There is a fundamental directness and decency about Bob Peterson, qualities that are visibly manifest in a celebrated photographic career that encompasses sports, photojournalism and advertising. He began taking pictures at 12 when his father built him a darkroom in their Berkeley, California home. It was there that Peterson “saw my first little deckled-edge contact print floating in the developer tray turn from white to a real picture. That was magic, and I was hooked.” Encouraged by his mother, Peterson rapidly progressed, winning an Eastman Kodak photo contest while in high school. At 15, he was shooting sports for the Berkeley Daily Gazette. While still in his teens, he freelanced for Time and Sports Illustrated. At 19, as a stringer for UPI, he covered Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy when they campaigned in Seattle during the 1960 presidential election. Although sports photography was his first love, his priorities changed at 21, especially after interviewing with Life picture editor Dick Pollard. That initial contact eventually led to a steady stream of news and feature assignments (plus several covers) for the iconic magazine. When Life folded in 1972, Peterson reinvented himself as a successful advertising photographer specializing in journalistic-oriented imagery for a wide range of top agencies and companies. Along the way he added television commercial directing to his resume. Peterson is still working, albeit at a slightly slower pace these days as editorial and advertising needs have changed.
What inspired you to switch from sports photography to photojournalism?
Shooting sports was fun, but I came to realize that it was not important or significant in the overall scheme of things. So I started hanging around Life and trying to get assignments from them. I had done a few things for Life here in Seattle before I moved to New York, little freelance jobs. I was very lucky because I was able to get in on the last six years of Life. I was eventually put on contract, but I was a freelancer at first, wandering the halls and talking to people, getting to know a couple of editors.
What else appealed to you about photojournalism?
It was real. It was honest. My earliest hero was Alfred Eisenstadt. I remember when Popular Photography did an issue celebrating his 25th year as a photojournalist called “The Eye of Eisenstadt.” I was knocked out by his stuff. I sent him a letter asking what film he used, what light meter, etc. Two weeks later this letter comes to my house, and it’s got a Life magazine logo in the upper-left corner. It was a letter from Eisie. He said he’d been using Super XX, but was using TRI-X now because it was a little faster, and he used a Weston meter, but he generally didn’t need it. I had also invited him to our family’s house for dinner if he ever got to San Francisco. I was 14, 15 then. He wrote that if he ever came to San Francisco, I would be his guest for dinner. Well, it never happened. Fast-forward, and I’m standing on the 28th floor of Life magazine, and here comes Eisenstadt. I stopped him and said, “Mr. Eisenstadt.” And he said, “Just Eisie.” And I said, “My name’s Bob Peterson, and years ago I wrote you a letter.” “Oh, wait a minute. You lived in Berkeley, right? You wanted to know about my film and my meter.” I was just amazed that he remembered.
|F. Lee Bailey, Boston, 1967|
By all accounts he seems to have been a pretty humble guy.
He was out here in Seattle on the last tour of his shows about 20 years ago, and they had a show and then a question-and-answer period for a lot of young photographers. They asked him questions like, “What do you think of hand coloring?” “What? What is this hand coloring?” Or, “What do you do about burnout?” “What is burnout? I’m just a photographer.” For him, it was just a job. You took your cameras and you went where somebody told you to go and took pictures of people and brought them back to the magazine.
What did it mean to you to be a Life photographer?
There was this wonderful thing about Life magazine. They didn’t really screw anybody. I mean, they would go after bad guys and so forth. But if Life wanted to do a story on someone, nobody turned them down. What was the circulation back then? 12 million? Giant circulation. And they gave you time, the writer and photographer, to do a good job. I did a story on F. Lee Bailey, and we went up to where he lived just outside of Boston. The first day we went out I took just one camera over my shoulder to let him get used to it. The second day I started shooting more, and the third day more and more. You had time to work with people and you got to know them a little bit. It was a wonderful experience. In contrast, I remember the last assignments I did for People magazine, where you had a half day with a celebrity, and you’d have to make them change clothes twice so it looked like you were there for more than just three hours.
|John F. Kennedy campaigning in Seattle, 1960|
|Walter Gropius, 1968|
How many days would you typically have for a Life assignment?
Five to a week. It varied. Some days you’d go out and have one day. There were a lot of one-day things, but something like the Newark riots in 1967, I got called in the middle of the night and went over there, and was there for a week.
