ERIC SCHAEFFER: VISUAL STRUCTURE
Eric J. Schaeffer is a remarkable photographic artist who I met on Google Plus. I absolutely love his photos which are very textural and design oriented. He has a very specific process and you’ll be surprised to discover what he uses to take his photographs which are truly works of art. But first …
“ … If only today’s society placed more value on artists and the work they create. I despair sometimes that Americans seem to be caught up in chasing this year’s shiny new commercial product rather than supporting art and artists …”
MICHAEL: Hello Eric, I love your work. You capture portions of things in your photography and yet within the frame, there's an entire world of texture, pattern and design. You seem to be really taken by form. What's going on?
ERIC: Thank you. Yeah, you hit one of my main interests right off. I am fascinated by the underlying visual structure in photographs. I love how the structure or the lines of the objects in a photo, lead your eye around the image. I like the dance your eye does as it moves around a photo.
I am especially interested composition, with how the structure of an image is arranged within the context of a frame. I like the tension between the structure and frame and how a still image can become dynamic and almost move when the image is balanced just right within the frame. So yeah, I am really taken by form. Actually, often, I am more interested in the forms and structure of a photo than I am of a photo’s subject. Of course, I don’t completely ignore subject matter.
MICHAEL: What I'm hearing you say is that you like the architecture of images. Yet when looking at your work, I don't get any sense that you're trying to deconstruct anything. The integrity of the image remains, which makes it humanly appealing. It's not scientific. No?
ERIC: When I say the architecture of a photo is often more important than the subject, I don’t mean that the subject is distorted or obscured. Usually the objects in my photos are recognizable, they are just not always the focus of the photo in themselves. I’ll try to expand on this because it touches on a number of aspects that I’m trying to bring to my photos.
Many of my photos are of ordinary and overlooked pieces of the everyday world around us. I don’t put an “important” object front and center. I shoot an offbeat object or an off center scene, but then try to enhance the importance by emphasizing the visual structure of the image. I don’t know if this makes any sense.
MICHAEL: I’m with you.
ERIC: Someone once called me an “Offhand Abstract Snapshooter.” A description which seems to fit because I do snap offhand photos which are abstract in nature. I don’t plan my photos. I go on a walk and shoot whatever catches my eye. In my other artistic endeavors, I’ve been all about strategies and planning. Marcel Duchamp and Brian Eno have been huge influences on me with the way they used strategies to guide the work they did while producing a piece of art or music. By contrast, my current adventure in photography is all about unplanned randomness. My only strategy or rule is that I have to shoot a “scene” the way I find it. I can’t touch or rearrange objects. It’s kind of like in golf where you have to play the ball where it lies. And I almost never return to shoot the same “object” a second time. I do pay attention to the light and the time of day when I go for a photo walk, but even so, I have to shoot something when I see it - even if the light isn’t quite right. I have this strange notion that there is more energy in a photo when it is taken in the moment of discovery rather than when planned.
Oh yeah, there is another strategy that I use. I’m limiting myself to a small set of tools. For my camera, I use my smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy S3, which I think takes remarkably good photos as long as I work within its range. The phone is super portable and I always have it with me. It’s a challenge using my phone in the bright daylight when I can’t see the image on the screen, but that adds to the fun. When I can see the image on my screen, I really try to compose the frame. When I can’t see the image, I point and hope that I can get a good image when I edit the photos.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. Art from a smartphone.
ERIC: Obviously, using a smartphone means I’m editing digital images. Years ago, when I used actual film, I spent many hours in a dark room with smelly chemicals when I edited my photos. Now I spend many hours in front of my computer screen clicking a mouse. For editing, I almost exclusively use the Google Plus photo editor AKA Picasa. I try to work in the cloud as much as possible and as noted I’m trying to work with a limited set of tools. The Google Plus editor has just the right amount of easy to use tools for me. Actually, I don’t use all the functions available. Like I said, I try to keep it simple.
Okay, I’ll admit that I get overwhelmed by heavy duty image programs like Gimp or Photoshop. When I try these programs, there are so many options that my small brain gets lost and I can’t decide which option to use. This is probably why I like minimalism so much; it’s a way for me to simplify a complex world.
You mentioned “architecture” and “humanly” which made me think that I tend to shoot a lot of man-made objects. I have a thing for lines and man- made things, especially buildings, which are all about lines and angles. I do take some shots of nature though, some landscapes and seascapes. I'm also a sucker for clouds and sunsets. I spend a lot of time between the ocean and a bay so clouds over the ocean and sunsets over the bay are very common. Photographing sunsets may not be random, but they look cool.
I wanted to loop back to deconstruction. For some photos I do spend a lot of time on a kind of deconstruction, I will keep pushing and pulling and treating an image until the details begin to decay into a kind of “Grunge Pointillism.” The objects remain recognizable, but the details are hyped and decayed. It’s my homage to Impressionism. “Big Dave’s Cube” and “Reconstruction” are two examples. I like to keep an image recognizable, but push it until it begins to dissolve. My hope is, if I do it right, that the eye will see the image change between realism and abstraction. Again, this is only for some of my photos. Other times, I’m trying to make my photos crisper and brighter. But whatever it is, I’m usually improvising and just trying to bring out what feels right about the photo.
