ROB HANN is an English photographer who lives and sells his work in NEW YORK. Self-taught, he began his career as a portrait photographer and went on to work for some of the world’s most prestigious print publications.
He has photographed some of the most prominent figures in the arts over the past 50 years, including, among others, TOM HANKS, STEVE BUSCEMI, WILLEM DAFOE, JEFF GOLDBLUM, CHUCK D, PAUL SMITH, EWAN MCGREGOR, JG BALLARD, CHLOE SEVIGNY, GIL SCOTT-HERON, DAFT PUNK, RAY LIOTTA, PAUL AUSTER, PAULO COELHO, MICHAEL STIPE, MARK WAHLBERG AND DAVID BYRNE. ROB has seven of his portraits permanently shown in the NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON.
In 2001 he took his first solo road trip to the AMERICAN west and quickly realised his life and career was heading in a new direction: "I knew I’d found my subject. Since then I’ve moved from ENGLAND to NEW YORK CITY and take to the AMERICAN road whenever I get the chance. I’m not documenting the brutal creeping sprawl of corporate AMERICA. I’m seeking the magic that still exists in the spaces in between."
All of us have experienced wanderlust at one point another. ROB did something about it. In 2003, having previously lived and worked in AUSTIN, TEXAS, MILAN, PARIS and LONDON, he moved to New York permanently. It was a change that facilitated his taking solo road trips to the parts of AMERICA that for most of us exist only in the movies, or daydreams. For the past eight years he has concentrated solely on his art photography.
ROB kindly took time out to discuss with OWL his endlessly fascinating life and work.
OWL: I first came across your work having spent a morning meandering around art galleries in SOHO, NEW YORK. You were selling prints from a trestle table in the street. They were the most interesting thing I’d seen all day. How do people differ in terms of how they perceive the work because it is outside of a gallery setting?
ROB HANN: When I first had the idea to sell my work on the street I thought that people in the art or photography world would see me as a loser but I haven’t found that to be the case. It seems that if people see something they think is good it doesn’t matter where they see it. I think people enjoy discovering something in an unexpected place too.
O: Do you ever find people change their perceptions when they learn you have
seven portraits in the permanent collection of THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON, and have photographed some of the most influential actors, musicians and writers of the past 50 years or so?
RH: I print up a single page bio which I have on my table. It helps me look legit to some people. Every little thing can help when you’re selling in the street. I also have large limited edition prints in CLIC GALLERY, just a few blocks away. When people see those in the windows or on the walls of CLIC, and then see me and my work on the street I think the perceptions of some people can shift.
O: You mentioned over email how you are doing a book this year. Will that be a document of your road trips and do you know when it will be published?
RH: Yes it is. It's called DIESEL FRIED CHICKEN and is available now at GL Stand, Copenhagen. I should get the books here in NEW YORK by the middle of this month. There will be details on my website robhann.com, and updates on my Instagram account @rob.hann
O: How long have been based in NEW YORK now - are you still enjoying meeting people every day on the street?
RH: I’ve been in New York for almost 15 years and selling in the street for more than 7. I never tire of meeting a great variety of people out there.
O: Before you moved to AMERICA and began to focus solely on your road trip
series you had a highly successful career as a portrait photographer. What type of publications commissioned you and who were some of the people you photographed?
RH: I worked for several newspaper and magazines like THE TIMES MAGAZINE, THE TELEGRAPH MAGAZINE, THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY MAGAZINE, THE OBSERVER and THE SCOTSMAN MAGAZINE as well as a lot of music publications including the NME, Q, UNCUT, STRAIGHT NO CHASER and WIRE.
I shot many people including TOM HANKS, WILLEM DAFOE, EWEN MCGREGOR, DAVID BYRNE, TIMOTHY SPALL, HUGH LAURIE, JG BALLARD, CHUCK D, JASON STATHAM, CHLOE SEVIGNY, PAUL SMITH, RENEE ZELLWEGER, GIL SCOTT-HERON, JON BON JOVI and FATBOY SLIM.
O: Who did you enjoy photographing the most? Is there anyone that could convince you to come home early from a road trip if they were only in New York for a day and wanted a portrait doing?
RH: I really enjoyed photographing Timothy Spall, a true gent who asked as many questions about me as I asked about him. I don’t shoot celebrity portraits anymore. I’d much rather be out on the road shooting whatever I can find out there.
O: An indulgent question, but was Paul Auster as mysterious as his novels?
RH: Not especially, but he is a very striking looking man.
O: Where in ENGLAND are you from and in what way do you think that shaped who you became and the life you chose?
