Joe Robbins joined the army in the middle of the Vietnam War and discovered that he loved to shoot. Fortunately, his weapon of choice was a Pentax Spotmatic rather than an M16 rifle, and he did his shooting around bases in Turkey and other countries that were just as scenic but a whole lot safer than the jungles of Vietnam.
‘I didn’t have a clue about photography before I joined the service,’ says Joe. ‘I was just a normal kid who spent time building forts and playing ball.’ He enlisted at the age of 19, after an uninspiring year of college, because he had come to the conclusion that ‘Life kind of sucks. So why not join the Army?’ The recruiters told him that enlisted men got to choose their assignments while draftees faced the daunting prospect of marching straight from boot camp into combat.
Volunteering came naturally because Joe had grown up in a military family—his dad was career Navy and his mom left her job as an Army nurse when he came along. ‘As a Navy brat, I lived all over the place, moving every three years. But I grew up more in SoCal and San Diego than anywhere else,’ he says.
Joe bought his first camera to take beer buddy pictures during boot camp but his interests changed once he got overseas. Trained in communications security, he found himself stationed in Turkey. ‘That’s where photography started for me,’ he says. ‘With lots of extra time on my hands, I had the opportunity to look at new things with a fresh mind. I was in a great location– a small fishing village right on the Black Sea, very historic, with thousand-year-old ruins. I found myself doing a lot of shooting. I caught the photo bug and the rest is history.’
A darkroom on the base helped turn Joe’s photo bug into a full-blown infection that followed him on to other postings in Taiwan, Thailand, Korea and Okinawa. ‘By the time I got to my last duty station in Okinawa, I had self-taught myself to the point where I was taking some decent pictures. People started saying those are pretty cool, and someone suggested going to Brooks.’
In contrast to the lack of direction that led him into the service, Joe knew just where he wanted to go after getting out. He spent a year at community college near San Diego getting the academic credits necessary to acquire a BA at Brooks Institute of Photography, where he ‘pretty much ate, slept and sh..t photography for the next two and a half years.’
Joe’s real-world education in photography took place at commercial studios in Kansas City, Honolulu and, finally, Houston, where he settled down and still lives today. ‘I got a lot of experience at four different studios,’ he says. ‘The last one, where I worked six years, was very much into oil, gas and petrochemicals. Like any photographer in Houston in the 80s, I did a lot of that. Oil was king. I was always going out shooting something for the oil industry. Either offshore rigs or refineries or plants where they made highly machined parts for drilling.’
Joe set up his own studio in 1984 and is now nearing a quarter-century of success in a turbulent profession. When Texas oil hit hard times in the late 80’s, he had the adaptability to discover other photographic opportunities in the Houston area. He has worked with ad agencies, design boutiques and corporations, shooting in the studio and out in the field on subjects that range from architecture, industry and high-tech to haute cuisine, kids and executive portraits.
‘People ask what I specialize in,’ he says, ‘and my standard answer is that I specialize in Houston. I never became an architectural, or food, or fashion photographer, or any other label people use. I’ve done all those things but I thrive on Houston’s diversity. Going out to shoot interiors one day, and then doing food in the studio the next is what keeps me fresh.’
Much as he appreciates the opportunities of Houston, Joe is no fan of the gritty gulf climate. ‘When it gets to the high 90’s in the shade, and you’re working in bright sun in a refinery environment and wearing protective gear, you feel it,’ he says. ‘I focus on getting the shot and staying in my element but if I could enjoy the same kind of success in the weather and physical environment of San Diego, I’d do it in a heartbeat.’
Joe has been teaching photography for more than 20 years in settings that include the Art Institute of Houston, community colleges, and his own studio, where he offers in-depth Photoshop courses and will also lead one-day workshops for the Digital Photo Academy. ‘I flourish in the classroom environment,’ he says. ‘I like sharing the information I’ve gleaned over the years. I like to see people get it, use it and move on. Sometimes, I’ll look at my watch before a class, and feel the energy level just isn’t there. But when I get in the classroom, in front of students, I’m injected with this energy thing that just takes over for the next four hours. It’s give-back time. A good feeling.’
Joe has been shooting digital for five years and teaching Photoshop since the early 90’s when he helped talk the Art Institute of Houston into buying its first computers for digital manipulation. He taught himself the essentials of the program by camping out in front of the Institute’s Macs. His private Photoshop workshops run five to ten weeks, and have attracted many graphic artists and professional photographers. He’s hoping that for some students at the Digital Photo Academy, the short workshops will serve as a springboard for diving much deeper into the program.
Call Digital Photo Academy at 1 877 372 2231. Lots of people seem to hang up if our welcome recording comes on instead of a live voice, but we promise to return your message within a day or two if you leave one with your name and number. It would be even better if you included your e mail address as well as the date and city of the class you are considering. If leaving a voice mail message is not your thing, please email us at DPAbooking@digitalphotoacademy.com or Richard@digitalphotoacademy.com.
Most important aspect of shooting these guys is plan ahead for a quick escape, should you need it.