Moving Forward, Looking Back

To commemorate his 25th year in photography, Howard Schatz is publishing a new book. A massive two-volume retrospective, Schatz Images: 25 Years includes work from 32 personal projects, as well as never-before-seen images from throughout his career. On these pages, we’re hosting our own mini-retrospective. Schatz had the very first cover of Digital Photo Pro in 2003, and since that issue, his work has been featured in the magazine and on the cover several more times, including this November 2014 issue. We’ve always been particularly struck with his ability to come up with a project and then create a body of work that has its own unique visual style. As a photographer, he lets the subject dictate his interpretation. Schatz spoke to us from Slovenia, where he was on press to monitor the printing of his life’s work.

DPP: There are a lot of images in this book, but even more had to be left out. How did you decide what made the cut?

Schatz: I’m very project-oriented, and I’ve done over 40 separate personal projects. We edited all my work, four million images, and I selected about a thousand. There were so many images and so many pages, we designed a two-book boxed set. A photographer really can’t see his work as clearly as an unbiased stranger can. So we hired a world-renowned photo editor to look at everything. My wife, Beverly, looked at everything, I looked at everything, and the photo editor looked at everything, and the only pictures in the book are those pictures that got no vetoes from any of us. We agreed what belonged. I feel like we made a really strong edit. I’m very proud of it.

DPP: I understand there are some previously unpublished images included.

Schatz: Lots of them. Even if you’ve seen all my books, you haven’t seen well more than half of these images. I asked the photo editor to find gems that we missed, and there were many. We change. We’re on a constant waveform. I’m a different person today than I was 25 years ago. In fact, what was wonderful about this project was, I was able to sort of see who I am and how I’ve grown and how I’ve changed and what I’ve learned. It was a really wonderful, rich endeavor.

DPP: What are the biggest differences between your early work and what you’re doing now?

Schatz: The question really can be answered by the difference between being a physician and being an artist. When you’re a doctor, it’s about getting it right, getting exactly the right diagnosis and doing the exact right treatment. Whereas in photography, there are no mistakes. In fact, it’s mistakes that make miracles. In photography, it’s often about getting it wrong. So, in a way, I’m much freer. I’m more open to all kinds of ideas and all kinds of things, I’m willing to try anything. I’ve become much more imaginative and creatively open. DPP: Some of our readers may not know that photography is your second career.

Schatz: Yes, I was a retinal surgeon. And, then, in 1995, having been working in photography just on the weekends for five or six years and having a lot of attention, Beverly suggested we take a sabbatical for a year, go to New York and just do photography full time. And it was so much fun. We would go to bed giggling every night over the fun, the adventure. I kept re-upping the sabbatical, and I never looked back. It has been 19 years.

DPP: From the beginning, was it always about personal projects?

Schatz: When you do a commercial project, you’re really photographing somebody else’s dreams, their fantasy, their desires. So, in a way, when I do an advertising shoot, I’m a contractor; just like a contractor in a house has to follow the architectural plans, I, as the photographer, have to skillfully, technically follow the art director’s plans. So they’re not my pictures. Occasionally, an art director will let go and I’ll make something that comes from me, but what I do is, I shoot for myself. The advertising work is so that I can pay to shoot for myself.

DPP: Finding the time and energy to pursue personal projects is a challenge for many photographers.

Schatz: My main goal is to do that. I shoot five days a week, and commercial and editorial work sort of just get in the way. I don’t need to do commercial work all the time. I just need one good job every week or two weeks or month, depending on how well it pays. And I still have plenty of time to do my own work. I shoot all the time and I don’t feel like I’m prolific. I know I’ve produced a lot of work, but I feel like it’s just natural. I’m shooting all the time; it seems only natural that some good images would come from that.

DPP: I know there’s no chance you’re slowing down, but was there any hesitation to look back?

Schatz: Well, it was fun, and it was sickening. With my early stuff, I went "Oh, why did I do that?" I can’t believe I was doing that. I’ve learned a lot in 25 years! You can see in the book there’s lots of stuff that nobody has ever seen. There’s stuff like the "Growing Up" project and "Folsom Street Fair." I’ve never shown it, but I’ve been shooting it for 20 years. There are so many images from the Folsom Street Fair that are fantastic, that’s my next book. There are a lot of parts to me. As long as I’m working all the time, I feel like I’m reasonably productive and I can make some good stuff. DPP: Is your story the old standby, "Guy quits his day job to pursue his passion?"

