Photographer Todd Spoth in Chicago. Interview for bookfocal.com.

Q&A: Astros and hip-hop photography with Todd Spoth (Houston, TX)

September 9, 2020

Todd Spoth’s path to professional photography was anything but typical. A self-described punk rock kid from Houston, his high school photography course was “literally the only class I’ve ever failed,” he says. Today, Spoth is a Gold Remi award-winning documentary film producer whose photographs have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and ESPN.

Known as “Uncle Todd” to more than a few rappers’ families, Spoth has been backstage with Big Sean and on-field for the Houston Astros' World Series run. His genuine approach — “I care about bringing my authenticity to everything I shoot,” says Spoth — has led to photo assignments with Olympians and NBA athletes, NASA astronauts, and multiple U.S. presidents.

A member of the board of directors for the American Society of Media Photographers, Spoth has taught photography classes for Canon and the NFL. In partnership with Story Untold, we caught up with Todd to talk about the secret to shooting professional athletes, his hip-hop photography project, and watching the industry change in his 15+ year career.

This interview has been condensed for clarity. Listen to the podcast below.

When I was a kid, I was always jealous of the neighbours who had pools in their backyard. You grew up next to a pretty big pool: NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Tell me about that.

I was born in Galveston, Texas, which is south of Houston along the coast. And I lived in about 20 different houses in my youth — we moved around quite a bit, including a brief stint in Paris, France. One of the homes that we moved to was a little neighbourhood called Northfork, which butted up against the Ellington Air Force base and [was] very near to the Johnson Space Center campus where my mom worked for about 30 years.

The Neutral Buoyancy Lab, at one point, was the largest indoor pool in the world. It’s this ginormous pool inside the Sonny Carter Training Facility where they train the astronauts. There’s a whole scale replica of the International Space Station inside of it.

When I was still in high school, I volunteered at the Space Center in Houston and gave tours of the NBL to tourists. We used to go as kids, ride our bike[s] up to the NBL, walk up the stairs, and go to the observation deck. [We’d] eat lunch, see these astronauts working, and [it was] just wildly fascinating.

Moving around as much as you did, did any place feel more like home than the rest?

Clear Lake City, for sure. Around that area, we moved to several different homes. As an adult, I've moved around a lot [too]. I've been in my current space here for about the last four or five years, which to some people would seem like a very brief stint. For us, it feels like a lifetime.

We moved around so much back home that I don’t really get that feeling of, like, ‘I went back to my mom's house, and she found my old toys from when I was a kid in the attic.’ It’s not really an experience I have. [Because of that], I've taken to heart archiving — whether it's family images, or just artifacts of my own life. Whether it's a report card or something, I keep all those, scan them in, and really try to preserve my own history, and even the history of friends and family. I like to be the sort of keeper of that, because I didn't really have that as a kid.

I remember when we moved to France, after we got the shipment of our goods a couple months after we’d been living there, there was a container of Crisco that my family had packed that spilled all over our photos. I remember going to my grandma’s house in Buffalo, New York, and my dad’s photos from the fifties were preserved so much better than my photos from the eighties and nineties.

So as I became a photographer, I've sort of taken it upon myself to keep those sort of things — for myself and my own family, but for others and communities and groups that I've been a part of. Keeping those things alive is very important to me.

What did you think you would be when you were a kid?

I had no idea. I played Little League baseball growing up, and it’s such a weird thing to talk about my experience in France, because when I was in fifth grade, we moved overseas, and boom, we’re in the middle of Paris, and we don’t speak the language. It was really crazy, because there was a group of [American] expats that were living there, and their kids were all part of this baseball team. We were like the ringers, because we were all American kids. And we did so great over there.

And then I remember in seventh grade, eighth grade, I came back to Texas, and I tried out for the baseball team. I didn’t even make the team. We were ringers in Europe, and I came back to the States and it’s like, ‘You’re nowhere near the level of these guys over here.’ My life took a different trajectory then, and I didn’t really have a lot of odd career aspirations as a kid; I was kind of doing my thing.

I played in a lot of bands. I played guitar. I played bass in a couple bands as well. I always wanted to play drums. I got a drum set from Guitar Center — a really cheap drum set — in eighth or ninth grade, and I brought it home. My mom came home, and she immediately came into my room and was like, ‘You’ve got three hours to return that.’ So we banged on it and turned it up real loud for like three hours.

I was set to go to law school; I wanted to be a lawyer at the time. Looking back, [there's] definitely something that always intrigued me about the legal system, but there's also a part of me that was like... I was a kid in a punk band, and my mom cried the first time I came home with a tattoo. It was a very Asian, Japanese, military household, where this was kind of unacceptable. So I think a part of [wanting] to be a lawyer was sort of to calm her down and calm the situation down in a way.

