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Best of 2010 - Bob Hower


For 35 years, Indiana-based Bob Hower has eagerly gone underground to photograph mining operations for a list of coal company clients. While navigating a dark, dirty and dangerous world, Hower works hard to produce images that satisfy his client’s marketing needs along with honest, personal work to satisfy himself. Where others might find ugliness and technical defeat, Hower improvises with digital cameras and battery-powered flash to reveal the tunnels’ dark beauty, while his respectful dealings and straightforward approach earns him the ongoing trust of his subjects.

Bob Hower, Jeffersonville, IN

Web site: www.qphoto.com

Project: Long term coal mining series straddling commercial work and personal self-assignment.

© Bob Hower
All images in this article © Bob Hower

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
BH:
I taught photography from 1973 to 1978 and then became a full time commercial photographer. I’ve been shooting commercially ever since. We formed Quadrant in 1985.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
BH:
A total of 4 years. At least one of our partners has been a member since 1998.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
BH:
I’ve always prided myself on being a generalist, advice to the contrary not withstanding. I began my professional career shooting architecture, which is still very close to my heart, but the realities of the marketplace have led me down other paths as well. We shoot a lot of office furniture and kitchen cabinets, as well as industrial and corporate work and some product photography. Lately we’ve been involved in one of the largest park development projects in the country so I’ve become a something of a nature photographer.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
BH:
What a question! How I miss the view cameras I used to use… What should I say? My brain? My 5D? My lenses? Our Phase One back? Photoshop? Our forklift? They’re all just tools and I need them all to do what I do, but they’re all replaceable. Maybe the best answer is the large amount of studio lighting we have.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
BH:
There’s so much talent out there these days it can be very intimidating if you let it. I try not to. I try to shoot like I live. I’m honest, direct, hardworking. I love what I do, and try to treat others with respect. I like reality. I don’t create fantasies, but we often say we make silk purses from sows’ ears. I find beauty where others only see ugliness. I try to do what the client asks and then see if I can take it one step further.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
BH:
Shooting underground is about the worst environment for photography you can imagine — it’s dark as a dungeon, dirty, dangerous, often wet, the roof is low, there’s no usable electricity, you have to wear a lot of protective gear, but in spite of all that this is pretty straight-ahead photography, which borders on documentary or journalism at times. I take an assistant and four or five battery-powered flash units with me when I go into a deep mine. I keep the post-production to a minimum for the most part.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: You mention that coal miners are a special breed. Please describe how they are special and what strategies you employ as a photographer to gain the trust of your subjects.
BH:
I first went underground in Eastern Kentucky in 1976. What I remember most (besides trying to keep myself well clear of the high voltage cable powering the “man trip” in which we were riding) was what the miners said to me when we got to the face. “Do we look like we’re oppressed? Do we look unhappy? I’ve worked in those factories up in Detroit and I’ll take this job any day,” words to that effect. I think any group of people working in a difficult environment — soldiers, baseball players, symphony musicians, police officers — all form a special bond with each other, as theirs is a life no outsider can quite understand. I’ve not found gaining my subjects’ trust to be that difficult because I find coal miners to be mostly very friendly people if you approach them honestly.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: You describe your work in the coal mining industry as straddling both commercial and personal image making. How would you differentiate your approach to these two aspects of the subject matter?
BH:
That’s a really tough question. Certain things are obvious. Shooting commercially I’m always trying to make things look good and make pictures my client can use. Shooting personally I’m looking for some kind of objective truth, but beyond that it’s a tough call. I try to grab as many personal pictures as possible on these shoots, which often involves being looser and more journalistic, but I think it’s almost an editing thing. If I were exhibiting these as art, I’m sure I’d pick a somewhat harder-edged, grittier group of images.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Do you have full rights to use client work for your own purposes, and do you get full releases for the subjects in your photos?
BH:
I grant the client unlimited use of the images, but I retain the copyright and have no restrictions on how I can use them personally. I do get releases if at all possible, but I have a policy of compensating my subjects with some portion of any stock sale I make. When they sign the release, the expectation is that their image will be used by the company, and stock sales are above and beyond the implied usage. I think this is a matter of fairness.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: How are your images of coal mining operations used by your commercial clients? What activities or aspects of coverage are most important, and are there any aspects of the work you are not allowed to shoot?
BH:
They are used in quarterly and annual reports, on their Web sites, and on their walls. I’ve yet to be told I can’t shoot something other than for reasons of safety. I’m happy they trust me.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: In addition to images for direct clients, what photo opportunities do you pursue while on assignment in the mines for your own archive or stock licensing?
BH:
I should do more of that, but I don’t. Generally I work long days and am always trying to get new angles on some way to get what are often mundane things to look different.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Please tell us about any technical solutions or tricks gained from your early, technically frustrating experiences in photographing miners underground? What, if any, early techniques or solutions do you still employ in your work today?
BH:
You begin with on-camera flash and after one shoot realize how utterly terrible that approach is underground. Then you start to bring more lighting to bear, and if possible, someone to help set them up. In the old days you brought film and Polaroid and examined the Polaroids by the beam of your helmet light, which was a real pain. Nothing seemed to work normally and all your equipment seemed to go haywire at one time or another. All your rechargeable batteries went dead. We used to wrap our Norman 200B batteries in plastic to keep the moisture out. It’s so much better now, but a coal mine is not an easy place to shoot. Basically you do the same thing you might do anywhere, but the degree of difficulty is much greater.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Please talk about the technological changes that have made photography easier to accomplish in these situations. Are there any current techniques (HDR imaging, high ISO, supplemental lighting, and so on) that you prefer over others, or any techniques that you prefer not to use?
BH:
Digital imaging and high ISO have helped immeasurably. I never used to shoot anything underground with just available light, but now I do some portion of my shooting without any supplemental lights — and now that I think about it, perhaps this is how I shoot the more personal part of my work underground. Of course with digital technology your lighting and exposure checks are so much quicker and the quantities of pictures you can make are so much higher. Not having to change rolls of film is a great plus too. Mostly I set up portable battery powered flash units on stands, some direct, some into umbrellas or small boxes. I’ll try anything if I think it will work. Above ground I sometimes do panoramic stitches.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Photographing this subject involves working in challenging locations and circumstances. Please describe the most essential considerations one should observe when working in these types of environments.
BH:
I always put safety first, and try to assess just how much risk I’m taking for what benefit. By law you have to be go through a safety-training course before you can go underground. I always pay a lot of attention to these, and I am always accompanied by someone from the mine, often a safety officer. I’ve never felt that I was put at any undue risk doing this work, though coal mining certainly has risks associated with it. The clients I’ve had have always seemed to me to have a very good attitude about safety and I probably wouldn’t work for someone that didn’t. Any industrial situation must be approached with a lot of awareness for danger. I try hard to work slowly and consciously at all times when I’m doing coal work.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: When photographing coal mining operations, is any special insurance coverage needed for yourself or your equipment?
BH:
No special insurance. Should I ask?