You did hard news coverage, but specialized in personality profiles. What personal characteristics helped you excel in this regard?
My parents raised me to be a confident person, but not pushy, and I seemed to be able to get along with people. I would go in and follow [the subject’s] lead and be more of a fly on the wall, even though I’m a large guy. I was able to kind of let them set the standard of what they were doing. During the first moon shot, I was assigned to meet with Pat Collins, Mike Collins’ wife. He was the pilot of the spaceship and stayed in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the moon. I just hung around and was the guy in the house with Collins’ family.
I did a story on Peter Boyle. Remember a movie called Joe? He lived about 15 blocks from me in New York, and the writer and I would go hang out with him every day. Just kind of be friends. Everybody knew what was going on. You’re Peter Boyle, you’re an actor, you’d love to have a story on you for Life. So everybody is going to cooperate with you and let you get the best pictures and interview possible. The wonderful thing about Life is that the writers were incredibly good. To some of the photographers they took a little bit of a back seat, but the quality of the work they did, guys like Barry Farrell, and Paul O’Neill, was outstanding. They were very bright, interesting folks, so they were nice to be around.
|Newark riots, 1967|
Your subjects didn’t primp and preen for the camera, they just let you photograph them in a very natural and candid fashion.
Well, part of that was because you had enough time. We did a story on Joyce Hall, the man who started Hallmark Cards. We went to Kansas City and hung out with him for four days. People were willing to do that. We did a mafia murder story about a guy named Ernie “the Hawk” Rupolo, who had been stabbed and tied to cinderblocks and dumped into Jamaica Bay outside Long Island. The guys that did it hadn’t been careful enough, and they didn’t completely slice his stomach open. He was underwater and starting to ferment and his stomach filled up with gas and he floated to the surface. We were doing a story on the prosecutor in that case, and I think I went to Queens every day for three months. Just hung around with the prosecutor and the detectives as they were preparing their case. Three months! That’s a long time. The story was going to be on the cover, but the week it was scheduled to run was the week the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and knocked us off the cover.
What was your first cover?
I got my first cover with Norman Mailer when he was writing Of a Fire on the Moon (1970).
What was Mailer like as a subject?
He was just a regular guy. I photographed him twice. Once for the moon book he wrote, where I only spent a day with him because the magazine just wanted that one portrait. And then I went back when he and Jimmy Breslin were running for mayor and vice-mayor of New York City. Their platform was that NYC should become the 51st state, and their slogan was “Cut out the bullshit.” Mailer and Breslin would go out and campaign, and the writer and I would follow them around. Even in New York back then there would be maybe one TV station picking up on it, and you’d just hang with them the whole day. It wasn’t a mob scene the way it is today.
|Norman Mailer, 1969|
|August 29, 1969 Life magazine cover|
What do you remember most about him?
I really enjoyed Mailer. You’d go into a bar with him, and he would talk to anybody. He was a contrarian, and he loved to argue. He would stand with his arms up and his thumbs by his lapels, almost like a boxer, and combatively take the other side of an argument. But he was very cool and down to earth. He had his job and I had my job.
It seemed like you were able to go deeper into Mailer’s personality than some of your other subjects, like, say, Clint Eastwood.Eastwood was making Dirty Harry at the time, and a lot of my coverage was on the set. And he kind of stayed to himself off the set. There was one day when we were at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, when I got the shot that was used on Life’s cover. His son, who was not in that photo, was sitting next to him. And Eastwood was very relaxed in that setting. But he was becoming a pretty big star then. He was busier, more focused on his work. With Mailer, a lot of my time was spent just hanging around with him, whereas Eastwood was focused on his acting job. And I had less time with Eastwood.
|Clint Eastwood, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, 1971|
Did any of your subjects ever discourage you from taking pictures?
No, but I remember when Eastwood invited me and the writer to a screening of Play Misty for Me, which he had just directed. It was a private screening at somebody’s house. That was an evening where I don’t think I even had a camera with me. It just seemed out of place. There were certain times you didn’t take pictures of people, just out of respect for their privacy.
What other rules did you have for yourself?
