Ron Gould is ‘a low-key guy’ at the peak of a high-profile career in celebrity, corporate and travel photography. Based in Chicago, where he was born and raised, Ron radiates positive energy about his profession and the famous people he’s photographed. But if you want to push his buttons, just ask about paparazzi. ‘I hate them,’ he says. ‘I even hate the word. There are two kinds of people who photograph celebrities– — the paparazzi hanging around on the outside, and the professionals who are paid and hired to be there. I’ve always been the guy on the inside of the ropes. Celebrities and politicians know I’m there to make them look as good as possible, not to take salacious pictures of them doing something they shouldn’t.’
During his 30-year career, Ron has been ‘inside the ropes’ to photograph celebrated singers (Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks), champion athletes (Michael Jordan and a host of Olympians) and powerful pols from both sides of the aisle, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, and George and Barbara Bush. People with names that big often have egos to match but you won’t hear it from Ron.
‘Very rarely, you run into a jerk who’s had a bad day and wants to make sure you have one, too,’ he says. ‘But most celebrities are professionals. Even when they’re sick, they suck it up and make sure I get what I need to make them look good.’
Asked for a story about a celebrity showing grace under photographic pressure, Ron offers a classic anecdote about working with Michael Jordan at the height of his glory run with the three-time champion Chicago Bulls. The location was a mansion outside Chicago, where Coca Cola was shooting a TV spot with MJ in the living room, and Ron had arranged a big studio downstairs for stills. For the commercial, Michael was supposed to walk into the living room, drain a big bottle of Coke and lob it blind over his shoulder into a recycling bin about 15 feet behind him in the kitchen.
‘To get the feel of it, Michael took a practice hook and made it the first time,’ says Ron. ‘So I thought we were in great shape even though his time was limited and I had this whole 4×5 agenda to do with him after the commercial. But once they started rolling film, Michael couldn’t make the damn shot. He needed 38 tries before he made it again. The TV crew wanted to catch it all in one seamless. continuous shot so that meant 38 long takes. Actually, 42 takes before they were satisfied.’
If MJ was having a bad day, he didn’t take it out on Ron when they rushed down to the studio after the commercial. ‘He couldn’t have been nicer, more professional or easier to work with,’ Ron says. ‘Every piece of film that came out of the camera was perfect. And everything was done in half an hour or less.’
Working under pressure has also been part of Ron’s presidential portrait sessions. ‘You never have enough time,’ he says, ‘but you’ve got to produce. You can’t ask the president to fly back into town. Bill Clinton has always been extremely nice to me, and I’ve photographed him three times. I’ve never a big fan of Bush senior but he was also very nice. He sent me personal letter after the shoot thanking me for making it easy for him. It’s partly the way I present myself. For a lot of these events, it’s black tie and tux, at least. You have to dress the part, act the part and be the part. Show them respect and they look at you as a professional and give respect back.’
Ron has been involved in the Olympic movement since 1972, photographing the games for corporate sponsors or attending on his own to cheer the athletes. He photographed the 1984 summer games in LA for MacDonald’s, the ’88 games in Calgary for NutraSweet and the ’92 games in Barcelona for Brunswick. The Barcelona games stand out as a highlight of his career.
‘Brunswick was trying to make bowling an Olympic sport back then,’ says Ron. ‘They built a free bowling and billiards center for the athletes to relax in away from the competition, and my and my job every day was to go in there and do photography. Olympic athletes are great, humble people, and it was a wonderful experience. I couldn’t wait to go there every day and didn’t know who I was going to meet.’ Among the people Ron met and photographed at the Brunswick center were Evander Holyfield and Prince Albert of Monaco.
Ron grew up around film and photography. His dad was a camera design engineer for Bell & Howell/Canon. They had a darkroom in the house, and when Ron wasn’t shooting sports or activities for school, he was developing prints in the darkroom. His film roots were so deep that he didn’t make the transition to digital until seven years ago, and it wasn’t easy.
‘I had been a film guy forever,’ he says. ‘If a client needed digital, I’d shoot on film and scan the prints or give the job to another photographer. Finally, I reached the point of diminishing returns. I made huge invest in equipment and computers, took classes and consulted with other ASMP photographers who had made the jump, knew what they were doing, and were willing to help me That’s what the ASMP is about, photographers helping photographers. Finally, I ramped up my knowledge to the point where I could go out on a job and shoot digital. It was a tough transition but now I’ve really embraced it.’
Having made his own transition, Ron is now giving back. For the past three years, he has been teaching digital photography at Harrington College of Design. ‘I think Harrington has one of the best programs in the country,’ he says, ‘and it’s all digital, all the time. We don’t even have a darkroom. It’s a waste of time, effort and money to have kids go into a darkroom when pros aren’t shooting film and clients don’t want it. Shooting digital makes you a better technician because digital sensors give you less latitude for mistakes than film. You learn to be more precise about exposure because you’re working in a smaller arena—around six f-stops for digital, versus eight to twelve for film.’
Ron often gives his best students more than academic instruction. He brings an assistant or two on almost every job, and many of them are recruited from his Harrington classes. ‘I pick the sharpest students and have them work with me, doing lights, background and setup,’ he says. ‘They love it; it’s great for me and good for school. I watch how well they work under pressure. Some make it and some don’t. But they all get paid. I take care of them.’
For the Digital Photo Academy, Ron is teaching classes on all levels but especially enjoys working with beginners. ‘They come in with a clean slate,’ he says, ‘and I get to mould and bend and shape them, give them their basic formation in cameras and composition. I can bring them from zero to walking out of the class after a few hours with the ability to at least take some decent pictures and get them out of the camera.’
Board Member: American Society of Media Photographers, Chicago/Midwest Chapter
Faculty Advisory Board & Instructor: Harrington College of Design
Member: InterNational Travel Writers Alliance, Editorial Photographers
Participant: “Tibet in the Eyes of 100 Photographers” (2005)
“Xinjiang Through the Lens of 100 Photographers” (2006)
“Rizhao in the Eyes of Foreign Photographers” (2007)
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