From Fashion Week To The Front In Ukraine: The Watches Of Photographer Mr Robert Spangle
Mr Robert Spangle is one of those men whose wealth of life experience is just waiting to be turned into a biographical novel. The 33-year-old, Los Angeles-based photographer of Thousand Yard Style fame – a platform that documents his extensive travels as a photojournalist, roving reporter and menswear enthusiast – is somewhat of a career chameleon. He signed up to the United States Marine Corps aged just 17. He’s worked on Savile Row as a tailoring assistant. He’s got a qualification in fashion design. And he’s worked in conflict zones as a photographer, documenting real-life scenarios in a fascinating light.
“I’ve always just followed whatever I was interested in,” Spangle tells MR PORTER. “But I’ve also realised that it takes a certain amount of time in a specific field to find out whether I’m really interested in doing it, or whether it’s just leading me to the next thing. The Marines was four years of my life; a tough four years. I don’t think soldiering was ever meant to be my profession, but I enjoyed it.
“I studied fashion design at university for two years, but quickly realised that I wasn’t as interested in fashion as much as I was in tailoring. So, I started doing some research, which eventually took me to Savile Row, where I worked for about a year and a half. That was fascinating. But I also realised that I don’t actually have the attention span to sit there and become a master tailor over the course of 20 years. So in that time, I got into photography and that led to working as a fashion photographer, which led to doing more reportage journalism to then covering conflicts. I guess the short answer is that I’ve put a lot of energy and effort into finding what I’m really passionate about and then I’ve just let that lead me from one thing to the next.”
“My first assignment covering conflict was in Iraq in 2017. A friend of mine who was a former Marine and a journalist for The Washington Post invited me to go with him. On the principle of being a person who doesn’t say no to things, I went and that was really eye-opening. I’ve always had a focus on men’s style and the ‘spirit of men’. This arena of conflict, even though it was often dark, desperate and a bit dangerous, it really was the best environment to look at men's relationship to spirituality through conflict, through camaraderie.”
Mr Robert Spangle in Nuristan province, Afghanistan in August 2022. Photograph by Mr Robert Spangle
Spangle’s penchant for photography, in particular capturing unfiltered, raw and emotional events with an unparalleled human element, has seen his work celebrated in some of the world’s biggest publications. If you visit his Instagram page, his feed is tastefully balanced between fashion-week street style and candid images of men in war-torn countries. His latest reportage of conflict included unprecedented access on the frontlines with those fighting the war in Ukraine.
“I had been keeping tabs on the happenings in Ukraine prior to the actual war unfolding and I thought to myself, this could become a major thing. So, I pitched a story to Esquire magazine about heading over to Ukraine as the war was escalating. I pitched the idea of telling the story of the guys on the frontline, whether they’re volunteers, professionals, military, militia and what have you, as well as the idea of how young people in Ukraine were handling and expressing the tension of a potential war.
“I expected the assignment would take three weeks, maybe a month. I think everyone expected the war to be over by then and Russia to have won. I wound up staying over there for almost three months, which, I’m not gonna say time flies when you’re having fun, but when things are evolving at that pace every single day and there is just so much going on, you don’t notice that the days and weeks go by.
“Everyone’s immediate concern was that Kyiv was going to be taken. The Russians had surrounded it and basically controlled 60 per cent of the area around Kyiv. And there was definitely a point when it was looking very likely that they would prevail. But the Ukrainians managed to stall them long enough that the offensive faltered. So, the five or six weeks into the invasion, the Ukrainians started to go on the offensive.
“My passion for watches started by owning really bad watches”
“It was very hard to get access. Part of that was a safety concern; we had quite a few journalists killed during the onset of the war. Those were very sobering facts. The Ukrainian administrative defence wouldn’t allow any journalists to embed with the frontline military. So it was very hard to tell a story. And my only interest out there really was the story of the Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline; I was interested in looking at what these guys go through spiritually preparing for combat. And when they are in combat, what is it they find that pushes them forward? Do they go through moments of self-confrontation before they go into the arena?
“My personal experience is that people know very little of themselves before they go into a real moment of combat or conflict. And that can be different things to different people, but it’s definitely an honesty of self-discovery, right? You see these men, of all ages, some practically young boys, having to go through the process of confronting their own mortality and really deciding on what is it they believe in and if this something that they’re going to pin their life to.
