Snapping Photographs

Going in for a closeup with a big shot photographer


When former Navy brat Rob Van Petten was a child, he never knew he’d be a big shot. Van Petten (age 25 in his own mind) is a commercial photographer of formidable international reputation. He recently started the Big Shot Workshops speaker series in Waltham, MA, a snapshot spread to a much wider scale soon.

The Big Shot series is an inspiration based series of events bringing the top name people in the photo arts to show their own work, talk about their vision and demonstrate what makes them distinctive. “It’s been well received and is growing,” says Rob, who splits his time between serene Tiverton, his home in Portsmouth and ever-bustling Lower Manhattan. “I think of it as ‘Inside the Photographer’s Studio’ with a hands-on approach to learning.”

Most stellar photographers come to snapping photos from painting or cartooning. Rob began by pilfering (with permission) his father’s fantastic collection of historic war Nikon cameras and, of all things, prep school garage bands. “My father was a photo buff, and had nice Nikons from the Korean War, so I was always aware of a reverence toward Nikons,” he says. “I got a Brownie when I was about six and liked taking pictures and developing film, but by 12, I had confiscated enough good Nikon gear from my father that there was no turning back.”

Photography was actually an evolution from music. “I like playing the guitar and was working in bands as a teenager. Then I began shooting pictures of band friends and hiding out in the school dark room at Tabor Academy where there were some cool people. Onto Boston University, where the photojournalism department was everything I expected. The discussion was intense and there were a lot of talented people,” adds Rob.

He would wander the streets of Boston shooting social landscape images in the late 1960s and they would end up in print, here and there. Then, he submitted some images of his college roommates to a show called “Vision and Expression” hosted by Minor White, then at prestigious MIT. “He said a lot of kind things to me in a warm grandfatherly way about my pictures... so, that was very encouraging,” says Rob of his professional launch.

Lee Friedlander spoke at Harvard Square in 1970, and Rob liked the way he spoke about his social landscape images “That was the first time I heard someone speak about pictures that made sense to me,” he says. A little later, he discovered the distinctive work of Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton and thought the fashion with-a-fantasy-approach had to be the best of all worlds. “Avedon’s ‘Dovima with Elephants,’ did it for me. Also anything by Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin,” he adds of his influences.

After teaching as Director of the Photography Program at the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts, Rob’s work has ranged from women’s cosmetics to jeans to beauty queens for four decades. In fact he photographed Rhode Island’s own Olivia Culopo shortly before she won this year’s Miss Universe pageant. His shoots have included editorials, advertising and catalog jobs for hundreds of clients over the years – from Gillette to Miss America, Levi’s, Timberland, Tommy Hilfiger, Talbots, Polaroid, Samsung to Samsonite and, yes, even his beloved Nikon. “I shoot a lot for myself and often a shot will get picked up and used commercially. Those are the best jobs,” he adds of his explosive studio work.

His Rhode Island studio (at an undisclosed location) is totally digital, modern and practically uncluttered. He shoots primarily with the Nikon D800 (he worked on the product launch for this camera), into Nikon NX2 process- ing software, on to Light Room for data basing and Photoshop CS6 for all the crazy image manipulations that make photography fun these days.

Before he shoots, he designs in his head. “I study a lot of current fashion trends and photographers. I continuously research what’s happening. Gradually, it seeps into the vision and the style evolves. Creating concepts for jobs is simply listening to a client’s needs and applying your own style. It’s also collaboration with a crew of model, make-up, stylist, hair dresser and the all-important catering.”

He says he is not the guy to call to shoot your wedding, “But I’d shoot your jewelry ad, or if you had a good fantasy idea, we could have fun. To shoot well, I need to practice continuously. The emphasis is always on the next shot. What am I going to do next? There’s always something fun to think about.”

For physical fun, he plays that guitar and jumps on trampolines with his daughters. The one time he allowed himself to relax; he fell off a boat in Greece in 1995, soaking a set of Nikons.

Then, why process half the time in uninvolved Tiverton? “It’s a hilarious counterpoint to NYC. It’s anonymous.”