Palisadian Robert Reiff Body-Built a Career on Health-and-Fitness Magazine Photography
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Pali Life Editor
rom the hulking Muscle Beach frames of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to title-snatching boxers Oscar de la Hoya and Sugar Shane Mosley to Olympic athletes and the masters of martial arts, Palisadian photographer Robert Reiff has built a career delivering the perfect shot for health and fitness magazines, such as “Muscle & Fitness” and “Oxygen” spanning back to the 1980s.
These days, however, you might sooner find Reiff, 63, directing a video or taking a picture of a plate of sliced Camembert. And long gone are the days he would shoot on celluloid.
That’s because his related industries—photography and publishing—have changed drastically and became increasingly faster, especially in the last decade.
“Fortunately, I do have a very big name in this industry, which helps,” Reiff said. “I have managed to constantly be relevant if you will. My work is considered current.”
Actually, the El Medio Bluffs resident has no shortage of work these days and the spheres of haute couture and food photography suit him just fine.
THE FIRST FEW FRAMES…
Reiff started out on the East Coast, where a college education in finances in his own words “bored the hell out of him.”
Since his teenage years, he had been shooting photos as a hobby. Once, he even leaned out of his 11th-floor window in the middle of the night and photographed a burglary in progress on the ground floor. His photo made the local paper.
“I am self taught when it comes to photography and learned by a lot of trial and error,” Reiff said. “When I taught for a while at American College of Applied Arts, they got me approved for life experience to teach at an accredited college. Normally, you’re supposed to have a master’s degree in your field to teach at that level.”
He grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and started out as a pioneer of the Photo District in the East Village at 18th Street and 5th Avenue, shooting high fashion, catalogue work and the occasional band album art.
He got out of the latter quickly.
“The bands were just so [expletive] up on drugs,” he said. “Some bands had to wait for some drug dealer to show up [before the photo shoot could begin].”
After the harsh winter of 1978-79, “I decided I was fed up with New York,” he said. “ I left my studio and took my cameras and my dog to Los Angeles.”
In California, Reiff quickly nestled into a career as an architectural photographer, snapping edifices and aerial shots around Malibu and Beverly Hills for real estate sales brochures (Kennedy Wilson was a big client).
Reiff gravitated to the Venice area, where he fell into the bohemian milieu and skating scene.
While living in Venice, Reiff shot Warren Zevon for Songwriter magazine at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood.
THE FITNESS MACHINE
“It definitely became a very colorful era,” Reiff said of the MTV-influenced 1980s, when colored gels and slick glitzy production became an industry norm.
During the epoch, Reiff entered a long association with Joe Weider Publications that spanned from the mid-1980s intothe 1990s. By 2003, Robert Kennedy Publications hired Reiff after the main photographer had left.
Along the way, Reiff shot many celebrities connected to the world of bodybuilding and fitness: Lou and Carla Ferrigno, Clint Eastwood, Sharon Stone, WWE head honcho Vince McMahon, wrestler Triple H, television and movie personalities Morris Chestnut, Michael Jai White and Mario Lopez and, of course, former Palisadian Schwarzenegger.
“Arnold’s been at my studio a number of times including as governor with his whole entourage,” Reiff said.
Outside of the magazine work, Reiff also served as the still photographer on the set of the 1984 movie “Purple Rain,” snapping star Prince, Appolonia Vanity, Lisa and Wendy and Morris Day and the Time across three months in Minneapolis.
“I was the only photographer on the set. That was a very, very closed set,” Reiff said.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Circa 1993, technology, from cinema’s visual effects to publishing’s use of Adobe Photoshop, had game-changed in many industries.
In order to survive, the forward-thinking Reiff adapted:
“Some of the older shooters didn’t change or change fast enough and they lost clients. No film shooter really wanted to switch over and clients didn’t want to switch over either. They didn’t think it was good enough or going to be good enough.”
However, Reiff found the Digital Revolution refreshing. His attitude: “This is going to happen, this is happening. We need to get on board this now.”