ASMP: How much pre- and post-production work goes into your coal mining shoots? Do you rely on any specialized services, suppliers or support staff for this work?
BH:
Nothing out of the ordinary. We have a full time digital tech on staff to handle the post-production part.

ASMP: The subject of coal mining has recently received significant media attention. Has this translated into a spike in interest or requests for your images or your expertise in this subject?
BH:
Perhaps it would if I did a better job marketing myself as a stock photographer.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Based on your experiences and from your opinion, how has the profession of coal mining changed in the past 35 years? Do you have any future predictions or insights about this occupation or about the industry as a whole?
BH:
In the United States coal mining has generally become much safer, in spite of a number of very serious and well-publicized accidents. It has also become much more efficient, which has had some serious negative environmental consequences, especially with surface mining methods like mountaintop removal. Incidentally, none of our current clients do surface mining. The newer technology means more coal is mined by fewer people, so there have been significant job losses in the industry and I think this will continue. It also means miners have to be better educated. In addition, like most labor, it is less unionized and my impression is that this has meant that coal miners in general feel they have fewer options and less power. It is mind boggling to me how much coal we still have underneath us. Coal has a bad public image, sometimes for good reason, but it will be with us for a long time to come. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “Behind every light bulb there’s a coal miner.” Coal now provides a little over half of our electricity.