It was interesting; I was on the political science/psychology track in university, and towards the end, increasingly getting interested in the camera and photography as a serious endeavour, and [I] was stuck in Latin American political thought and Russian foreign policy. Everyone was like, ‘What are you doing here?’

When did you pick up a camera?

There are images of me with a camera when I was little, but that was kinda nothing. None of my family are technologically [inclined] or photographers. The apple fell very far from the tree on that one. When I was in high school, I took a photography class. It was half film photography, and half Photoshop. It was literally the only class I’ve ever failed in my existence.

I was not very good at authority back then, and I butted heads with the teacher. He was like, ‘You could never be a photographer.’ And I was not excited about the film part; I was more excited about the web design and graphic design. I was designing all of my bands’ flyers at the time, and just really getting involved in the digital side. I really loved that.

A couple years into my University of Houston college [career], I picked up a camera. I took a trip to San Francisco. I borrowed one of my best friends’ cameras. He let me borrow his Canon A70, which was like a 3MP point-and-shoot camera. And I remember exploring San Francisco on this family trip with this camera and just unlocking something for me.

What feeling did it give you?

It was, I think, being able to connect that spark of artistic freedom in a more immediate way.

When I was teaching myself Photoshop and all these things, I didn’t really have the skills, the traditional skills, of a graphic designer. I couldn’t really draw. I was mostly manipulating found objects and different things for flyers, getting to a place where I was happy with it.

But the camera allowed me to take a picture, and I would see it, and then I would take another picture and see it, and being able to manipulate the variables within that camera, and seeing the instant result, was kind of like an ‘Aha’ moment. And it wasn’t even then that I immediately went home and got a camera, but it was really the first time when I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’

At the University of Houston, you studied under photojournalist Richard Carson. What was that like?

I took that photojournalism course around 2005. It was right before I was finishing up, and sort of an elective that I needed to meet, but I was unable to take the class because I wasn’t a communications or photography major — I was in political science. So I had to go to the teacher, Richard Carson, who was a Reuters photographer, a working photojournalist at the time, and he saw that I was serious. I had gone through buying my first digital SLR, quickly upgrading that to a 10D or Canon 20D, trying out different lenses, and just being enthralled by different self-assignments. Just fun things I would go out with my friends and shoot.

It was somewhere around that [time] where I was like, ‘I could make this a career.’ But I wanted that initial class to just have that experience. I was completely self-taught up until that point. [Carson's] goal at the end of it, he was like, ‘Look, all of these other kids in this class are education majors, broadcast majors. It’s just part of their degree plan. You actually care. Don’t worry so much about the assignments in class, our goal is to get you an internship by the end of the year.’

He connected me with the Houston Astros, my hometown baseball club. Obviously [playing baseball and] being from Houston, I’m a huge Astros fan. Growing up, I went to games in the Astrodome. So to be able to have that internship essentially be, ‘Hey, your job is to photograph all the games and be the de facto team photographer,’ it was great.

What is it like to photograph Major League Baseball games? What does it take to get good photos?

You know, it just takes being serious. I mean, I’m not a serious person by nature, but I think it’s not dissimilar to how I go about my professional career as a photographer, regardless of if it’s baseball or something else. I care about this craft; I care about bringing my authenticity to everything I shoot.

I like to be informed before I photograph something if possible — so to get good baseball photos, you kind of have to know baseball. You need to know in what situation a double play is going to happen, or when to watch for a runner coming home from third base.

It’s those anticipation things that make the action images better for a photographer, but it’s also just human psychology, because as a photographer sitting in the camera well next to the dugout, you start to watch and observe the players and how they interact. And that is sort of a skill that you can’t really describe or showcase, it’s just knowing how to read people. Knowing when the mood is tense and they might not want to get their photo taken, or when they’re in a playful mood and looking to just talk to somebody. It’s knowing those things and being able to navigate that sort of interaction at any point during any job that has given me whatever level of success I have.

All of these shutter speed, aperture [skills], I learned it on YouTube, and anyone can learn it on YouTube. It’s not hard — especially in today’s era where you can pick up an iPhone and make infinitely better pictures than I made on my digital camera back in 2003. But it’s something different when you’re working with someone on a story that may be sensitive, and it’s only you and this person, and they can’t even see your eyes, because you’ve got this big black box in front of them.