He no longer had to spend long hours in a dark room exposed to noxious chemicals or wait two days to see results.
With the advent of high-end digital cameras, “I was able to get them on a test basis,” Reiff said. They needed people like me to test them out so hopefully they would be bought. Little by little, obviously that scale tipped.”
Over the years, his photo studio jumped around the Westside. Initially based in Santa Monica, he then spent 14 years in Marina del Rey. When that building was converted to condos, Reiff found a 2,500-square ft. hangar off Culver Boulevard in Culver City, where his Magic Light Studios are based today.
“It used to be that you would have very large sets, big backdrops, with a lot of lighting, whereas now it’s gone in the other direction,” he said.
In the 2000s, the rise of the Internet, coupled with the Great Recession, caused the fitness magazine industry to shrink. As a result, in recent years, Reiff has had to diversify his portfolio (literally).
A SEASONED PRO
Whereas bodybuilding mags may have gone flabby, social media is hotter than ever, and that’s opened up doors for Reiff among the youth culture.
“As long as your work is current and you’re experienced, even though they’re young, they actually like that,” he said.
Many an impatient 30-something art director has rushed through an assignment and concluded with a shrug: “We’ll fix it in post.”
“And I explain why they won’t fix it in post and if you give me a minute, I will fix it now!” Reiff said, adding how his experience and ease quickly becomes an incredible asset that no computer can auto-correct.
“They will have less post with me on every level.”
Reiff blasts through photo sessions with the ease of a professional long-lens sniper in a way that younger photographers weaned on digital technology cannot grasp.
“They’re not trained in shooting, lighting ratios,” Reiff said. “My lighting is really something I’m known for.”
Reiff still shoots five days a week, taking on a diverse slate of fitness, fashion and food assignments. What’s really got his creative juices bubbling, though, is filming clips for such clients as the upcoming app FitPlan.
“I really wasn’t challenged anymore by what I was doing,” he explained on why he’s shifted gears into video.
THE ROAD TO PACIFIC PALIADES
Today, Reiff enjoys life in the Palisades…after quite a few false starts.
“The Palisades is an area that I’ve always loved,” Reiff said. “I almost bought a house here in the 1980s on Galloway.”
While the house was in escrow, a complication on the seller’s side cost him the chance to purchase the house.
“As a result, we ended up renting in Westwood,” he said.
He soon found a house in Carthay Circle, where he lived from 1985-1993, when he divorced.
Reiff moved to Marina del Rey and bought 20 acres of Malibu property. When the real estate market collapsed in the early 1990s, “I basically had to start again from scratch because I lost everything I had.”
In 2002, Reiff remarried to a food stylist and almost bought a Palisades home again. But this second marriage fell apart by 2006. He did, however, begin taking on food assignments during this union, creating a full kitchen at his studio.
Third time looks to be the charm, both personally and Palisades-wise. His fiancée, TV producer Joan Van Horn, had been living in the Palisades for about 27 years. After they met in March 2011, they began spending more time in the Palisades than at his Westchester-area sanctuary. In 2013, he moved here.
Reiff is very proud of his bride-to-be, who once worked as a second assistant director on Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (credited as Joan Spiegel Feinstein) and currently serves as the unit production manager on the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin: “She’s basically gone from hit to hit to hit.”
Her son, Matt Van Horn, was recently profiled in the Palisadian-Post regarding his start-up success “June Intelligent Oven” while daughter Lindsey Van Horn is a dancer and actress who has appeared on “Hart of Dixie.”
Reiff’s own son, Ryan Reiff, is doing Pops proud in the culinary arts.
Between his daily creative passions at his Culver City studio and his personal passions awaiting him in the Palisades, Reiff feels blessed these days.
“I love that it’s relaxing. I guess because my days can be hectic and pressured, this is not,” he said. “I love to walk to the beach, walking to the bluffs, hiking around Temescal Canyon.”
In other words, a perfect photo finish.
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