Robert Beck has come a long way. From sleeping on floors to being a schoolteacher shooting surfers on his spare time to a sought-after staff position at Sports Illustrated. But as in most cases, it all started with a guy taking pictures just for the fun of it.
“I’ve been shooting since, let’s say, 1982,” says Robert. “I started taking pictures of surfers for fun back in those days. I was a schoolteacher who surfed a lot. I bought a water housing and did a lot of swimming.
“In October of 1986, I went to Hawaii to shoot the Ironman Triathlon for a small sports stock agency with nothing but my camera gear and an airline ticket. I slept on a friend’s floor the first night after hitchhiking into town from the airport. There were no hotel rooms available. No rental cars. I checked in with the media center the day before the event and found out Sports Illustrated had “hired” me to shoot the race. The perks of being a Sports Illustrated shooter? Gunner’s seat in a helicopter for the start of the race, a jeep with a driver for the rest of the competition and a hotel room! The result of being prepared when thrown into the fire? A double truck table of contents picture which eventually became one of Life Magazine’s Pictures of the Decade. Thirty years later I am still shooting sports … now as a staffer for Sports Illustrated.”
You’ve most likely achieved quite a few of the goals you once set of for yourself. What demands do you put on yourself today?
“During every assignment I take, I strive to provide my editor with at least one dynamic image. On some assignments, that shot magically appears in my viewfinder. On other shoots, I have to manufacture that image. In my mind I know that all it takes is one shot. Some days I grind and grind to get that image. But I keep working and telling myself: “all I need is one!” So, even with all of our high tech gear, it all boils down to one frame. One second in that event that will speak volumes. One frame. One second.”
One of your most recent assignments was to shoot the spectacular Speedweek event at Bonneville Salt Flats. Can you tell us about it?
“Speedweek is pure Americana. The automobile is a large part of the American culture, and customizing automobiles that can go fast is etched in the mind of almost every young man in the States. Speedweek, a once a year event, is the place for speed freaks to be. You see the fastest machines built by people from all walks of life – gear heads, teachers, doctors, bus drivers, sons, daughters, dads and grand dads. I pitched the assignment to the editors at Sports Illustrated as a great place to shoot a portrait piece. They bought into it and I packed up my gear, flew into Salt Lake City and drover over to the Salt Flats just outside of Wendover.
What kind of look and feel were you going for with these shots?
“I didn’t want to gussy up these folks. I wanted them just to be themselves. This meant I needed a minimum of equipment. I had to get a portrait in 2-3 minutes. I had to be quick and mobile. I also needed a source that was powerful enough to eliminate harsh shadows from the sun and salt reflections. I wanted the driver and his ride to stand out for being what they are. Nothing more.
“To accomplish this, I used the extremely light and portable yet powerful Pro-B4 pack and one Pro-B Head Plus. For a couple of images, I used a second head to help light the vehicle. But in most cases, just one light. The head was equipped with the Softbox RFi 3′ Octa, which I find to be light and small enough not to get blown around in any breeze. I mounted everything, including the flash pack, on a smaller high roller light stand. That way I could just roll it from car to car. I got through the whole day on just one battery too!”
“All shots where done with a Nikon D4 with a 24-70 f2.8 lens with neutral density filters. So the depth of field was not forever.”
You seem to have met some colorful characters during the shoot. Who are they?
”The guy in the first image is Kypp Armstrong of Vale, Oregon. He drives a school bus during working hours and builds custom rods in his spare time. This is a truck he built from mostly ’32 Chevy parts and which he drove 12 hours each way to get to the Flats. He watched the racers and drank beer – key ingredients for having a good time out there.”
“This is Konrad Strawmyre of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.” He drove that 1956 Corvette over 200mph right after we took this picture!”
“This is Ryan Hamel of Reno Nevada. He builds rods with his Dad. Ryan was there to watch AND strut his 1936 Ford around.”
“Greg Hebard is a local and proud member of the Bonnevillains car club. He frequents the flats with his 1929 Chevy rat rod.”
“The final shot is a portrait of land speed racer Shug Hanchard of Scotland via Yucaipa, CA, posing with his Blown Gas modified roadster Model A with top speed of 127 mph. This guys accent was so thick you could hardly understand him. His American girlfriend had to do the translating for me!”
See more of Robert Beck’s work at his website.