An Interview with Celebrity Portrait Photographer, Robby Klein
Guest post by Mastin Labs Community member, Chris Daniels.
Nashville is one hell of a town! I lived there for quite a while and visit as often as I can. One reason that I love it so very much is that it has a creative community like none other that I’ve experienced, which is overall generous, kind, and inclusive.
Part of that beautiful community is portrait and entertainment photographer, Robby Klein. Robby was one of the first “photo friends” that I made when I moved there years ago. I got a chance to catch up with him on a recent visit to Nash-Vegas.
I met up with him one morning at Taylor House, his new studio. I walked into the front door of the living room (yes, Taylor House is a house) where Robby greeted me and asked if I’d like a pour-over coffee. He was already heating water in the kitchen just around the corner.
Robby holds a jackalope in the place it should be after being taken down for a shoot. By Chris Daniels, edited with preset Gold 200
Lining the walls around the house are framed images of celebrities and musicians that Robby has photographed over the years. Familiar faces like Justin Timberlake, Jason Bateman, and the Stranger Things cast, among others.
Coffee in hand, we sat down on the leather sofa in the living room to chat. Beautiful light poured in through the windows and a shuffle of Jimmy Hendrix, The Stones, and other rock icons played in the background. What began as a conversation about the realization of Taylor House also turned to a discussion about the importance of personal work, the balance of life and career, and a story of an awkward moment with a celebrity.
Images hanging in the kitchen and hallway of Taylor House
The doorway from the hallway down into the main studio space. Edited with Mastin Labs PanF preset
Tell me in general about Taylor House. How did it come to be, and what is your approach to it?
Well, the whole idea of wanting a personal studio started in 2015. I was a member of a studio in town, and the entire year it was booked up whenever I needed it. So just out of frustration, I started talking to my wife, wondering what it would be like to start a personal studio. We just followed that idea and ended up with this place because it was close to home. The whole thing was gutted, it was a pretty ugly mess when we bought it. But I like the idea of it being a house.
I wanted to be able to build a place where you can come, shoot for 10 hours, then spend another 2 hours having cocktails afterward. A lot of really great studio spaces that are perfect for the job have a bit of a sterile feel to it, like a doctor’s office. So whenever you’re done, you have no desire to hang around. We wanted to kind of change that and build a place where clients can feel comfortable having coffee, having cocktails, having whatever, coming even outside of shoots and hanging out. It’s just a cozy, comfortable environment that isn’t that common, sterile place. We’ve got a lot of really great high praise from people that have come here and enjoyed it. I feel like it’s working.
A frame waiting for a home sits in a chair Robby's studio office next to the whiskey cabinet. By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Kodak Gold 200 preset
I’ll certainly be looking to get a job in Nashville so that I can use it!
On a personal level, as far as my work, it’s done more than I expected. As much as I work, I do shoot a lot of personal work, and I try to pull people into my studio, interesting people, cool looking people for portraits. I’m sure we’ve all experienced where you find someone you want to shoot, and it’s like, “Okay, where are we going to shoot? Let’s check the weather.” Since I don’t have to do that anymore, it’s been incredibly freeing.
Having a dedicated studio, you have kind of this whole other area of creativity that you can explore because you have the time. You’re not worrying about facilitating all these other things. So that’s just been my favorite thing. Seeing someone and being like “drop by the studio tomorrow, and I’ll shoot your portrait just for fun.”
Down the steps from the hallway inside and into the studio space.
You shot the mechanics across the street, right?
Yeah! And I’m probably going to pull them in today. I shot David, [one of the mechanics], and I was trying to find time yesterday to shoot one of the other guys and a couple of his friends that were hanging out there. They have a lot of people that drop by. I’m thinking about starting a series maybe just called “Next Door Portrait,” something like that, where when I see someone cool over at the auto shop I drag them over here for a portrait. It’s like they’re just handing me great subjects over there on the daily.
Yeah! So, how has having your own space changed your creative process?
I think what we were talking about earlier about the area that was never really tapped into for me was the idea of sets. Having a space that gives me the time to build upon something so, you know, I’ve always loved playing with lighting and just going into the studio and screwing around for hours on end. But when you’re renting a space or when you’re a member at a space and someone’s coming in the next morning, and you have to tear it all down. Having a space where you can work and play and build and tweak, and when you get exhausted at 3:00 AM, guess what? You can now leave it up, go to sleep, come back, and keep going. That’s been a big difference in both lighting and set building. You can spend three days building a set, and there’s no worry of, “Oh, does the client have the budget to keep renting this space out?” We go to town. We’re five minutes from Home Depot, and we keep going back and forth, back and forth.
Portraits of Tony Hale & John Oliver by Robby Klein
Between that and building the space, I bet that Home Depot knows you by name.