“The other aspect of it is this is history and it’s the one case where a photographer can say, ‘If you are not there to take that picture to tell that story, that story may very well likely never be told.’ Personally, I had a lot of experience with documentary work, so I sort of knew how to work in those kinds of environments. But you have to be really thorough and you have to be really applied in assessing what’s safe to do and what’s not safe to do. That’s foremost. It’s very easy to go in these things without a lot of planning and get yourself hurt and therefore possibly get other people hurt.
“The other part of it is just really committing to your reasons for being there. And if your reason for being there is valid, you have to do the best job you possibly can. People have entrusted you with the story of their life and perhaps what could be the most important page of history in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. And you have to do your absolute best job with that.”
Watches have always played an intrinsic role in Spangle’s professions, past and present. But while he enjoys them immensely, they are first and foremost a tool. He doesn’t like them flashy or impractical, but sturdy and rugged; the type that can be put through its paces. Early on during his time as a Marine, he had a watch fall off his wrist during a training task; a simple mistake that cost him 2,500 push ups – “it was going to be really great when the enemy discovered my lost Navy Seal watch”. That incident sparked an endless passion to only carry the best tools on his missions (or expeditions), including his watch.
“My passion for watches started by owning really bad watches,” he says. “You needed to have a watch as soon as you joined the Marines; you’re obliged to wear a watch. So, I went out and got my first watch and it was a Navy Seal special – I won’t say the brand name. It was terrible. It fell off and I lost it. I then had a G-Shock, but it wasn’t very comfortable. The guys in my unit were also complaining about the watches that they were issued by a brand called Marathon.
“Being the youngest guy in my unit by many years and the most junior in terms of rank, I was given a lot of duties. One was having to research and write an eight-page brief on why Force Recon needed a new watch. So, I was getting into forums for the first time and I spoke with the divers to see what they needed. I discovered this company called MKII. They were making benchmark watches in the US classic military references, but also referencing classic Rolexes and stuff like that. That got me falling into a geeky rabbit hole where I started to really appreciate watches.
“My first watch that I was proud to buy and which I still wear is called the Sea Fighter; it’s from MKII and it’s my military watch. This is what I had in my last deployment to Afghanistan. It’s way too big for a guy with tiny wrists like me, but this was the first watch that I did a bit of research on and really the watch I desired and then acquired.
“One watch I wear quite often these days is my Omega Speedmaster. That was the first non-vintage, high-end watch that I bought. And how do you not fall in love with the history of the Moon landing? I’ve carried it on almost every conflict assignment I’ve been on.
“As I was getting into fashion, I was always paying attention to what watches people were wearing, what I was seeing on the street and what was interesting to me. And it’s just been a steady kind of obsession in my life. I would say for someone who travels a lot, watches are one of the few consistent things in your life. When I travel, I leave my car behind, I leave my house behind, I leave my things behind. It’s often just one bag and maybe two cameras, but I always have a watch.”
Ressence Type 5BB Automatic
“The innovative engineering and non-referential designs behind Ressence have always impressed me,” Spangle says. “The visual hierarchy of the Type 5BB is excellent and amplified by the oil-driven mechanism. While it might seem a little techy, I can see it performing really well in the water and extreme temperatures. Titanium is a favourite material of mine both for its light weight and the way it patinas as well. The slick case design also means the watch won’t snag when you’re running around. I could see the 5BB just as easily paired with the ACRONYM technical jackets that I wear in the field as I could with a minimal, tailored dark-coloured suit from Saman Amel. Black loafers, no socks, no pocket square, black gabardine tie and some light-coloured, Scandinavian-style sunglasses.”
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic
“I saw a beautiful Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso this past summer in Italy and fell for it slowly. While it's achingly elegant and even ornate, its origins are as a tool watch. The ability to turn the watch face inwards for protection or discretion would be incredibly handy. I also have a real soft spot for hand engraving, I’d love to have Jesús Serrato in Rome engrave the rotating case back with something personal.”
Panerai Luminor Marina TuttoGrigio Automatic
“The first fine watch I ever saw in person was a Panerai on my first deployment to Afghanistan as a Marine in 2009. We were stationed on a remote base with a company of Italian Alpini. One of their officers wore one and I marvelled at it. Panerais have been on my mind ever since. The more muted and stealthy combination of titanium and anthracite tones down the scale of the watch, but doesn’t reduce its wonder as a design object. The combination of heavily domed crystal and powerful Luminor illumination adds to legibility at night, which is more important than you might think when working far from the power grid. This is the kind of watch you roll your sleeves up for. I can see wearing this on more demanding assignments, hitting the water or touring on a motorcycle.”