Bob Blanken likes to capture, as he puts it, “the experience of an event as well as the details.” You can master all the technique you want, but you really only get to the next level when you’re able to accomplish just that.
And you don’t need to be Yoda to do it. It’s simply a matter of experience — albeit the kind of mindful and directed experience that Blanken has amassed since 1981 as an independent event-photographer, and for years before that shooting architectural and advertising photography. Can he teach what he knows? “I teach other professional photographers,” he says, chuckling. “I have a Photographic Craftsmen degree from the PPA [Professional Photographers of America], which is what they award photographers who teach.”
Based in Bethesda, Md., Blanken spent years shooting everything from the standard wedding-and-bar-mitzvah jobs to large-scale events for such clients as Anheuser-Busch, the LPGA Open, the American College of Trial Lawyers, and Walt Disney Hotels and Resorts. He’s been honored with the Corporate Photography of the Year award and twice with the Social Photography of the Year award from the Greater Washington, D.C., chapter of the International Special Events Society (ISES), and in 2003 and 2005 was nominated for the overall international organization’s Event Photography award.
“I specialize in events and family portraiture,” he says, with an emphasis on “corporate and association events: annual parties, award dinners, conventions. I like that stuff the best because it takes me around the country and it’s the easiest on me — I’m 62 years old!” he says, laughing. That’s one reason he’s scaled back on weddings. “I’m only doing them [on request] from an event planner or a hotel that I work with. My weddings are big, drawn-out affairs,12- to 14-hour days. With preparation — the meetings beforehand, informal sessions, the planning and the reviewing, the album design — it’s about 60 hours of work for each. I can make just as much money doing corporate parties — go in, shoot, burn a disc, and I’m done.”
He never expected to say “burn a disc” when he started in photography as a junior high-schooler in the late 1950s. “When I was 12, my dad gave me a camera as a present. Later on he built a darkroom for me in the basement because I just was enthusiastic, and I was so taken by it and always shooting pictures at family events.” All this, even though his father, Sidney Blanken, “wanted me to be an engineer. But he got something out of it, seeing me enjoy it — and also, he enjoyed the product!”
Afterward, at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., “I volunteered to be on the school paper and the yearbook staff. By then I’d been shooting for two years and thought I knew something!” His collaborators were nothing if not auspicious. “I was on the newspaper with Carl Bernstein and Ben Stein — they were the reporters, I was the photographers!” Blanken encountered another future star in an unrelated venture — a non-speaking role in a high-school production of the musical Li’l Abner, starring future Oscar-winner Goldie Hawn. “I think she was Daisy Mae,” Blanken says uncertainly. “There was another girl who caught my attention, but my cousin dated Goldie.”
As artfully spontaneous and human as his work is (see his website, Blanken Photography Studio at www.blankenphoto.com), Blanken also knows the business and networking ends — a karmic consequence of his many hours of volunteer work with such organizations as the PPA, on whose National Council he served for nine years, and the Washington, D.C., chapter of ISES, for which he is vice president of education. Among his recent projects is the Washington Photo Safari, in which a teaching professional takes high-level hobbyists on a tour of the nation’s capitol, giving them hands-on instruction as they go.
Married to his second wife for 28 years, and the father of three sons and a stepson, Blanken began getting into digital photography in the late 1990s. “I haven’t shot a piece of film since March of ’01.” He was doing a wedding, he recalls, “and I told my assistant to hand me the digital. I wound up using it all day and never looked back. The first year I switched, it saved me $60,000 in film, processing and proofs. It’s like, ‘Holy Kamo!y'” And those, of course, are the best kind of Kamolys there are.
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