Interviewing Rick Chapman

"His portraits strive to explore that which ties us all together as humans, the essence of what is common to all of us. There is no formula for this. From Chapman’s perspective, the most successful portraits are the result of an intense two-way dialogue where something vital and universal is expressed and recorded. His best images reveal the energy of this rich mutual exchange." (1)

"Chapman Graduated in 1989 in a predigital world but has honed his skills to fit either medium. Since then, he has photographed for companies ranging from ESPN to Chevrolet, and has shown in galleries across the United States such as the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the private collection of Sir Elton John." (1)

How did you start out?
"I made a choice to not get my masters and sort of jumped into the river to become an assistant instead. I think that education is extremely important so I'm not saying to drop out. I decided that the right path for me was to research the best cities for working in commercial photography and learn the business by being an assistant. I chose San Francisco because it was home to many top level advertising agencies and photographers, and because of the natural beauty of the Bay Area.”

"When I started out I had no master plan. There was something called a 'Black Book' that listed the names of all different types of photographers. Art directors had this book and if they needed to hire someone they could flip through hundreds of pages of photographers and choose one from there. As a student I made sure to get a 'Black Book' and identified the black and white portrait photographers. I wrote letters to them saying that I would be moving to San Francisco and would love to work for them, and I'm going to be honest: Not one wrote back."

What advice would you give an amateur photographer?
“Become a good writer. Learning to communicate through writing is so important and I would recommend this to more than just photographers. Send ‘Thank You' cards. It makes a huge difference. When I ended up in San Francisco, I made phone calls and left messages for those same photographers I had written beforehand, letting them know that I was in the area. They got back to me this time. I got to meet every one of them; some of the ones I did meet were surprised that I had actually moved out to San Francisco. After that I sent 'Thank You' notes to them. I'm serious, people appreciate and remember those details, and I'm certain that it helped (and still helps) my photography business’s growth and success.

"Make more rules for yourself. Talk to 3 new people at every event you go to. See open doors and walk through them. You're only as good as how you present yourself, not just your photos. There's always something to go to the next level on and we always can try to go to the next level, until we're dead."

How organized is your space?
"My physical space is relatively organized but I tend to pile up mail on the floor. Other than that I'm tidy, especially with my gear. I'm out on location a lot so I always make sure that my equipment is cleaned and ready."

What is your work space like?
"There are about forty framed pieces of artwork hung up on the walls salon-style. I have traded work, paintings, and tactile drawings that all inspire me."

What are vital parts of your process?
"I go to the location the day before and around the same scheduled timeframe and take photos of my assistant. If it's pre-scouted, I'm coming in calm. I also hardly use lights because I feel it's a distraction. I see myself as a light analyzer, not a light pusher. It's not about the gear, it's about the engagement."

What separates your process from other photographers'?
"I slightly dress up when photographing. I don't mean as in wear a suit but an untucked button-down shirt works fine. I make sure my assistants look nice, too. I think being aware of how I look shows a little more respect for whoever is my portrait subject."

How was university compared to working as an assistant photographer?
"I didn't really learn about commercial photography at university as my classes were mostly oriented toward fine art results. As a second assistant, I learned more on the job by watching and doing things hands-on. I was taught how to properly set up a lighting studio and work with strobes. I hadn't learned that in school. But when I was attending university, I did a major in writing, which helped me be mindful of how and what I wrote."

"I'm a big believer of embedding energy into my work. I distinctly remember a girl from one of my photography courses who just didn't care for her photos. Meanwhile, I built myself a box to bring prints in to critique. So I would roll in with my box of hand-spotted prints. She put her prints up and the professor asked her why she hadn't spotted the dust from them. She said that it was intended but it was pretty obvious that it wasn't and we all knew it. It was funny, yet I wondered why she didn't respect her own art. To me, the product is the person. You are the product."

With what celebrity or celebrities did you have the strongest connection while shooting?
"Muhammed Ali. It was supposed to be a quick shoot at his house in the middle of nowhere in southern Michigan. It turned into five hours; I ended up eating lunch with him....I asked him if there was a photo of himself that he's always wanted. Usually people don't really have anything in mind but he did have something he wanted...That little detail broke the ice.

"We talked. He showed me magic tricks. I learned that he didn't want ice in his water glass. He was really struggling trying to pull it out. His hands were shaking and I wondered if I should help or not. I had to make a decision and ultimately did not assist “The Champ”, guided by a deep feeling of respect. I often reflect on that experience.

"We have emotions and glory and bankruptcy and disaster. Nobody is immune to that. There is no alpha. We are all naked."

To learn more about Rick Chapman and his work, visit his website at

(2) Vincere Noel. “Rick Chapman.” 9 Feb. 2018.