Dude. They recognize me. I mean, it became a thing, building the studio. I’m bad at making lists, and so for about six months, I would go get stuff and then be like, “Crap. I forgot screws. Or I forgot this.” I say I was bad at making lists, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It took me getting to the next step to realize, “Oh. I need this, this, and this,” as well. So it wasn’t crazy for me to be going three times a day, several times a week. So many I’d be walking down an aisle, and I’d hear, “Oh! Back again?” and I’d turn around, and it was some worker that helped me that morning or the past three days in a row, and I’m like, “Hey, Paul.”
Hahaha. It’s not bad to have Home Depot in your corner!
How long did the buildout take you guys?
About a year and ten months. In the beginning, they thought it would be about 4-5 months. It wasn’t a joyous process. The first year was cool, and there was still a lot of excitement, [but] as it continued, it [got] complicated with codes and permitting. So many things would pop up and by that last year of building it was just like... it had become a significant source of anxiety. I just wanted to see it done. It wasn’t quite the excitement that it originally was. It took probably like two months after it was finished to find that joy that I initially was looking forward to here. It almost didn’t feel real. Even just yesterday, Jady and I were walking down the stairs and I just had to laugh. It still hits me sometimes, "This is our studio." It’s weird! It seems a bit surreal at times. All in a new and exciting way. It still feels fresh and untapped in a lot of ways.
Portrait of Zach Galifanakis. By Robby Klein
What would your advice be for someone seeking a shooting space? Say they need a space to shoot in with good lighting and a basic studio setup.
We’ve rented and shot in just about any space you can imagine. We spent a whole week at the Sundance Film Festival in an attic, literally. We would have 30 people up there at times. Dealing with and making the most of the worst and then being in spaces that were so big, like an entire huge ballroom we recently had in Pasadena, where we only used about ⅓ of it. I think the things that always get me the most excited would include ceiling height. If you can give me a good 10-12 feet, that’s a mega plus. If you can give me a window, even better, it just depends on what you’re shooting as far as the size of the space. As I said, we had four setups in that attic, and you find ways to adapt and make it work for size. But with an attic, there was a pitch to the roof. That’s what made that problematic. You could fit a lot in a small space, but the ceiling, man.
So you’ve got a new studio space, you’re still traveling for work, managing the studio, as well as family. How do you find balance?
The studio has been helpful. It’s given me a place to separate things, which have been significant. I was thinking about this recently — people with just your day to day job automatically separate. You have to work to find your lifestyle. You go to work, and that’s to pay for what you want to do afterward. With photography, arts, something with a passion about it, it blends in both in a great way and an unhealthy way. It’s tough to separate those things because it’s on your mind. It’s not something where you can leave your cubicle and say, “see you in the morning.” You take it with you, and you want that. But with a studio, it’s given me a literal, physical separation. I’m trying to leave my computer here when I go home in the evening. That’s been a huge thing. Whenever I was working out of my house, it was just so easy; it never felt like I was leaving work. My office could be my couch with Netflix going.
Coming here, sitting in an office, working here and getting things done, even though that has separated me from my family at times, it’s giving family time a bit more of a focus. When you bring travel into it, we’ve done a pretty good job of traveling together. Rule of thumb, if I leave for more than two nights, we’ll try and have them come along. I try to bring them along as much as I can. The toughest part is just separating loves from loves. The studio space has become a place where my son loves. He’ll wake up, and the first thing he says is, “Studio! Studio!” We’ll go down there and kick balls around, and he loves it here. It’s been a positive addition to work and life. Both being able to separate from them, and have them here and be a part of it all.
That’s been my experience as well. I have a studio space that I share in Seattle, and that’s helped a lot. I’ve traditionally just worked at coffee shops, or if I’m at home, it’s the couch or the kitchen table. It just got to a point where I was being distracted by both home and work at the same time. It was hurting both productivity and relationship, and nothing was getting done on either side. I made an intentional office space, and that’s what I use the space for. I don’t allow myself to edit and Netflix. If I’m working, I’m working, and if I’m not, I’m not. That’s been great to separate those. It makes both of them more enjoyable and healthy.
Yeah, when you’re trying to focus on family and not have work interfere, the opposite is also true. Where you’re trying to focus on work and having your family interfere in a way, it’s that same thing. It’s so easy. I mean, my son’s the cutest thing on earth, and when he comes running up to me, it’s hard not to interact with him. That interrupts whatever is happening, which ends up just being this cycle. Now I’m stopping and not getting that done, and it bleeds into the evenings because I'm not able to be as diligent. So as much as those small interactions are helpful, I think overall it just blurs those lines, and you’re giving 50% to both sides, which I believe hurts everything.
