With cameras and tape recorder in hand, Bob Rowan boarded a plane last week for rural Holmes County, Ohio, to spend seven days among the Amish.
It was one of countless trips that Rowan, who creates multimedia productions of photos, words, and music for clients all over the world, has made in his 30-year career, but this one was different. Rowan, who works from his own small studio next to his home outside Newport, Wash., travels more than 100,000 miles a year, but wasnt on assignment for a client this time. Though he expects to sell some of his many shots of the Amish as stock photographs, this project was largely for his own gratification.
The photography will become one of a number of elements combined in a multimedia productiona combination of projected images, words, and music that Rowan carefully scripts, directs, and composes, and that has become his signature creation. Rowan has done similar work for such notable companies as Marriott International Inc., Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Pacific Bell.
Though Rowan has shot hundreds of thousands of photographs professionally, he rarely describes himself as a photographer.
My roots are in photography, acknowledges Rowan, who holds a masters degree in communications in addition to the professional arts degree he earned while studying commercial photography and portraiture, but Ive spent most of my career as a communicator.
Rowan brought back with him from Ohio more than just a collection of still and video images. From taped recordings of his interviews with the Amish people, he returned with the sounds of their voices and the words they used to express their feelings and beliefs. Even more importantly, he brought back a very personal vision of the story he hopes to tell.
All of the elements are equally important, and if one stands out, theres probably something wrong, he says. Its not a showcase for my photography, and when I realized that, I was a producer, not just a photographer.
Rowan is so highly regarded by those working in multimedia production, that the still imagery award given out each year in a competition sponsored by the Association for Multi-Image International bears his name.
He has done such presentations for clients from Spokane to the Far East. Sometimes referred to now as photomedia, they frequently are designed for final production on videotape, a technique that gained recognition from the work of Ken Burns, whose multi-image series about the Civil War, the history of baseball, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and jazz music have been broadcast nationally on PBS. Though less common these days, theyre also sometimes designed for projection in conference halls or large arenas, using a computer-controlled battery of slide and video projectors to fill movie-theater-sized screens.
Rowans interest in producing multi-image presentations was sparked early in his in commercial-photography career as the result of an assignment he received while pursuing his communications degree.
I was required to do a slide show as a class project, Rowan says. Id always worked with large-format cameras, and I didnt even own a 35mm camera. All of a sudden, I had to buy this dinky little camera and go out and shoot pictures. Well, it changed my life. When I finished my first show and saw what you could dothe power of the presentation and the range and breadth of what it could communicateI realized that was what I really wanted to do.
He began creating multi-image productions for architects, advertising agencies, and corporations while working as a commercial photographer in Michigan in the 1970s. He refined his techniques further while working as a lecturer in residence at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, S.C., for several years before returning to his native California and setting up his studio in San Francisco in 1980.
Although he most frequently is the screenwriter, director, photographer, and photo editor for his productions, most projects also involve an active collaboration of many other talented artistic and technical people, including graphic artists and computer programmers.
I can only bring so much to the party as a producer, Rowan says. I rely on a lot of talented other people who know their business. Its in the nature of the niche.
In San Francisco, Rowan worked with major corporate projects, including producing 54-projector arena productions marking the annual debut of Ford Motor Co.s new product lines in the late 1980s. He did that work for Maritz Communications Inc., a big Detroit firm, and landed the jobs partly because he had been working at the time in wide-frame, panoramic photography, a format that allows a single still image to fill proportionally a screen 60 feet wide and 15 feet high.
Rowan has added a host of Pacific Northwest companies and agencies to his client list since bringing his family to Eastern Washington a decade ago in search of a less urban lifestyle. Working from his Newport studio, he has produced multimedia presentations for Avista Corp., the U.S. Forest Service, the federal Department of Natural Resources Conservation Service, and others, while continuing to do a variety of commercial photography for clients such as Telect Inc., Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co., Spokane International Airport, Spokanes Desautel Hege Communications, and the Coeur d Alene Tribe.
In 1996, he was asked to do a multi-media presentation on the issue of Native American tribal sovereignty by the California-Nevada Indian Gaming Association that ultimately was featured at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Much like his work with the Amish, Rowan finds his work with Native American tribes, which includes a recent production for the National Association of American Indian Children & Elders, to be a source of much personal satisfaction and inspiration.
While he brings a wide range of skills to his profession, its clear photography remains a fundamental source of personal satisfaction for Rowan. Between his travels and production work, he still finds time to shoot portraits for graduates of nearby Newport High School.
I like to keep my hand in that side of it, just because its fun to do, he says. I enjoy meeting the kids and their parents. Its never gotten old for me. I shot a senior portrait of a young lady yesterday, and she showed up with her sister, who had a young baby in her arms. I shot this wonderful photograph of the two of them together, toothis young woman and her child. I was just as high on that as any other work I do. It doesnt matter to me how large the project is, Im doing something that I simply love to do.
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