“I started as a documentary photographer,” Schulze says, “and I looked at wedding photography as the lowest on the totem pole, like the worst thing in the world. But now it’s just this incredible space. We get to walk in, and there’s all of this real emotion and anticipation and expectation, and it’s all there. Like Cartier-Bresson said, you see, you feel, and, if it’s right, you respond.”
When a bride and groom host a world-class destination wedding, they expect a lot from their photographers. The smartest among these happy couples, a dozen or so each year, hire world-class artists, such as the team of James x Schulze, a partnership between James Christianson and Otto Schulze, two longtime photographers, who joined forces four years ago after more than a decade in direct competition.
Their work blossomed as they quickly discovered the whole can be infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
“We cannot make the work without the collaboration,” Christianson says. “Because of the freedom. If you were to watch us work, it really is a dance. Maybe I’m connecting with the client and shooting a portrait while Otto’s over there crafting something, shooting hands and shooting different angles and working on composition. And then I do that for five minutes, and he steps in, and he’s doing the portrait, and I’m running around shooting from far away, or whatever. It really is a constant dance, back and forth. It allows us to make different types of imagery that we would never get.”
James x Schulze believe every wedding should look different because every wedding is different. So while their aesthetic remains consistent, they don’t seek to repeat the same scenarios over and over again.
“It’s not the same story,” Schulze says. “We have an aesthetic, and we’ve worked on that, that’s intentional. You struggle to do that, to get to what you like, but every wedding should feel different. It really should. There’s no need for us to impose our ideas on the wedding. They’re amazing. There are so many people, there’s so much going on, for like 10 hours. And because we do have a really high work ethic, when we start, it’s like a bell rings and you don’t stop shooting for 10 hours. We’re just shooting everything nonstop. But it’s because there’s so much going on, there’s no reason to stop. How can we stop?
“None of our images really takes long,” he continues. “We don’t set them up. So maybe that kind of speaks to that authenticity that you see. We are just very reactive. We don’t come into a wedding with preconceived ideas, like poses or we want it to look like this way. We don’t take the couple and say, ‘OK, look, here’s what we’re going to do.’ We really look to them, and then we just react.”
In their quest for veracity, the duo also defers to natural light.
“It’s available light for us almost all the way,” Schulze says. “Most of the work is just as it happens on the day. It’s rare that we get the opportunity to scout, and even when we do, on the day, things are different. That’s the thing with weddings, right? You can go Friday afternoon and look at the location, and then Saturday the light’s different. So, most of what you see by a very high percentage is just as it happens.
“Now, granted,” he adds, “we are lucky enough to shoot really high-end weddings, so the content—from the people to what they’re wearing to the location—all of it is pretty epic. So we really don’t have to do much interpreting of it. We’re very fortunate. Content is king, and so we get to really just explore the space.”
Though they rely on ambient light, their work has an incredibly refined aesthetic—especially viewed as a whole. Some individual images, however, are quite atypical of traditional wedding photography and even deliberately unrefined.
“The creative freedom that we have working as two very competent photographers is a total game changer,” Christianson says. “Because of expectations, people want the safe shot, they want that shot with mom or just the standard shot coming down the aisle, which doesn’t allow for creative freedom. And so what you get with James x Schulze really is the best of both worlds.”
“Creativity,” Schulze says, “it’s unbound, right? It’s not structured. Creativity just goes, or it stops being creative, by definition.
“You know the standard things are coming,” he continues. “The ceremony is coming, walking down the aisle is coming, the kiss, family photos, portraits, details…If I was on my own, or if James was, we could fulfill the assignment no problem. But the beauty with this is you really get to go off. I can just go photojournalistic straight up for two hours if I want. James will see what I’m doing, he’ll see what camera I have and he’ll go, OK, I need to start shaking hands and shooting people.”
With their natural light emphasis, James x Schulze are able to travel light. They carry Sony a7R IIIs and RX1 RIIs as well as a Hasselblad X1D, and they trade cameras as often as they change lenses.
“When we’re shooting, we’ll just be passing around cameras,” Schulze says. “He’ll just pass by me and grab it, and I’ll grab the one he has. Sometimes we’ll switch lenses, but for the most part it’s just ‘grab this.’ It’s nice because you can break it up creatively. And I’ll let James say what he wants to say about his beloved 50mm because he’s obsessed with the damn thing.”