Schatz: My day job was passionate, too. I loved medicine, I loved what I did. I taught, I did clinical research, I saw patients with rare problems. It was exciting, it was meaningful, and I thought I was doing some good in the world. I very much loved being a physician and doing something important, and helping people. But I also had this other thing, this burning desire to make pictures. And so when my second daughter went off to college, I felt I could take a weekend day away from medicine, and just do photography one day a week. That’s how I started. I get calls and letters all the time from all kinds of professions, but especially physicians and lawyers: How do I get out? I want to do photography! I tell everybody don’t cut the cord. I didn’t cut the cord. I took a year’s sabbatical with the agreement that I could come back. They said okay, and each year I got that agreement. For five or six years, I still didn’t cut the cord. I would have been able to come back if I had wanted to. It took that long for me to realize I really can do this full time. Even though walking away from medicine was difficult and painful, and I still miss it, I just love photography so much and making these images that excite me, that it flows naturally.

DPP: I don’t want to burst your bubble, but I don’t think you’re going back.

Schatz: No. I’m still interested, but I’ve stayed very close with my close friends in retina, but my desire is to continue to make images that surprise and delight me. As a physician, I was very tight, very perfectionistic. Doing a shoot, it’s important to be perfectionistic when you’re setting things up for your lighting and all, but then once you’ve got that, you can let go and be crazy and goof around and try thin
gs.

DPP: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you make books. The book is the thing for you, no?

Schatz: No! The joy is in the journey! For me, it’s the making of the images. The challenge is to shoot to surprise and delight myself. That’s why I’m a photographer. I try to make things up so I go, oh, wow, this is something. Now the book is just sort of an afterthought. Many times, Beverly will say, "You know, you’ve got a whole body of work here, let me go take it to a publisher." And I beg her, no, I’ve got more shooting to do, more searching to do, more exploration. But, eventually, she’ll say okay, it’s time. So the book is very important to me because it’s a very powerful calling card, and it has brought us work and exhibitions and gallery shows, but for me, it’s the process, it’s the journey, it’s the making of the images. But this book, I’m really excited about this book. I think it will be fantastic. The publisher is printing 500 that will be signed and numbered, and then she’s going to print another few hundred for Amazon and some bookstores and stuff. She feels pretty strongly that it will sell out. And on the website, there are already pre-orders for 60 or 70 books. DPP: I remember the first photograph of yours I saw. It was the redhead image on the cover of Communication Arts in 1995 or so. It seems like yesterday.

Schatz: That’s nice of you. My first project was to learn black-and-white photography, and it was a project called "Gifted Woman." And my second project was to learn color photography, and that’s when I did the "Redheads" project. Time does go by too fast, doesn’t it. I’ve been shooting since around 1988 or 89.

DPP: What’s the secret to having so many passionate personal projects going on simultaneously, and how do you distinguish between what’s fertile ground for a project and something that might just be a passing fancy?

Schatz: Passing fancies occur. I start a project and I realize that I’ve covered it right away and there isn’t much more to it. That happens; it has happened probably a hundred times. But you can’t do one project and photograph every day. For instance, the boxing book took six years. I couldn’t get a boxer in my studio every day, I couldn’t go to Madison Square Garden and shoot from ringside every night. I do five or six projects at once in order to fill my time so that every day I’m shooting something. There’s an old saying, a page a day is a book in a year. I just keep working and working, and eventually a project reaches fruition with plenty of images while other projects are going on.

DPP: I wonder if it allows you to delve deeper, too. You’re less likely to tire of a subject quickly.

Schatz: I would agree with that. Being tenacious and spending a lot of time on something, the more time you spend on it, the more you learn, the more you see, the more you can do. The longer something takes, the better, in my opinion. You do something down and dirty, quick and simple, it’s never very interesting.

DPP: Is there any other new work in the book?

Schatz: There’s a lot of new stuff in there. The Club stuff I had put on the website, but a lot of it was left off. And there’s also architecture and locations, which I’ve never shown anybody. I carry a camera all the time, and I’m shooting all day long. When we did this edit, we got to look at a lot of projects that I haven’t edited, that I haven’t finished. One is the "Growing Up" project, which I’ve been doing for 22 years, following about 300 kids. They come every year. I have them write a little diary of their life. I’m going to continue to shoot until the last of them is 20, and then I’ll look at the images and try to put it together. I’ve got a whole bunch of other projects that I haven’t even put in the book because I wasn’t ready to show any of it.

You can see more of Howard Schatz’s work and order his latest book at www.howardschatz.com.

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