ASMP: What, if any, are your future plans for the coal mining work? Are there any plans to present your images on this subject in book form or in an exhibition?
BH:
Book no, exhibit yes.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: You share a photography business with two other photographers. How is your business structured, both officially and from a more day-to-day perspective? What are the most important elements in the success of this type of business structure? What, if any are the biggest challenges?
BH:
I’ve had partners since we began the business about 25 years ago. No one gave us a chance then, but we’ve survived all these years one way or the other. There are now just two owners (down from four) and two employees, a third photographer and a digital tech who does all of our file work. The partners have always been salaried equally and we’ve tried to share the workload as equally as possible while playing to our individual strengths. My partner Ted is now more focused on management and business development, while Jim Frankenberger and I do the bulk of the shooting. While it may sound trite, the most important element in our success is teamwork and mutual respect.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: How are projects allocated between yourself and your partners? Do you each work independently or take a team approach to projects, or both?
BH:
We have toyed with making our business a company of individual entrepreneurs at various times in the past, but have never restructured it that way. We are a team and a family. While we all work with some clients we consider “ours,” we make a concerted effort to make sure our clients work with all of us so that in the future they can feel comfortable passing assignments to any of us.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Besides your coal mining work, you and one of your business partners have been documenting the creation of the Floyd’s Fork Greenway in Louisville, Kentucky for 21st Century Parks. Please talk about this project and what led to your involvement.
BH:
The credit goes to my partner Ted Wathen for this. Ted is a big picture thinker and makes a point of being well connected in the community. The Parklands of Floyds Fork Project (as it’s now being called) is one of the largest and most exciting park development projects in the country, and encompasses nearly 4,000 total acres along Floyds Fork in eastern Jefferson County, Kentucky. When this was first announced several years ago Ted realized how valuable it would be to have a well organized photographic documentation of the Park as it existed then, and of its development over time. He approached Dan Jones, the Chairman and CEO of 21st Century Parks with a detailed and long-term proposal, which was accepted. We’ve been working on it for three years now, partnering also with John Nation, full time photographer for Louisville Magazine. For me, mostly known as a smokestack photographer, this has been a great challenge and wonderful experience.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: Your business also incorporates a large photo studio housed in an industrial facility, which you also offer for rent. How long have you had this space and how does it function from day-to-day?
BH:
We have a space that photographers drool over. When we looked at this place 25 years ago we fell in love with it for mainly two reasons — first, it has no support columns to get in the way, and second, it’s beautiful. It’s a late 19th century brick structure built to make train cars, and features a large brick arch at the entrance to one wing. But we do have to pay the rent, and it’s been hard to keep the space busy in slow times. Rentals have been lagging lately, partly due to new competition, and we’re doing less studio work and more location work now. We’ve discussed downsizing our space, but it’s really the heart of our business and would be very hard to let go of. We’ve had city buses, mountain lions, stock cars, motorcycles, jazz bands and all kinds of other things here.

© Bob Hower

ASMP: What types of client photography is produced in your 12,000-square foot facility, and how does your location, just outside Louisville, KY, add to the appeal of the space?
BH:
We’ve specialized in office furniture and cabinet photography for years now, and our space allows us to have several active roomsets going at one time. Southern Indiana is home to a large number of furniture manufacturers so our location here is a great advantage, and the cost of the space is relatively inexpensive. A space like this in a big city would be prohibitive.