Even if it's someone notable, still photography and a still portrait session is and can be very intimate for folks. Whether it’s a billion-dollar CEO, they’re letting their guard down with you — or that should be your goal as a photographer to have that interaction on that level — and that’s a special thing that you kind of have to have the right respect for. Especially have the right respect for what they’re giving to you, or what their potential is to give you in that exchange.

What’s your most memorable moment covering the Astros?

We had gone to the World Series and sadly been swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005, and I was shooting the 2006 season, so there was a lot of hoopla around the team, because we had gone to the World Series, and we got some good things going on. There was a lot of moments. Roger Clemens came back to the Houston Astros, so it was the “return of the Rocket.” It was an interesting era.

I was able to photograph the 2017 World Series, which we won, and then last year’s World Series, which we didn’t. And to be there for all those games was very special to look back at my history of going as a fan to the Astrodome, experiencing the team in a different stadium, experiencing the team as an intern, and coming back as a journalist.

It’s special, because there’s a lot of those experiences that I have that people were paying, like, $5,000 for a ticket, and I’m getting paid to be here! And for five grand, you don’t even get to be standing on the field with [the players] post-win.

You know, I think about it as Jeopardy!, because I was a huge Jeopardy! fan. Still am. I would always listen when they introduced the [contestants]. Alex Trebek would ask them about a personal anecdote, and some of these people would be like, ‘My mom’s friend once saw Britney Spears on the street.’ And it’s like, this is the one thing you have to talk about on Jeopardy! My goal is to have life experiences to talk about. And I might not get far on Jeopardy! today, but I can tell stories for months of just random things that have happened to me in life and as a photographer.

How did your hip-hop photography project start?

I was already a fan, so it just made sense. And although I was in a lot of punk and hardcore bands, I was a hip-hop fan way before I was into punk rock or rock or any of that in general. I got an assignment [from the local newspaper] to photograph a rapper, Trae tha Truth, here in Houston — an incredible human being and activist. And it was an assignment to photograph a portrait of him.

[Trae] was at a studio until 2:00 a.m. I let him know, 'Hey, I'm a night owl too. Come over after your session.' It was 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, he came over with two or three people, and we did this portrait shoot in my dining room at the time. He ended up loving the photos. That kind of opened up a relationship with us where he was introducing me to his kids as Uncle Todd, and I was just kind of going everywhere with him and his crew at the time.

They got really quick that I wasn’t trying to be anything that I’m not. They didn’t have to worry about an outsider coming in and sort of throwing a wrench in the plans. Thankfully, I was able to gain that trust pretty early, and that sort of snowballed into other things, and different artists coming around, younger artists seeing my work with him and wanting me to photograph their project.

I still get assignments and commissions to photograph hip-hop related events or portraits, and I love those, but I’m happy with the body of work I created around that. Houston’s just a great hip-hop city. We love hip-hop. I try to describe this to folks that don’t live in Houston. It’s not horses and cowboys down here. It’s the fourth-largest city in the country, and we have a lot going for us, but we also do have cowboy culture. But here, those “country” kids that you would never think, they’ll recite a Trae song, or a Z-Ro song. It’s part of our social and cultural fabric. And it’s beautiful, and I love it.

One of my favourite photographs of yours is of President Barack Obama through the presidential state car window. What is it like to photograph a president?

Wow. It is an incredible experience. I've photographed several presidents. That [one] was one of the most impactful moments.

I had the opportunity to photograph Obama in 2013. He was coming to Houston to do some fundraising or an event. Air Force One flew into Ellington Force Base, which is right next to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. I was photographing it for the newspaper, and the local newspaper’s job is to not only photograph the president as he arrives and greets his local dignitaries and whatever gathered public, but also to stay there the entire time he is in Houston, or wherever he’s at, and then — this is sort of an unspoken rule of photojournalism — to get the photo of the president waving as he enters Air Force One. Just in case Air Force One goes down, [then] you would have the last image of the president.

For that assignment, I had to show up hours before Air Force One arrived to get my entire bag, everything that was on me, checked and triple-checked by Secret Service. Then, we were able to position ourselves on this riser — there were only a couple photographers there — on the tarmac, to be able to be a little bit elevated, about four, five feet up, to get Air Force One’s arrival and get [Obama] coming off the plane.

But a torrential downpour happened right before Air Force One was landing, so we had to pull an audible. Everything got wet. Thankfully, we had rain covers, and nothing got ruined, but we pulled everything into an airplane hangar. There was public around. He pulled in with the motorcade, and I was able to get those images. You could just see Obama from his silhouette, and it was great. He got out of the car, greeted the local dignitaries here, went around, reached out and shook my hand and introduced himself.