RH: I grew up on a farm on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. The landscape is pretty open with distant horizons and big skies. Maybe that has something to do with me being drawn to the vast open spaces of the western states.
O: Before photography, did you have other jobs?
RH: I had many! I left school at 16 and have been a farm worker, worked in factories, been a London fireman, a waiter, bartender, worked in kitchens, been a bicycle messenger, a doorman at a music venue and was a model for 10 years.
O: When did you first visit AMERICA specifically to photograph it? Did you experience any kind of epiphany when you knew you had to move over the pond?
RH: The first trip I took just to take photos on the road was in 2001.
I was living in London at the time. I’d lived in NEW YORK and also AUSTIN, TEXAS in the first half of the 80s, just having an adventure. I then lived in MILAN and PARIS before settling in LONDON. I’d been in LONDON for 11 years and could see 50 on the horizon. I guess it was a mid-life crisis of sorts. I thought “am I going to grow old in London or have another adventure?”. I decided to move back to NEW YORK and have another adventure!
O: From ROBERT FRANK to people like JACOB HOLDT there’s been a tradition of EUROPEAN photographers crossing the ATLANTIC, what was the appeal for you?
RH: I think EUROPEANS are steeped in AMERICAN movies, music and literature with makes AMERICA an attractive and romantic place for many of us including me.
O: The lure of AMERICA for many EUROPEANS in the past was the writing of the BEAT GENERATION. Are you a fan?
RH: JACK KEROUAC’S ON THE ROAD made a great impression on me when I first read it and excited me all over again when I bought a used copy on the street in NEW YORK a few years ago.
O: You live in NEW YORK now but choose to photograph a very different AMERICA. Is the openness of the road and the vastness of the places you visit in some way a reaction to wanting to escape the confines of city life?
RH: Yes I think so. It’s a great escape giving me time and space to think. I always travel alone on my road trips. I don’t take any pictures these days when I’m not on a trip. The act of taking the trip is integral to my photography and being out there alone is very important to me too
O: In a similar vein, does escaping to the desert provide respite from the inanity of modern life, its obsession with social media and the narcissism it manifests? It must be both daunting and liberating to be in a space so much bigger than you are?
RH: I feel calm when I’m in the desert. I first noticed the feeling when I was in EGYPT on a modelling job for an Italian magazine. Also the desert feels full of possibilities. I never know what mysterious thing awaits me over the horizon.
O: Have you ever photographed anywhere that has tempted you to move there permanently?
RH: Not many but MARFA, TEXAS and the surrounding Big Bend region of WEST TEXAS would be one. I have also considered OJAI in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, MENDOCINo in northern CALIFORNIA, and LAS VEGAS, NEW MEXICO.... not the one in NEVADA!
O: Your work is given the umbrella title “I DREAM A HIGHWAY”, a song by GILLIAN WELCH. How important is the musical score you give your road trips and what makes a good song to drive to? Do you ever think the music you are listening to influences what you choose to photo-graph?
RH: The music I listen to on a trip has always been very important to me. It’s even important to the photography when I’m not on a trip. It keeps me in a frame of mind, immersing me in that feeling all the time. I can be kind of obsessive with music, books, movies and even clothing all feeding into that feeling. Some songs that would always be with me on the road are WILLIN by LITTLE FEAT (the version on their second album), PANCHO AND LEFTY by EMMYLOU HARRIS, JONI MITCHELL'S 1976 album HEJIRA, GIMME SHELTER by THE ROLLING STONES and hundreds more. I’m always on the lookout for new stuff too. It’s hard to talk about specific influences. The music and the photographs are all part of the same thing.
O: A lot of your photographs, for me personally, are melancholic yet hopeful. They are about new journeys, but also hint at something having been left behind. Are those emotions you associate with a life on the road?
RH: I guess those are emotions I associate with life itself rather than anything associated with the road. I am a very optimistic person but I guess we are all aware of things we’ve left behind.
O: Again it may just be me, but there’s an inescapable Lynchian feel to some of your work. Are you are fan of DAVID LYNCH? Is retaining a sense of mystery important to you? For example, there’s an amazing photo of yours, titled old station, CALIFORNIA. It is of some kind of road sign advertising “FOOD, COCKTAILS, POOL” on one side, and on the other “UNCLE” and a missing section. I can’t stop thinking about what “UNCLE” means. Any ideas?
RH: I like some of DAVID LYNCH’S work for sure but I don’t think he’s had a great influence on me. A sense of mystery in a photograph is very important to me however. I like it when you look at a photograph and wonder what’s going on. I love the “UNCLE” photo too. I looked it up and the sign was for a restaurant called UNCLE RUNT’S.
O: Is humour important to your photographs? Do you find photography is a medium that can take itself too seriously at times?
