Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Afternoon With Howard Schatz

Howard Schatz is in the Barn shooting portraits. The editorial and commercial photographer has been a regular guest at the Workshop since 2000, after Eddie Adams walked up to him one day and said: "I want to be like you." Now he's working up a series of afternoon portraits, each of them silhouettes of staff and students standing in profile against a bright 4-by-6-foot soft box.

“It’s a way of my saying thanks," Schatz explains. Later, he'll take the best of the day's playful portraits back to his Soho studio and transform them into a collage that commemorates this year's Barnstorm. (Anyone who participated will get an email from Schatz with a thank you and a ftp link to the finished hi-res image.) “It’s fun. I get to shake everybody’s hand, talk to everybody a little bit, it’s sort of a family and nice.”

This morning, the photographer drove up to the Farm and gave a lecture about his work, showing highlights just from the last year of assignments and personal projects: elegant pictures of pregnant women, boxers immediately before and after stepping into the ring, prisoners behind bars, a series on actors improvising to Schatz's directions, plus excerpts from many years of dreamy underwater photographs.

Schatz is accepting applications for a year-long internship at his studio. Between some of today's silhouette sittings, Schatz spoke about the Barnstorm experience and why he keeps coming back.

How are Workshop people as subjects?

They are creative. I let them be creative and crazy. I never say no, no, don’t do that. I say, good, good, let's try. What’s going to happen? I’m positive and reinforcing all the time. It makes you feel sort of nice. It’s a win-win, happy few hours.

How did you meet Eddie Adams?

Eddie came up to me and said something nice. He paid me a compliment that was a little remarkable coming from him. But we became friends. There was a lot of mutual respect. I felt lucky. He said: “I want to be like you.” He was just saying, you’ve done really nicely, and I’d like you to participate, I want people in photojournalism to see all the other possibilities of photography.

Is there something special about facing an audience of students and your professional peers?

Students are like sponges, but I’m very aware of the peers. I’m very aware that an editor from National Geographic is here. I’m very aware that Jimmy Colton from Sports Illustrated is here. I’m very aware there’s people from Reuters and AP and Corbis and magazines. So I am conscious of that when I put the talk together. The students will appreciate many, many things, but somebody who’s been out there and seen many things … I shoot to surprise and delight myself. It’s hard to surprise and delight people who look at 10,000 pictures a week. It’s like when a bunch of comedians get together and go,
"That’s a good joke, that will work." You don’t hear them laugh too much.

Why do you keep coming back?

I’m hooked. It’s an addiction. I like sitting around talking to people. At dinner tonight, you can sit around talking to people. Six or seven conversations will be meaningful for me. "What are you doing?" is a question you can ask anybody, and it will come out interesting.

A lot of people know your work underwater, but you do a variety of things photographically, from portraits to reportage.

I am voracious. I’m interested in lots of things. I’m interested in the prisoners, and I’m interested in the boxers and the actors. But you can’t do one project. I can only get a boxer in my studio once every other week. A pregnant woman doesn’t come along every day. We can’t go into the prison every day -- we go once every month or two. I shoot all the time. John Kenneth Galbraith, the great economist who died at 96, after having written about 48 books, said a page a day is about a book in a year. I started to work like that, constantly accumulating. The nice thing about doing a project over a long time is you learn things. And I learn about me.

Do you have a core philosophy about photography?

Self-doubt is a huge toxin to creativity. The brother of self-doubt is imagining the eyes of others. If you think someone else is going to look at it, you go "What do they think? Should I do that they’ll like? What should I do that will be popular?" You have to dig inside and find it yourself.

You can’t prepare too much. If you put a lecture together, and you’ve gone over it three or four times, and you have time to go over it a fifth time, do it. A sixth time? Do it. Seventh time? Do it. You can’t prepare too much.

The third thing is the huge advantage I call the brass-butt syndrome. To be able to sit one place and not get up, do the self-sacrifice and do the work. You just sit and do it. There is something about staying focused and being able to work and work and work and put certain things out. And Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge. If you can let yourself go and not be constricted by rules and assumptions, you have a greater chance to create unusual things that are special.

Steve Appleford

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