I felt it was okay to ask somebody to repeat what they had just done for the camera, but I would never have suggested they do something of my invention. You let the person do what they actually were doing, and tried not to influence that. Like that F. Lee Bailey in the courtroom shot. He was wandering around the room telling my writer and me a story about the Boston Strangler, and how he defended him. Obviously, he was giving us a tour, and he took us to the courthouse, and we went in there with him, and all of a sudden I saw this shaft of light coming through the window, so I backed up and asked him to walk through it one more time.
|Mario Puzo, working on The Godfather screenplay, Paramount Pictures, 1969|
What was Mario Puzo like to photograph?
Puzo was a very gregarious guy, and talked about himself in the third person. He was writing the screenplay for The Godfather in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, and I went and hung out with him. He would say, “So, they came to me and they asked, “Who should we get to write the screenplay of The Godfather?’ And I told them, ‘There’s only one guy that can write the screenplay. And that’s Mario Puzo!’” He typed the screenplay on the typewriter that’s in the portrait shot of him with a big cigar. He was pretty relaxed. I remember we went to Vegas on a quick trip, where I photographed him shooting craps in the casinos. On the plane back to Los Angeles I said, “Well, how’d you do?” He said, “I did great. I only lost $7,000.” “What? $7,000!” “Oh, yeah, that’s good for me. Sometimes I really get hurt there.”
Do you think you would still enjoy working for Life if it were still around?
I would like to think so. I enjoyed doing the kind of advertising stuff I’ve been able to do, but there was something pure about the Life magazine coverage. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it wasn’t like the kind of stuff Vanity Fair runs.
A lot of that is basically stunt photography.Yeah, it is. I know that Life magazine back then wouldn’t use that kind of stuff. There was a purity to Life. It was very honest and real. You wouldn’t use some of the tricks that are used today. And a lot of it was black and white. Color started coming in, but a lot of the assignments were done in black and white. And of course they had that great lab that did beautiful fiber-base prints. All full-frame. Everything was printed with the black edges around the image. You could see the way things were composed. They would crop to fit layouts and things, but there was a visual purity that I don’t see today. I feel badly for photographers today who don’t have that big, splashy vehicle to display their work.
|Joan Baez, Newport Folk Festival, 1969|
|Nelson Rockefeller campaigning in 1968|
The canvas has shrunk a lot.
And Life was expensive to print. I remember someone telling me they were going to take an eighth of an inch off the top and side of the magazine. Just trim it so the magazine was ever so slightly smaller. And they would save millions of dollars in newsprint. One of the things about that era was that people actually got news from a weekly magazine. Today, it’s the Internet, television, CNN and MSNBC, and bloggers and Twitter. There are fewer and fewer places for photojournalism. We lost a newspaper in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer. It’s now strictly an online paper. The Seattle Times is the last print newspaper in town. I don’t know how many staff photographers they have, maybe 15. Some of them took early retirement. There’s just no room in the paper. It’s the same in advertising. I’m on the advisory board of the Seattle Central Community College, and they’ve got a world-class commercial photography program, and every year they have 30 graduates, and I don’t know where these kids are going to find work.
Do you feel that the people you photographed back then were less guarded than they are today?Oh, yeah. Definitely. Someone once told me that nobody ever turned down being interviewed by Fortune magazine, because Fortune never screwed anybody over. And when you worked for Life, doors were opened because people knew that they would be treated fairly by the writers, photographers and editors.
|Philip Roth, 1968|
Gotcha journalism wasn’t as prevalent then.
Not at all. If you hung around with F. Lee Bailey 12 hours a day and had a drink with him at night, and he said something off the record, you honored that. You’re right, there wasn’t that gotcha factor. And security was less stringent. Some of the pictures I shot of Nixon and Kennedy arriving in Seattle during the 1960 presidential campaign … I mean, you’d never get that close to the candidate today. I was stringing for UPI and working for the University of Washington Daily. Those were my credentials. And there I was, five feet away from Kennedy when as he arrived in Seattle. And there was some girl even closer talking to him as he got off the airplane. Security was much less back then, but people seemed to trust more back then.
Did you feel a sense of history taking those pictures, being so close to the candidates, and later, to some of the era’s cultural heavyweights?