RH: Yes, I’m always on the look out for humour in any situation. I like serious photography too but humour is certainly there in several of my pictures and I think that’s a relatively rare thing in photography.
O: How often do you take a trip? How long do you go out on the road for, and what kind of places do you stay at? What vehicle do you drive?
RH: Not so often, once or twice a year. I usually go for 2 weeks but I drive thousands of miles, rising before the sun and driving until dark. I stay in cheap motels and the occasional historic hotel. I rent a 4 wheel drive small suv.
O: Can you see yourself ever needing to go beyond AMERICA for inspiration? Are their other continents that hold similar appeal?
RH: Maybe CANADA or MEXICO, possibly SOUTH AMERICA. I’ve enjoyed travelling in EUROPE, ASIA and AFRICA but my photos are all about AMERICA.
O: Do you never photograph NEW YORK and its people?
O: If when shooting a portrait there’s a dialogue, maybe even a battle, between how a sitter sees themselves and how the photographer does, how does it differ with a landscape? Do you feel like you have more control, or does nature have an ego too?
RH: I like a portrait to be a conversation, literally. I try to make the person look good. My idea of what looks good may be different than what they think looks good. I guess in both my portraits and landscapes I tend towards a sense of solitude. I rarely shoot a straight landscape. My pictures are usually of something isolated within a landscape.
O: Or do both ultimately boil down to trying to find some kind of truth in the subject?
RH: I think I am looking for truth but I’m also imposing my aesthetic on the picture.
O: There’s a cinematic quality to your work, they could be stills from a film. Is film as a medium important to you?
RH: Absolutely; a huge influence on me was WIM WENDERS’ 1984 film PARIS, TEXAS. I first saw the film long before I started taking these photographs but it stayed with me. I go back to it every couple of years, the photos too.
O: On a similar theme, the desert states of AMERICA seem very much in vogue for quality TV drama on networks such as NETFLIX and HBO. Have you seen the likes of BREAKING BAD and TRUE DETECTIVE? If you haven’t seen BREAKING BAD, they probably owe you royalties for your photo highway 70, NEW MEXICO, as it could have been a still from any one of about 40 scenes!
RH: I really enjoyed BREAKING BAD but haven’t seen TRUE DETECTIVE. That photograph predates BREAKING BAD by several years.
O: Vintage AMERICAN cars figure relatively often in your work. Do you ever wish you had been taking photographs in a different era? Or is part of the appeal of the AMERICA you capture one of faded glory and the remnants that cling on from a bygone time?
RH: I do sometimes think about that but I actually first drove from NEW YORK to CALIFORNIA with a friend in 1978. I didn’t have a camera and I didn’t see things the way I do now. I do think that mid 20th Century car design was far superior to what we see now.
O: What is the first photograph you remember taking? And can you recall what camera you used?
RH: The first camera I owned was a cheap polaroid camera that required me to apply some kind of gel to the black and white print to prevent it fading away. I took a few pictures of friends on holiday in CORNWALL.
The first camera I bought when I decided to become a photographer was a NIKON FM2 with a 50mm lens. That was in 1987 I think. I was 32 years old and I started shooting portraits of friends which were mostly blurred as I didn’t know what I was doing!
O: Who were your early influences and do those influences change the more you find out about yourself as a photographer/person?
RH: My first major influence was IRVING PENN, who took great portraits, and al-so jazz photographers like WILLIAM CLAXTON and HERMAN LEONARD. I was all about black and white in those days. After I took
my first road trip and showed the pictures to people I started hearing names like WILLIAM EGGLESTON and STEPHEN SHORE. I didn’t know their work but had probably been unknowingly influenced by them and others. EGGLESTON and SHORE have since become favourites of mine along with people like JOEL STERNFELD and RICHARD MISRACH. My influences do change a little over time and I’m always on the lookout for something new.
O: Was there a specific photograph you took that made you realise you might have something, and could make a career doing what you love?
RH: I don’t think so but very early on I was taking portraits of friends that I thought were good and always thought it might be possible to have a ca-reer.
O: The late AMERICAN photographer MINOR WHITE said, "all photographs are self- portraits." If that’s the case, what do yours say about you?
RH: I think that’s definitely true and is probably true for all art forms. I think my photographs have changed over time. I lost my mother when I was 8 years old which strongly affected me. And when I first started the road trip photos, shortly after the break up of a long-term relationship, the pictures were very melancholic. I’m in a much better frame of mind now and the photos tend to be much more upbeat but a sense of melancholy can linger. I’m always looking to put humour into the pictures and although I’m a sociable person, I’m also a bit of a loner and that shows in the photos too.
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