Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Riehlife Conversation with Photographer Robert Hale: Beauty, humanity, and craft

Gordon Parks

Robert Hale--international photographer and journalist--exhibit "Intimate Encounters: The African-Americans" is featured by Portfolio Gallery and Education Center as part of the American Art Experience: St. Louis. The exhibit runs through November 30th. Hale's "Intimate Encounters: The African-Americans” presents portraits of people who have contributed to culture in their community at large. More information about "Intimate Encounters" follows our conversation.

I met Robert Hale at the opening of his photographic exhibit "Intimate Encounters: The African-Americans" at the Portfolio Gallery and Education Center. Afterwards Robert and Carol Powell hosted a salon honoring him at their home.

I'm so happy that you'll learn more about Robert, his work, and the creative process in our conversation today. He has such a wealth of information that relates to Riehlife's mission of creating connections through the arts and across cultures. Robert Hale's website is a gorgeous portfolio of his elegant photos of a wide range of subjects around the world.

This conversation with Robert Hale is one in an on-going series of posts about artists and writers on Riehlife.


Riehlife: Robert, you're known as one of the West Coast’s leading photographers. Your work both as a photographer and as a journalist, has taken you on assignment throughout the world. That sounds like a dream come true. The portrait of your father at the Portfolio Gallery is one of the most moving in your show. He was both a photographer and jazz pianist. How did your childhood in Roanoke, Virginia set you on your course as a photographer?

Robert Hale: I come from a family where music and art were highly valued, encouraged, and played a large role in my early years. My father was not only a jazz pianist. He and his two brothers were strongly involved in photography. My uncle, Sonny 'Bay' Hale, a portrait photographer, let me observe him work in his home studio. Another uncle, James, though not as involved in the craft as his brothers, nevertheless was a fine amateur photographer. My father was more of a editorial photographer. I supposed through osmosis I l absorbed the lessons.

My mother, a nurse, gave me patience and empathy, played the piano, and made sure we children were exposed to more than pop culture. Both my parents supported my early experiences such as belonging to Junior Achievement, being the school newspaper photographer, and taking my first job at 16 as photographer for our local summer theater. I even worked in the creative department of a large department store as a window display decorator. These experiences informed my craft in later years.

Riehlife: The bio for your exhibit describes how after graduating from high school and serving in Vietnam, you studied photography under Adrian Wagner and Hal Jordan at Los Angeles City College. You moved to Sweden where you worked as a photographer in Stockholm. When you got back to the United States in the mid 1970’s, you felt the need for greater security in your life and turned from photography to a 20 year career in advertising as an account executive.

Many of my friends in the arts are constantly figuring out how to continue doing what they love. The Day Job is a classic strategy for artists to gain the financial stability to pursue their art. You mentioned some of the lessons from that time in sales--that you learned to talk and listen at the same time. Could you give us some tips on how to do that? What other skills did you develop that help you in the business of photography?

Robert Hale: Although I originally didn't intend to spend 20 years in the "corporate" world, it did however allow me to provide a more stable and comfortable life for my son and myself. During this time I continued to shoot and acquire skills necessary to grow as an artist. Coincidentally these "day jobs" paid for seminars that gave me skills that would serve me well. Chief among these was learning how to promote myself. Two of the most important skills I learned were how to listen, and nurture the business relationship. I had to discern exactly what the client wanted and needed, and to always ensure that the relationship worked both ways.

Riehlife: You've described your time an account executive as “years in which I had lost my courage.” How did you manage to regain that courage in 1996?

Robert Hale: I had been showing my work in a few smaller exhibitions in and around Los Angeles. When my work appeared in a group show in Ojai, California, I got the opportunity to photograph the legendary "Mama of Dada, "Beatrice Wood. After making my first of many portraits of her, we became friends. Through her gentle mentorship I felt I could make the transition from the business world to the ART world. After one of my images of Beato was accepted into the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery's Permanent Collection, I felt I ready to make the move back into the world of ART.

Riehlife: Your images have been printed in prominent publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, The LA Weekly, and Black Enterprise. Do you make a distinction between your work as an artist and your work as a journalist? How has one informed the other?

Robert Hale: I consider myself primarily a environmental portrait photographer; but I have always prided myself on being able to shoot anything--to be a general practitioner of photography if you will. Whether using images or words I want to tell a story with beauty, humanity, and profound calmness.

Riehlife:Your photos at The Portfolio Gallery include such well-known figures as Louis Farrakan, Gordon Parks, Rosa Parks, Betye Saar, Ozzie Davis, and Carrie Mae Weems. Your network of contacts in America and Europe is extensive. How were you able to set up your photo sessions? Did you need to persuade those who sat for their portraits, or were most immediately willing because you came recommended by friends?

Robert Hale: My portrait sessions have come about in different ways; assignments from publications and commissions. Most though have come through recommendations by friends or chance or planned encounters. Once contact is made the first meeting is setup to establish a rapport, and show my portfolio. After that initial meeting, I decide where the portrait will be made--either in the subject's environment, or at a location that I choose to complement the subject. By the time we get together for the actual shoot, I usually have everything in place. The final step is to put the subject at ease. I want the people I'm photographing to be active participants in the process. The easiest part is the actually shoot.

Riehlife: Your sensitive handling of light and shadow brings out the essence of whatever you photograph. How do you set about revealing this elusive quality so that it will live in your prints?