“Otto is definitely the gearhead among us,” Christianson says with a laugh, “because to me, the camera is just the tool. But I’ve learned an awful lot about lens character and sharpness and image quality by Otto’s passion for that and drive to change it up. We recently bought the ZEISS 50mm f/1.4 Planar. It’s just a special lens, and 50mm has kind of always been my go-to. I probably shoot 80 percent of what I shoot with that 50. It’s going back to this idea that it’s kind of how our eye sees. I’m always saying the photograph doesn’t get in the way then, because it’s not a shift of perspective. It’s exactly how we see, or close enough.”
When asked what photographic skill each most admires in the other, Schulze immediately praises Christianson’s gift for portraiture.
“James has an incredible ability with people,” he says. “He really connects with them. And so when he shoots portraits, he gets something out of people that I don’t. I think for me, I get a little bit lost in frame and composition, and I think that James, he is obviously great at that as well, but I think for him it’s really the person that he’s after, and it shows. We shoot the same couples, but his images just have more life in them. He’s reacting to what people are giving him, and I think that his work is really full of life. Which I think is probably the most powerful aspect of photography.”
“The way we have our post-production responsibilities split up is I do all the culling,” Christianson says, “and then Otto does the edit. So I look at everything from start to finish—all the crap, all the good—and what I’m blown away by every single time is that, if there’s a master photographer between the two of us, it’s definitely Otto. Truly. I go through his work and throw out maybe a third of it. And then I’ll throw out two-thirds of mine. He’s in there literally crafting every image. We come into a space, and I’m struck by his ability to compose and put elements in a frame together. Every image is artwork, it’s designed. I’m a snappy shooter, connecting with people and snapping, where he’s composing. So it really is a great partnership. The kind of technical choice of highlighting really interesting and unique viewpoints is almost exclusively Otto. I don’t see that way.”
Christianson, in turn, admires the way Schulze is able to create stunning compositions that he simply would not see.
As their partnership has grown, each photographer says his work has become increasingly like the other’s.
“It’s not like it’s one or the other,” Schulze says. “James is exceptional at designing and composing as well, and I’m good with people, too. It’s just that there’s something really special about him there. I’ve watched myself develop in that area because of him, and I’ve watched him develop in other areas because of me. So now those lines are blurry. Some shots I’m like, did I make this or didn’t I? I don’t know. Whatever image I make or James makes, if he clicks the button or if I click it, I can honestly say James x Schulze produced the image. The only reason I was able to make that shot is because of the collaboration. If I was on my own, I wouldn’t make that shot.”
Schulze’s compositions often include atypical wedding images, such as a simple curl of hair, a vast landscape or the leaves on a tree. A couple’s wedding package is also sure to include images that are technically imperfect—out of focus, motion blurred or notably grainy. These imperfections have become a deliberate part of the James x Schulze aesthetic, a kind of wabi-sabi approach to wedding photography.
“My favorite photographer of all time is [Henri] Cartier-Bresson,” Schulze says, “and he’s made a point of saying he’s not a photographer, he’s a painter. And if you look at his work technically, it’s piss-poor. Most of it’s out of focus, but goodness me, the geometry, what it makes you feel, is profound. It’s a technical mess, but what comes through is the subject. It doesn’t even matter. It makes you feel something. That’s always been it for me with art, music, photography…If it doesn’t make me feel something, I just walk right by.”
”About a year and a half ago,” Christianson says, “we went and looked at our work and said, it’s too stale, too technical. So it’s been an intentional thing. I’ll say to Otto, ‘I’m going to shoot this at a 15th of a second,’ and he just knows, ‘OK, he’s shooting vibey images. I’m going to get, not safe, but I’m going to get crisp, sharp images of this moment.’ Because a bride would love that image, and ultimately I think they love that vibey, sexy, blurred image ultimately more. But if that’s all they see, they go ‘What else? What did we miss?’”
“You can’t bring in this collection of out-of-focus images and say, this is our art, have a nice day,” Schulze says. “It wouldn’t work. Our work is good. Exceptional quality. But it was just too good, too tight, you know? So bringing in this wiggle…It’s become really important to counterbalance it.”
High risk, high reward. This duo is able to do things no individual photographer could achieve on his or her own.
“The beauty of the partnership is,” Schulze says, “there’s an intuition that develops over time. It’s not hard anymore. When we shoot, it’s really quite effortless. I heard a guy say something a few years ago, he said ‘When you’re healthy you don’t feel your body.’ And I’ve found it to be true, and I think in how we work there’s no strain. I think trust is the thing at the bottom of it that settles the whole matter.”