Real-life people being themselves
by Mark Lapin
Peter Krogh has crafted a multidimensional career with a singular focus on family
by Mark Lapin
Rating: 7 / 10Mark Lapin offers an exploration of Peter Krogh's life as a master photographer
Peter Krogh comes from a multigenerational family of photographers and is in the midst of a multi-dimensional career that includes outstanding advertising, corporate, editorial, documentary and personal work, as well as significant contributions on the software side. But underlying all the multiplicity and professional accomplishments in Peter’s career is a singular focus that he shares with legions of snapshooters and scrapbookers.
“One of the great privileges I've had as a photographer is being able to explore a lot of different subjects and styles," he says. "But if I had to keep only one subset of all the images I’ve created, there’s no question that it would be images of my family. As time goes by, I feel like I'm working on a documentary project about real-life people being themselves that has important and lasting value beyond my immediate family and friends."
As if to underscore the intimate connection of family and photography in his life, Peter had to briefly break-off our interview to rush downstairs where his 75-year-old father and 13-year-old daughter were collaborating on a photo-book documenting a family adventure in Africa. ‘It was my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, and they took me, my brother and sister, our spouses and kids to Africa. Fifteen of us in all’ Peter explains. ‘We went on a number of safaris in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia, and everybody shot a ton of pictures. We brought them all together for a slideshow, and now my daughter, who just won a Washington Post photo contest, is collecting them in a photo-book.’
Photography and family memories have been joined at the hip since Kodak introduced the Brownie (at a price of $1) more than 100 years ago. But Peter believes that the relationship has gotten a lot more spontaneous and satisfying in the digital age. ‘Digital photography frees you to shoot real people being themselves,’ he says. ‘There are huge differences in terms of the lighting and the staging you needed to make something happen with film. The most important things are that digital cameras have such good lowlight capability and they eliminate white-balance problems. They also let you shoot and preview until you get it right. People get so used to the sound of the shutter clicking they almost forget you’re photographing.’
Software would be a lot better without all the ‘computery stuff’
For all the power of today’s digital cameras, serious photographers optimize and organize their raw images with programs like Photoshop and Lightroom. Peter is among the elite group of photographers selected by Adobe to evaluate new releases and suggest ways to make them more photo-friendly. His guiding principle is that good software needs to get rid of the ‘computery stuff,’ and let photographers work with things they understand, like making the blues more blue.
‘I have a vision of how everything should fit together,’ he says, ‘and we’re getting there, but more slowly than I’d like. To make a decent print in the darkroom days, you had to bring a whole lot of technical skill to the table, stuff that really had nothing to do with your vision as a photographer. And we started out the same way in the digital world. You needed to assimilate a huge chunk of technical knowledge before you could make pictures that look like the vision in your head. As we move forward, I’d like to see the technical stuff drop into invisibility. Instead of riding curves or graphs, you should push around color and brightness with tools based on the way a photographer sees. Not the way a mathematician thinks.’
The DAM Book
Peter started worrying about the problems of storing and organizing digital images as soon as he abandoned the physical security of film, and he thinks you should worry about them, too. ‘In this world, there are two kinds of people,’ he says, ‘those who have had a hard disk failure and those who will have one. Right now, there's a whole set of hoops you have to jump through to make sure that your images are preserved so that you can survive the inevitable disk failure. You don’t want to be the guy who's sitting there looking at your laptop going, ‘Oh my god, all my wedding pictures, and all the pictures of my kids growing up for the first seven years are sitting on my laptop, and the disk is making that clicking sound.’
To keep fellow photographers from suffering that fate, Peter wrote The DAM Book, Digital Asset Management for Photographers. Now in its second edition, The DAM Book has become the bible for pros working with vast and valuable image archives. Peter has also contributed to the profession by helping ASMP formulate and standardize best business practices for photographers in the digital age, a subject that still causes considerable confusion in the ranks.
Growing up around National G.
Peter grew up in a photo-centric family in Washington, D.C. His dad was, and continues to be, an avid amateur whose circle of friends included several photographers on the staff of National Geographic. Before reaching double digits, Peter not only knew how to shoot with a quality SLR and develop film in the family darkroom, he also knew how to take a camera apart and (more surprisingly) put it back together again. He was also exposed early on to some of the most talented and adventurous photographers any kid could hope to be inspired by— the globe-trotting team assembled by Bob Gilka, director of photography at National Geographic during the publication’s glory days.
‘I was just lucky enough to grow up having known these people on a family basis,’ he says, ‘Bill Garrett, who later became editor of the Geographic, was definitely the most important to me. He was a great family friend, and he certainly seemed to have the greatest job in the world. There's thousands and thousands of people who grow up saying I want to be a National Geographic photographer. But most never meet or get the chance to interact with one the way I did with Bill. He was a real inspiration to me.’
Despite the deep family connection and his personal love of photography, Peter didn’t really see a clear career path into the profession until he began shooting for the yearbook at the University of North Carolina. Michael Jordan was then leading the Tarheels to the national championship, and campus life was a rich source of photo ops. ‘I was fortunate enough to meet up with other people on the yearbook who were really talented and very self-motivated photographers,’ he says. ‘Halfway through my freshman year, it was quite clear that photography was the only thing I was interested in doing with my life.’
Faint praise from Gilka was plenty of encouragement
Peter took his expanding portfolio back to National Geographic headquarters in Washington and showed it to Bob Gilka, director of photography. ‘That was back in the days when he'd see anyone who had the guts to call and ask him to look at pictures,’ Peter recalls. ‘After looking at my stuff, he said something like; yeah, I guess you're okay. Maybe he wasn’t even that encouraging. But it was enough. I was majoring in film but he advised against that. He told me to learn about the world instead.’
The National Geographic connection continued when Peter launched his professional career after college. Returning to Washington, he began working as an assistant to Steve Uzzell, a National G. alum who had left the magazine to run his own studio. Under Uzzell’s guidance, Peter began to pick up the corporate jobs that would eventually become his bread and butter.
‘I had planned to do documentary photography,’ Peter says, ‘and I don’t know if I was more personally suited to commercial work or if that was just what came my way but I ended up as a corporate and advertising photographer, and continued in that vein for the next 20 years. My personal documentary projects continue to be extremely important to me but that’s not what pays the bills.’
Looking over his long career, Peter says,’ I’ve had a life-long love affair with the photographic image, and pretty much all I ever wanted to do was be a photographer. A lot of people feel like that but most don’t make it all the way to being a pro. I count myself among the fortunate.’