Randal Ford is an award-winning Austin-based photographer who has shot for Texas Monthly and L.L.Bean, among others.
Did you have any mentors?
Marty and Adam Butler of The Butler Brothers agency. They gave me lots of great feedback on my work, helped me focus what I was doing and develop a personal style. It was primarily portraiture work and more studio-based. They were doing advertising for my family’s restaurant business (Rudy’s BBQ), so I did a few random shoots for them. Another mentor was Glen Dady of The Richards Group. I connected with him when I was a senior in college. I showed up there in business attire, shiny shoes and pleated pants, and everyone there was in jeans. I got feedback and criticism from anyone who would look at my work. I wanted people to criticize the work, because that’s how you get better.
I got feedback and criticism from anyone who would look at my work
My first rep was Denise Stewart. I sent her a postcard and an email asking her to meet me for coffee. I asked for feedback and criticism, nothing more. After coffee she started representing me almost immediately.
What was your first big break?
GSD&M’s American Legacy anti-smoking campaign. Also, the Amazing Faith of Texas book that GSD&M produced. Roy Spence (chairman, CEO and co-founder of GSD&M) had this idea to photograph churches of all different faiths all over Texas and interview people for a coffee table book. I was 25 at the time and had a published coffee table book. Doing that project instantly gave me credibility as a young photographer. It gave me legitimacy.
Before that, D Magazine hired me to photograph Tommy Lee Jones. I went by myself, with a couple of strobes, and was totally nervous. I had no assistant, and a soft box fell off of the strobe. Tommy Lee Jones totally busted my chops. That was included in Communication Arts that year.
Tommy Lee Jones totally busted my chops
How did you develop your photographic style?
Multiple photographers and a couple painters inspired me. I saw the Avdeon exhibit at the Kimball — that was amazing. My strength as a young photographer was that I was very observant, and I could pick up subtleties in people’s work. I saw the subtleties in Avedon’s work and how that helped tell the subject’s story. I tried to shoot in a really intentional manner. The framing was personal and very consistent across the work. Also, Norman Rockwell, it sounds like a cliché, but remember I was a business student! I loved the colors and tonalities of the Impressionists, and the depiction of life that told a story. But it was also sort of heroic and intentional.
Best advice for someone starting out?
Shoot a lot and get criticism, not just feedback, not just something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy.
What was your best career decision?
Studying business in college. I was reading marketing books as a young photographer. Next best? I immediately developed a specific look. As a young photographer, that was really important. But now I can evolve away from it to a degree. Now it’s not so illustrative, it’s more high definition vs. hyper-real.
I immediately developed a specific look. As a young photographer, that was really important.
How do you stay motivated?
By keeping up with my competitors’ work. It’s my number one way to stay motivated, because it’s so competitive. And to keep shooting — that’s what makes it fun and makes you better. Meeting with clients and mentors is also inspiring and motivating. Seeing new work that you’ve done and that you’re proud of is great.
Shooting big personalities in Texas has probably led to some memorable moments, right?
Oh yeah, when I went to photograph Tommy Lee Jones, he was at the Liberty Bar in San Antonio at one in the afternoon. He grumbled and walked over to the bar to get a drink. We were sitting in the corner, and I’m directing him to do some different stuff, trying to make small talk. I asked him about Saint Marks and about what position he played there. He stared me down and said, ‘What do you care?’ He beat me down. And a couple of minutes later, I’m done. It’s August in San Antonio — really hot. I said ‘I’m glad we’re not going outside, I’m sweating in here.’ Then he said, ‘You’re sweatin’ cos you’re nervous.’
What would be a dream assignment for you?
The Chick-fil-A cow calendar. I did a series for Pentagram, a portrait series of cows, which got me into photographing animals, in particular bovines. That led to shooting Bevo. As an Aggie it’s a little weird shooting Bevo, but I’ve been in Austin for six years, and I love it.
What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
A cheap Japanese figurine with a bell on it.
Are you a gearhead? If so, any latest obsessions?
I used to be really obsessed with gear, but now it’s whatever works for the job. I’m not into owning a ton of gear. I rather spend my money on marketing and portfolio shoots.
What are your current test shoot ideas?
Whatever is infiltrating my life at the time is what I end up doing. Right now, I’m working on a series inspired by nursery rhymes. I try to do stuff that is challenging and has high production value. I can ask for favors now because I’ve hired enough people in the past. If it’s something complicated, I do a couple a year, like the snake photo. I don’t think the book has to have only the most recent work.
I try to do stuff that is challenging and has high production value
All time fave photo books?
When I was in college, my mom gave me Michael O’Brien’s The Face of Texas: Portraits of Texans. I saw it and thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’ A few years down the road I got to meet him.
So, what’s next? What exciting projects are coming up for you in 2012?
I’m doing a large shoot for rheumatoid arthritis using real patients. I love working with real people. You have a cool opportunity to make a connection. And, I just did another L.L.Bean® shoot that will come out throughout the year. I also did a cool shoot for StubHub that will be coming out soon as well.
I have to ask, even though your family owns Rudy’s, what’s your favorite BBQ?
Rudy’s first, then Luling’s City Market.
And your favorite breakfast taco?
Juan in a Million.
Cinco Vodka. It’s made in San Antonio and comes in a beautiful bottle.
Have you shot Marfa?
Of course I have, but I refuse to shoot the Prada store.
What are your hobbies outside of photography? How do you stay sane?
Cycling, snowboarding and cooking.
What’s your favorite Texas weekend getaway destination?
With kids, it’s whatever is least stressful.
Check out some behind the scenes videos of Randal on set:
Check out Randal’s portraits from the Dallas Color Run. Beautiful!
Thanks to Deborah Faitt-Esker for editing this interview!