It was really an eleventh-hour audible: you’re already set up, you know your settings, you’ve gone over it in your head, and bam. Rain. Our gear was already corralled into a place where we wouldn’t have to worry about it, and now we’re inside with all the public, so I have to watch my gear on the side of the hangar and also work. It was really wild.

He speeds off in the motorcade, and I’m just sitting in the middle of this airport hangar — two or three of us and Secret Service — for hours. I was able to sort of walk around, get semi-close to Air Force One, and take pictures. Then he came at night, and I got that shot of him [boarding], and that was a special one.

You’ve been a working professional for long enough to have started pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram. How have you seen the industry, and the needs of what it takes to be successful in the industry, change?

That’s interesting. I remember MySpace. I remember getting on Facebook when it was just for college students in 2006. I still remember signing up for Twitter in 2008. And it’s wild, because I’ve been using Instagram for almost a decade now. As someone who’s grown up with technology, we’re just sort of used to things turning over, so for a website to [last so long], it’s a place I didn’t think we would get to.

But speaking on social media and work, I still love interacting with it. I don’t have millions of followers; I don’t mind that. There’s definitely something to be said about being a quote-unquote “influencer” and having tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, but I’ve done perfectly fine without that. I only do it enough to satisfy what I want to put out there. I don’t think of it as a crutch or something I have to do; I don’t lament it.

There are some days when I would love to be able to have that job working for a company where I clock out at five and I’m not beholden to any part of the business past [then]. Sure, sometimes that seems appealing, but at the end of the day, there are a lot more positives than the negatives. I make my own schedule. I can choose to post on Instagram or not post on Instagram. And although it is a job and you’re kind of always working, I like being in the middle.

I like having a community and feeling connected with folks, whether it’s my Facebook communities or Instagram communities or Patreon communities. But I also like that it doesn’t control me or consume my life so much that if I don’t post for a day or two, or a week perhaps, it’s not the end of the world.

It’s really fascinating watching these Twitch streamers and that whole world. I was watching one, and this guy said, ‘Anywhere I go has to have fast Internet. I can’t even go on vacation. It’ll be the death of me if I don’t stream one day.’

It’s cool that you get to play video games, but there’s this inherent pressure that comes with a lot of folks that have that following or that expectation of a million followers to keep that ball rolling that is so large and moving so fast that they’re just eternally stressed about that ball stopping. So there’s a certain part of me that enjoys not having that ball on my shoulders, rolling downhill and trying to crush me at all times. 

How much of your work is personal projects for your own fulfilment versus commissioned work? If the movie parallel is “one for me, one for them,” where do you fall on that?

I think as you grow as a photographer, especially in the commercial/editorial/corporate world, a lot of your time gets filled with less and less pressing the button, taking the photo, and more with keeping up contacts, expense reports, all these things that a small business does that you might not think a photographer’s life is.

It’s like the meme that went around a couple years ago: ‘This is what everyone thinks my job is. This is what I actually do.’ What I actually do is behind the computer, interacting, filling out forms, trying to get paid, jumping through payment portals of different clients, researching bids, having different calls. It’s okay. It’s part of the business; it’s what happens. I think there are some photographers who are better than others at maintaining that drive to make pictures for yourself. 

I make pictures for myself [when traveling]. Since that detour in Paris, my family has had similar situations and assignments in Rio de Janeiro and Singapore. A lot of times, we don’t do Christmas traditionally and get each other gifts, we just go on a trip together. My sister lives in Brussels, and my parents were in Singapore, so a lot of times, our Christmas trip was part of our only time to get to see each other. I would explore and not worry about portraits; I would just do reportage, travel, cultural kind of pictures.

I do still go out and shoot hip-hop related events and things. I’m not trying to wait for Billboard or Complex to call me about it; I’m just there. I think it gets a bit tougher as you get along in this industry. You have to sort of balance work, family life, personal life, all the other business aspects it takes.

But I still have a passion for this. I just switched systems from Canon — which I’d been using my entire career — and Fuji to Sony, which is nerdy gear talk, but I’m still excited about the gear that I’m using. I’m still the passionate kid I was 15, 20 years ago when I just picked up a camera for the first time. It’s still exciting.

I’ve had many opportunities for covers and different things, but the pictures that I made were on the cover of the Wall Street Journal yesterday, and it’s still thrilling to see that. I still love it to this day. It’s gotten a lot more difficult to squeeze those personal projects in over the years, but I still do, and I still love it. And it’s all just creating art, whether it’s for a paycheque or not.

Follow Todd Spoth at @toddspoth on Instagram and Twitter.

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