Portraits of ASAP Rocky & Justin Timberlake By Robby Klein
Totally. It took me a long time to start to grasp that. I asked Jeremy Cowart, more than once, how he balances things. Like how do you do all this shit? He’s given me answers both times, and it’s good advice, but I think he doesn’t have a formula. I think he does what’s immediately in front of him and focuses on his family. That’s more or less what he’ll tell you. I think we often like to think that if we had this one thing or this one bit of information, all this would be better. And it’s not that way. It’s never that way. Everything’s just like a yin and yang, balance, it’s all gray, and none of it is black and white.
That just reminds me of my first decade of photography. You read interviews and you talk to photographers, and you ask, “How do I make it? What’s my style?”
Once you start getting asked that question, you realize, “Oh yeah. There isn’t an answer. Sorry, bro! Keep working.”
I asked Ryan Shude that once. Pretty early on, as I was getting into photography, I ran across his work. At that point, I would email photographers to see if they’d answer. Almost always, no one did. I sent Ryan an email, and he responded. I was trying to figure out how to get clients and how you do this as an artistic business. He gave me advice that I hated at the time. He was pretty much like, “Clients are going to come and go. When you’re not working with clients, focus on personal work.”
I hated his answer. But It’s been some of the best advice I’ve ever received. It’s been the advice that’s never failed me and has really stuck.
Dude. Young Robby, deep down inside, resonates with that so much. That’s the kind of answer that I would be like… “Ughhh. No, but really. You mean, work more? No, but really."
I think even for me, I’m in a better place when I’m practicing and doing personal work. I think it’s like anything else. Let’s take a sport. Let’s say, sprinters. If they are competing but they don’t a race for a month they have to practice. If they’re not practicing then when that race comes around, they’re not going to do well.
I’ve felt that before. I’ve walked into shoots but I hadn’t shot in a week or two, and you feel so rusty. And you’re not comfortable. But there are times when I finish a job, and I jump right into shooting portraits or personal work like here I go, and a job pops up, and I walk in, and it’s like I haven’t missed a beat. You’re stretched out, and you’re good to go. I feel that. It’s a positive feeling for me. I know if I go a week without shooting I think it. I’ll be antsy and frustrated, and I’ll need to do it. It just gets me back in that good rhythm of things. Ten years ago I would have hated that advice too, but it’s so true!
Portrait of Nick Offerman by Robby Klein
Yeah, it makes me try to be intentional with what I tell people when they ask me questions. Ryan never intended to say something to me that was going to stick in my head the rest of my life. He didn’t mean to do that. He was trying to answer the question of some kid that was annoying and accidentally gave me life advice. I have to understand that I might accidentally do the same.
Okay, now a couple of fun questions:
What’s one weird thing or fact about you that most people don’t know?
That’s a good question. A lot of people don’t know that I did music and played in bands for a decade. I stopped the week before we moved to Nashville. I was the guy that moved to Nashville and stopped playing music. Literally that week I cut ties. Music and photography were my two things. When we made the move from New Orleans, I had to focus. So I didn’t tell anyone for years when we moved here that I played music because it’s Nashville. If I said I played music someone was going to entice me to, ya know, get in a band or do something. And I just kind of had to try and focus on photography. It’s funny. Sometimes I’ll pick up a guitar around a friend and then I’ll see the look on their face.
Portraits of Miley Cyrus & Stephen Salyers
To date, what’s the most awkward celebrity interaction you’ve had?
Aubrey Plaza. I’ve shot Aubrey 2-3 times now. I can’t think of the movie or show we were shooting her for. I think it was with Craig Robertson and this was actually in that attic studio [that I mentioned earlier.] We had four setups going. [In] one of them, we were making GIFs, and we were over there in that area. I was directing Craig, telling him what to do. All the sudden Aubrey — I could sense her. You know, you have that bubble, and when someone’s just like an inch too close, it makes you almost want to lean back? I was talking to Craig, and out of my peripheral, here she comes, and she’s just a little too close. I was like, “Okay, this is weird.” So I turned, and I look, and she’s looking me dead in the eyes. I just kind of like blow it off and direct her on where to stand.
We move onto the group shot, and I’m standing behind some chairs in the background of the photo, directing everyone, and sure enough, here she comes. I see her walk around the whole group and she comes, and she stands, again, just way too close. And this time it was CLOSE. Close enough that my first thought was "Aubrey Plaza is about to try to kiss me." Like it was that kind of close. And I was like, “What on earth?” And I’m trying to direct people while she’s standing there. I’m processing everything in my head like, “If I turn, and she kisses me, this is going to be so weird.” So I finally turn, and sure enough she’s looking me dead in the eyes, and there’s this moment of silence and then she shrugs her shoulders and walks away. I was like, “What just happened?!” That was it. After that, I heard that she likes to make people uncomfortable for fun. I had a feeling she was screwing with me, and it worked. It was a total mind melt. She knows how to get inside that bubble. That was one of the more awkward things. It stuck with me.
From top right: Anthony Hopkins, Ethan Hawke, Donald Glover & Kevin Bacon By Robby Klein
You can find Robby on the web here: