Washington, D.C. based photographer Tony Richards is known for his stimulating environmental portraits, mainly in the world of higher education. Living in a sprawling metropolis like D.C. works well in his favor, considering there are plenty universities in the area for him to find subjects and interesting locations. In fact, almost all of his higher ed work is shot on college campuses around the capitol, and started off as personal work.
One of the first images he made for this series of portraits was when he himself was still in college, studying photography. A man sits behind a desk with a keyboard in hand, as if it’s a musical instrument, decorated on all sides by computer monitors. This image is a great example of Tony’s approach to portraits, which is taking a standard shot and changing one little thing in the image to make it quirky. He took this photograph on a day in the computer lab, goofing around with his fellow students, when he thought it could be cool to make a twist on the term “playing the keyboard”. So he asked one of his classmates to pick up they keyboard in this unconventional manner, and thus the photograph was born.
The D.C. market is a very conservative one when it comes to photography. There are many talented photographers in the area, but most of them make their living doing head shots of people in suits, standing in libraries, more or less. Tony was determined to not make this norm the basis of his business, but instead a little more creative and interesting. This made Tony think more about his surroundings and what was happening in D.C. that could allow him to meet interesting people and work in interesting locations. While D.C. may not have too many businesses or companies that are known for doing creative things, there are plenty universities, which was a seemingly untapped market in Tony’s eyes.
After this discovery. he would go to college campuses and ask people if they knew someone who did something interesting at the university, or he’d ask a friend who happened to be a professor if they knew of someone he could potentially photograph. This process of word of mouth helped him put together his portfolio of work, that has now turned into his biggest source of work and income in the D.C. area. Much of his higher education imagery started out as personal work, and the whole portfolio has been shot over the past 2 years. He still considers it a work in progress, and is always on the hunt for interesting people doing interesting things.
Tony discovered through some research that the University of Maryland had a wind tunnel on their campus, and immediately went on their website to find an e-mail to contact for permission to shoot there. Upon getting permission, he dreamt up a fantastical idea of having the students down in the wind tunnel, their hair blowing about, adding to the drama of the space. But once he got to the campus and started to explain his idea, he quickly realized it wasn’t going to be so easy. The college informed him the wind tunnel could not be on while someone was inside it. Fortunately he did gain permission to go down himself to photograph the propellers in motion, so Tony carted all his equipment down into the tiny wind tunnel to set up his shot. After they turned off the blades, the student subjects were allowed to go down into the space and photographed separately. Tony then composited the two pictures together, so thankfully he could create the shot he originally had in mind.
After this shoot, he was hooked, and decided that if there was more stuff out in the world like this, he had to find and capture it. From there he went to another college and photographed a girl next to a fire tornado she started in her lab, as well as alumni for university publications. The University of Maryland hired Tony to shoot one of their alumni from the business school, who is an entrepreneur of a company that makes components for skateboards. Because his business was booming and doing so well, they wanted to show that side of him as well. How do you marry skateboarding and business together, he thought? Dress the subject up in a suit and place him on the board. Tony took him around campus to different locations, photographing him posing and riding the skateboard.
Another job he was assigned was for another alumni showcase, this time of a woman who works for Hershey in Pennsylvania. This job is an example of how he often find that the photographs that end up in his portfolio are not the ones that run for the client. He took some more standard portraits of the woman for the magazine editor, who was there on set, but once he knew he shot what the editor needed, he flipped to shoot what he really wanted for himself. Tucked away in one of the Hersey conference rooms, Tony found a bunch of life-size props, and had her interact with the objects. In order to have her emote the right expression for the shot, he had her look up and think about her love of chocolate. Posing wise, his favorite shots are the ones where you almost forget the photographer is present.
To get these jobs to begin with, he’d go directly to the professor in charge of said lab, class, etc. and ask to photograph them. If they said yes, he’d ask the subject to contact their universities communications person just to give them a heads up of Tony’s presence, and also because they may be interested to know about the project or have some things they need shot as well. This changed shortly after he fell deeper into the project, and began getting hired by the colleges themselves to make this work. Now he works with the marketing or communication persons from the particular school within the university, or if its a university wide campaign, someone directly from university marketing.
The D.C. market is a very conservative one when it comes to photography. There are many talented photographers in the area, but most of them make their living doing head shots of people in suits, standing in libraries, more or less. Tony was determined to not make this norm the basis of his business, but instead a little more creative and interesting.
We’ll be coming back to Tony’s work in the next month or two where we talk to him about his conceptual work, inspired by the history of Washington, D.C. and the modern world.