point that my finger hits the motor drive to catch my subject in flight. There are many tricks that one picks up along the way with wildlife photography. Shooting in the wild requires great patience, often staying in one position for hours to get the perfect shot and this can be very tiring with a heavy telephoto lens. A tripod would seem the obvious solution but when the action happens you want to be able to move freely at lightning speed. For years I’ve used a bag filled with lightweight inert polypropylene pellets (easily made at home) which I place over my open 4×4 window to support my lens. As for general advice – you’ve got to have fun! Great pictures will come if you are fully immersed in what you do. When other people in your party begin to complain that you‘re being anti-social, you know that you’re on the right track! I’ve watched many a tourist struggling with expensive new equipment. Learn how to use it before you go to the bush. But it’s also possible to take great shots with a very ordinary camera: I remember one occasion when I stayed behind to photograph the public area of a lodge and missed a really good kill – lions had taken a baby hippo. One of the guests showed me her photos and I genuinely raved about them. She did such a good job – really crackerjack shots. I nagged her to take them to 50/50 and they showed them on TV.
MH: Every time we go on safari everything’s happened the day before. So go a day earlier than you booked! No, seriously – I find that hobbyist photographers tend to spend too much time researching and discussing camera equipment and the latest gadgets. It is important to have the best kit that you can afford, but once bought, I’d recommend really focusing on getting out there and building experience – it’s more important than anything you can buy.

How many books have you published to date? Any favourites?

GH: We’ve published around 70 titles under The Hoberman Collection. The aerial work of London is a bestseller and our book on London is still on the Harrods list. We do the official Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and Tower of London books too – and have kept letters from the Queen, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, and numerous other dignitaries, all of which are meaningful to us.
MH: It’s difficult to choose a favourite, although I once told a news reporter that each book is like a child… they’re really fun to make! Artistically, it’s always my current book – in this case, a coffee table book about the legacy of The Carlton Tower Hotel in London (due June 2011). New York was a special career highlight but nothing could beat the working environment of my cookbook Chocolate for Breakfast with Barbara Passino in Napa Valley!

Any exciting projects you can tell us about?

MH: I’ve been updating our book on London and it’ll be out at the end of this year. This new one is actually Marc Hoberman’s London and marks quite a specific change in my style. It’s a lot cleaner and more romantic. I’ve got to know the city and its people, especially through fashion in my work for Vogue – shooting fashion designers, makeup artists and backstage – and as the official BAFTA photographer. Not surprisingly, I’ve met a few people with the attitude of a lion. Sometimes it’s not terribly far off from wildlife photography! I love those. But I’ve pretty much said goodbye to the fashion industry: I have a business to run and have had to make some choices. Book publishing is still my first love.
GH: 2011 is a year for Johannesburg. Marc and I are working on a Johannesburg coffee-table book and are immersed in the city. I’ve wanted to cover this subject for many years. While Cape Town is arguably over-photographed, Johannesburg has been visually ignored and it is a truly magnificent place. We’re covering the city from all angles: extensive helicopter shoots, townships, trendy urban centres, miners underground, wildlife, the list goes on… images that evoke an emotion. Oh, and of course, its finely tuned sense of opulent living!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *