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He was Joan Rivers' successor on the Fox network talk show The Late Show, the host of ABC and USA game shows, and the co-host of an ABC entertainment magazine. He was the standup-comic winner of the 1983 Showtime Comedy Laugh-Off, the producer of the comedy-CD Inside the First Family, and the author of a comic cookbook for men and their power tools, Cook Like a Stud.  As the host and a writer-performer on Seattle, Washington's late-night comedy show Almost Live!, his prankish effort to have "Louie Louie" named the official state song snowballed into international attention – and the state's eventual adoption of a "Louie Louie Day."

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Through all his travels, both literal and metaphoric, Ross saw the degraded state of customer care and the lack of teamwork in the service industries. Doing something about it, he formed Ross Shafer Seminars in Carlsbad, Calif., to publish books, produce humorous human-resource training films and give motivational talks on managerial leadership, team-building and what he calls "customer empathy." Like the "Louie Louie" campaign, his self-created gig took on a highly successful life of its own.

But before all that? He owed a photo-finishing shop and portrait studio in Washington state. While he failed at the business – luckily for his career, it turned out – it taught him that photography itself was great fun.  He's kept shooting, and for three years running has even spoken at the PhotoImaging Manufacturers & Distributors Association convention.

TakeGreatPictures: Did you start shooting as a kid?

Shafer: I started taking pictures when I had a combination stereo and pet shop in Puyallup, Washington, on a reservation. [Shafer's mother's family is of Oregon's Modoc tribe]. I also owned a photography studio and photo-finishing outlet that I bought in the mall I was in. I ended up being the photographer. I bought a Hasselblad camera and started taking pictures. I had no training! My training came from the guy who sold me the camera.

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Buster (our Burmese Mountain dog) as a baby -- in a state of relaxation humans rarely enjoy. © 2006 Ross Shafer

It wasn't necessarily successful. But it was only place in Puyallup to have your picture taken at that time. Unfortunately, people weren't that interested in having their pictures taken! Also, we didn’t know how to deal with kids. We had different backgrounds and different toys, but they always seemed to be the wrong toys. Parents couldn't handle their unruly children. It was an unpleasant enterprise. The easiest thing to do was just sell the camera.

After that, the only camera I had left was my personal 35mm SLR Nikon. Then I took a job as a promotion and advertising director for a chain of clothing stores. The company had a hydroplane, and I got interested in high-speed photograph. I had to -- the hydroplane would go up to 200 miles an hour!

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Outside the guest cottage in the back of our house. This was a test shot for Leah's latest CD. The staging was so "obvious" we opted not to use it, although I still like to think of her in this pose when I see the little house. © 2006 Ross Shafer

TakeGreatPictures: I read in your bio that as a radio host on KJR-AM, you never played accordion music. Would you ever shoot accordion pictures?

Shafer: (laughs) No! Not unless it was somebody really interesting playing the accordion. Without clothing.

It's funny – my introduction to music was my father buying this accordion and forcing me to take accordion lessons. In kindergarten. His friends would get together, he'd tell them, "My son plays the accordion!" Then he'd wake me and I'd have to play some little song.

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My latest model, Lauren Rae Shafer. She was five days old. © 2006 Ross Shafer

TakeGreatPictures: Well. Now we know how the accordion has influenced your work! Does either your comedy or your motivational background inform the pictures you shoot?

Shafer: The comedy background certainly does, because in my work, when I speak, I probably show 160 to 180 slides that I've shot, found, bought, begged, or borrowed that I've tried to find some comic value in. I think everybody who shoots has a little style. Mine is shooting black-and-white and sepia. It's more interesting to me [than color] because I grew up in that era of film noir. I produced a TV series in 1995 called Backstage with Ross Shafer, and it was shot in black-and-white at the CBS affiliate in Seattle. It was a one-on-one interview with a celebrity backstage, what their life was like when they weren't on TV. John Corbett, Tony Bennett, Sinbad, those were some of the people we had on. We shot nine episodes and tried to get it syndicated. But at that time, people said, "It's black-and-white, are you kidding?" I thought it was effective. Especially in movement.

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Bill Nye, the Science Guy, has been a close friend for 20 years. The irony that he would help me assemble my telescope was shot-worthy. © 2006 Ross Shafer

TakeGreatPictures: What do you shoot with these days?

Shafer: An Olympus E500 digital. I love digital photography. You get the SLR experience, but fast-shooting. On my old Nikon, I had to buy an auto-winder, but this is magic.

We were in Hawaii [recently], we took four, five hundred pictures. It's so awesome to keep the ones you want, enhance them – zoom in on what you like, blur the edges – things that cost a fortune to have done [in traditional film photography].

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Ok, what's funnier than finding a rooster under your rental car in Hawaii? Three roosters. But they ran away before I could focus. © 2006 Ross Shafer

TakeGreatPictures: What do you like to shoot?

Shafer: My wife, Leah. She's a singer, country rock, and she's gorgeous. Anything I shoot of her makes me look like a great photographer. And we have some pretty animated animals -- a Mountain Burmese dog and a little Lhasa-poo [Lhasa Apso / Poodle mix]. They look hilarious together. We dress 'em up in stupid things, making them look way more intelligent that the breed permits. (chuckles)

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Leah's first CD was an experiment and had mixed messages. Some of the shots for it were serious and sexy, others playful and evasive. This is an example of the latter. © 2006 Ross Shafer

There's something about the magic of capturing history, or having some ownership of how a picture turns out. I've been photographed by a lot by people, and I ask wedding photographers, do you love your job? They've taken countless weddings. You'd think it'd just be a job. But those people love it. That they can make a living shooting pictures is the most amazing thing ever happened in their life. It's never the same wedding, never the same people. They're capturing what could really be the most important moment of a couple's life.

The wedding photographer for my nephew's wedding never showed up. I ended up, with my camera, being the wedding photographer. I'm pretending to be the wedding photographer. It was hard! What do they shoot? Oh, yeah the ring! The cake! I don't even know if I have permission to get right into the minister's face. Are you supposed to be that close? But I didn’t have a zoom, I couldn't be unobtrusive. It speaks to the idea that at a moment like that, you want a photographer so desperately you'll take somebody out of the pews to shoot an event like that.

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Me, as the wedding photographer at my nephew's wedding. At this moment, my nephew, Jared, realizes he has forgotten the rings. © 2006 Ross Shafer

TakeGreatPictures: Sounds like it worked out fine.

Shafer: Yeah, but I haven't sent them my bill! (laughs)

 


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