In retrospect, yes. But at the time I just felt it was my job. I didn’t have a sense of history. I have a good, solid ego, but I never would say, “Wow, this is Peterson taking a picture of Norman Mailer that’s going to be remembered forever.” I mean, that kind of thought never entered my mind. It’s just like when Eisenstadt was asked about burnout. You know, he just considered himself a photographer.
There certainly were stars hanging around the halls of Life, like Gjon Mili, the man who made strobe photography famous. And Ralph Morse, who took all the famous pictures of astronauts and figured out how to mount cameras on stuff. But anybody could go up and talk to them. Morse would be in his cubicle and would share information with anyone who asked him questions. In retrospect, it was significant time. But at that time I didn’t have a sense of history. I was just hoping for the next assignment.
|Richard Nixon and family celebrate 1968 election victory|
Were you generally happy with the way Life laid out your pictures?
A couple of times things didn’t run, or a story got killed, and I was always disappointed with that. This is interesting because as you get older, you start to wonder what’s going to happen to all your stuff. I’ve been taking pictures since I was 12, so that’s a lot of images. I’ve been going through stuff to figure out how to archive it, and I’m looking at the contact sheets, and I realize that Life had some very good editors. I can see how they did the editing. And they were right on. They did a good job. Rarely would I find a frame before or after that they missed. So I was very lucky in that regard. And they generally used stuff well.
When Life was cancelled in 1972, you began a transition to advertising work.
In 1970 we were all told that Life was going to start using fewer photographers in New York. Because they had all these guys on staff that would be paid whether they worked or not. And they were going to start giving the staff guys the good assignments in New York. I was a freelancer, and I could see the handwriting on the wall. I was having lunch with a Life writer, who said why didn’t I just ask them for a contract. I didn’t think I was important enough to the magazine, but I went in and talked to the picture editor and said I was thinking of moving to San Francisco or Seattle and asked could I get a contract. He said that if I went to Seattle he’d give me a contract. And he did, and it guaranteed me a thousand dollars a month. For the first time in my life I had a real job, which gave my wife and I (who had just had a baby) a stability we’d never had. So for the next two years with Life I was under contract. In November 1972 they renewed my contract for 1973. And then the magazine was killed in December. But they sent a letter saying they were going to honor my contract for 1973, which I thought was pretty incredible.
|Real Change ad|
I started doing more stuff for Sports Illustrated, but by then it just wasn’t very interesting, and Seattle wasn’t a big sports town then. And Time magazine wasn’t much fun to shoot for, because they ran the pictures tiny and didn’t really care about photography. I had some friends in the ad business, so I put together a book of my photojournalism stuff, and went around and tried to sell myself as a journalistic-oriented advertising photographer. And people liked the realism of my work, and the fact that I could think on my feet and react. At that time you had ads that had a photojournalistic quality to them. That kind of evolved, and then I did some commercial directing until I realized that as a film director I was much lower on the scale than as a still photographer, so I drifted out of that.
Then the sort of conceptual lifestyle advertising thing started, and some young art directors here in Seattle liked that journalistic approach, and that’s when we did stuff for Sims snowboard, where we faked the Tiananmen Square thing with snowplows. It had a journalistic feel to it. But the third snowplow was Photoshopped in, and my photography changed a little bit. Now I’m doing less and less stuff. I’m not retired, but the kind of work I did, that lifestyle photography, people aren’t doing it as much.
|Sims Snowboards ad|
Anything else you’d like to say regarding the multiple paths your career has taken?
The thing about Life was that you went out with a writer, and the two of you worked together but tried to stay out of each other’s way. In advertising, you go out with a team. You have assistants, lighting people. Photographers used to go out by themselves, whereas today there’s a whole gaggle of people that go out. On a recent job I had one guy just downloading stuff into the computer and another guy working on lighting. It’s a bigger deal; it’s harder in a way. You used to go out with a camera bag and a few lenses and a pocket full of TRI-X. Nowadays you go out with a Canon 5D Mark II and a couple heavy zoom lenses, and it’s a different style. I don’t know if it gets in the way or not — it’s just different. I’m still doing pictures the way I’ve always done them, although I suppose I’m a little pushier now in terms of getting people into position. But if you’re respectful of your subject, they’re going to be respectful back and try to help you as much as they can.
(All images copyright Bob Peterson. Visit www.bobpeterson.com to see more examples of his versatile, award-winning work.)