Robert Hale: Light is very important for me. Probably more important than the background. I prefer soft flat lighting. Illuminating my subjects evenly with shadows in the background adds a sense of depth and mystery.

Riehlife: You've generously volunteered your photographic service to organizations such as the Los Angeles Children’s Museum, Aids Project Los Angeles, L. A. Shanti, Aids service Center in Pasadena, California. You serve on the board of Directors for The Black Gallery Group, Los Angeles, California. This is in keeping with your focus on contributing to the culture of your community. Did you choose these causes, or did they choose you?

Robert Hale: With the gifts I have been given, and my responsibility as a human being, it's important for me to use these gifts in service of others. Sort of making like deposits into my karmic bank account. I'm most comfortable offering my services where they are most appreciated and will do the most good.

Riehlife: You're now spending much of your time in France, following the path of expatriate black intellectuals and artists. I'm thinking of artists and writers such as Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nina Simone, and Romare Bearden. What's that been like for you? Does it offer more freedom? Inspiration? Is there racism in France? How does your time there shape you as an artist these days?

Robert Hale: As you have said, I am following a long line of African-Americans who have ventured to France. While racism certainly exists in France, it doesn't have the same bite as it does here in the US. To be acknowledged as a photographer, and not as a black photographer, is a very liberating. In a country that has a deep appreciation of the arts, you are given more creative freedom to work and exhibit your work, allowing you to explore other avenues of expression that would normally not exist in the States.

Besides you cannot help but be inspired spending time in the land of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso, and that inspiration finds a way into your work. I have been very fortunate, and while it's hasn't always been easy, it's more than worth the effort to remain here. The rewards for me has been forming a wide circle of friends, a beautiful environment in which to live, a healthier lifestyle, and continued growth as an artist.

Riehlife:You mentioned that you'd approached Gordon Parks to find out how to stay human and approachable as one's reputation and celebrity grows. Gordon and others of his generation didn't set themselves apart. They were even listed in the phone book. What did you find out when you talked to him?

Robert Hale:Meeting Mr. Parks was one of those high points in my life. Sharing a couple bottles of good wine only made it better.

To spend time with a man who valued his humanity and creative skills above all else was just the lesson I needed to learn in order to help understand the proper balance between one's celebrity status and one's humanity.

Riehlife: It's been a pleasure learning more about you and your work. Any last thoughts?

Robert Hale: Thank you allowing me to talk about myself. I'm more comfortable behind the camera and allowing my images to speak for me, but I appreciate for this opportunity. I hope to continue to travel the road that began in my childhood, and to grow both as a person and as an artist.

Portfolio Gallery in Grand Center
3514 Delmar Boulevard, 63103.



Robert Hale: Intimate Encounters – “The African-Americans”

1. Herbert Gentry
2. Louis Farrakan
3. Gordon Parks
4. Rosa Parks
5. Emma Amos
6. Vincent Smith
7. Esther Rolle
8. Albert Murray
9. Kehinde Wiley
10. Herbert Gentry
11. Samella Lewis
12. John Outterbridge
13. Artis Lane
14. Laura Mae Gross
15. Charles Searles
16. Robert M. Hale (Father)
17.Betye Saar
18. Ozzie Davis
19. Earl Ofori Hutchinson
20.Carrie Mae Weems

All Photographs $400.00 each

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7 Responses »

  1. A wonderful insight into Robert Hale who went where he had to go.

    As I was reading the interview, I was reminded of Buckminster Fuller who observed:

    "When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

    Beauty is, after all, uncomplicated.

  2. Janet, thank you for opening the window into a well respected artist studio. I was unable to make the event but you have received anwsers to question I would have either asked or wished I had asked.
    Good job!
    Thank you for the email.

  3. Thank for the insightful interview Janet. Hale is connected to the larger picture of life. He uncovers another aspect of mass reality in his work.

  4. Eden,

    What a wonderful quote. Elegant effective design is always beautiful as we know from Steve Jobs among others.

    Yes, "He went where he had to go."



    Yes. The larger flow of life.

    I'm glad to see you're continuing your Short Sleeves insights blog in addition to promoting your fine book "Living Behind the Beauty Shop."



    As a photographer I know that you'd take in Robert Hale's exhibit to its fullest.

    I'm impressed with your projects and work that I see on your new website. Your photos of West Africa catch the spirit of the people and the place.


  5. Janet: Thanks for sharing Portfolio Gallery and Educational Center and Robert Hale, with your readers. It was a very insightful interview which gave me information I did not know about Robert. I was really moved by his words of satisfaction that France offer him the chance to be a photographer, not a Black photographer. I wonder when reading how is that possible and why many wish to hide this fact. Think of all the great "masters", they are German, French, Italian, Asian, I wonder if they ever thought about not being what they are? It seems that the greater statisfaction would come from showing the world that you are one of the those that the builder rejected, and provided the opportunty, could be the corner stone.
    Portfolio Gallery

  6. Robert,

    Interesting thoughts. I think being known first as a photographer and then as a black photographer is part of breaking the stereotypes. Sometimes the identifying adjective like "female writer" is a way of diminishing the work as well as the person.

    Would make a good conversation between the two of you. I'd like to know more about how the racism in France is less cutting.


  7. Well, I guess that if you let others define you that works, but when you say that president Obama is a Black President or Miles is a Black Jazz person or that Jesse Russel is a Black inventor,
    or that Dr. Carver was a Black Scientist, or Michael was a great Black basketball player it does not deminish it at all. It shows those that feel so, that they are very wrong.

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