MICHAEL: That was a brilliant explanation of your process. You know Eric, so many people these days are photographing and documenting things. Do you ever wonder whether you're actually missing reality because you're so busy photographing it?
ERIC: No, I don't feel this way. I don't consider myself as documenting life. I use a camera device to make images. Does a painter feel like they're missing reality when they're in their studio painting a canvas? Does a writer feel like they're missing reality when they're composing words? Maybe some do. But artists make things. And it takes some time to make those things. I do other things besides making images. For instance, I like to cook. I also spend time with my wife and kids.
MICHAEL: Understood. However, what do you think of the fact that everyone and their grandmother has a camera these days? Everyone is snapping away all of the time. Social media almost feels like noise with all of the images.
ERIC: I think it's great! The more the merrier. This is an exciting time. Social media should be a field day for sociologists. I'm reminded of an account I read many years ago by an anthropologist who visited an isolated tribe in the remote Amazon region. The anthropologist took Polaroid photos of the tribe members and showed the photos to them. At first, the tribe members could not "see" the photos, having never seen two dimensional pictures before, but they very quickly adjusted and became fascinated with the pictures of themselves. I don't know how this connects, other than that the explosion of social media is a new phenomenon and who knows where it will lead? I like to think people will learn something positive about themselves and society will get better because of social media. Doubtful, but then I'm an optimist.
However, I've been trying to think if there is a new or different aesthetic for online photography. As you may know, I'm very active in a number of Google Plus photo communities. I'm intrigued by the constant flow of posted photos. There are a lot of photos, my own included, which fit the moment, but are not necessarily something I would want to look at again and again. So I'm wondering if I should adjust my aesthetics away from individual photos to that of a stream of photos or a collection of work. Maybe it's like an auteur aesthetic, but that's not quite it either. I'm tempted to say it's a bit like music, an art form that happens over time. You have individual photos, but they make more "sense" when taken in the context of a number of photos. I may be totally off base, but, just something I've wondered about.
MICHAEL: That’s what artist websites are for. When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist?
ERIC: I think it was an evolutionary process. I’ve always been interested in art. As a kid, I would draw and make things, but nothing I’d call art. My parents took me to a lot of art museums and that influenced me. In high school, I started doing photography and was the photographer for the school newspaper.
Through my teens and twenties, I continued taking photos, studied art on my own and took classes in watercolor and screen printing. I did some painting on canvas with acrylics and showed my work in some local juried shows. Even so, making art wasn’t my main focus and I didn’t really think of myself as an artist or think about a career in the arts until after I finally finished college and ended up working in theatre. I had a lot of varied artistic interests and theatre was a place I could use my different talents. I always worked on the technical side of theatre as acting is definitely not one of my talents.
By chance, I got the opportunity to design the setting for a play and I discovered I had a talent for theatrical set design and I continued in that direction. After designing and working in theatre for a while, it occurred to me that I must be an artist because I’d been working as one for several years. So, looking back, I realize that I’ve always been an artist even though I didn’t think that about myself early on.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world and how it functions? Do you feel like you're part of the actual art community? Socially?
ERIC: Well I’m still in a transitional period, moving from one art world to another, so I have a couple of different answers.
About what I think of the contemporary art world and how it functions? After three decades of working in the not-for-profit art world, specifically regional theatre and with an awareness of other regional arts organizations, I have become somewhat jaded and despaired about what’s happening with the arts in America these days. So many arts organizations are struggling to stay alive in the current socio-economic and political environment. Groups are cutting programming and many are closing which I think is a loss to the communities they are in.
As for the photography world that I’m returning to, I’m still very new, but I’m very excited by what’s happening in the online world. I’m very active in several Google Plus photo communities and I’m continually surprised by the vibrancy and creativity that is happening every day all around the world. I think there has been a virtual explosion of the number of photographers that are sharing their work online.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed.
ERIC: The internet with places like Google Plus and the new Ello community are the perfect venues for photographers because the internet is a very visual medium. All you need is an internet connection and a way to digitize your images and you can instantly share your photos to an audience of like minded people around the globe.
I’m especially familiar with Google Plus and it amazes me how many different photo communities have sprung up in just the past couple of years. Each with hundreds and thousands of members. Plus, with the ability for people to add each other to their own personal stream, it’s easy to build up your own community of other similarly minded photographers with whom you can show your work, see the work of others and comment on each other’s work.
So yeah, I do feel like I'm part of an actual art community. And the cool thing is that the community really is international. I regularly see and share work with people in the U.S., some actually close geographically to me, as well as photographers from South America, Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia. It astonishes me how many people from all over the globe have similar aesthetics in photography. And it’s uncanny how these far-flung people can end up photographing the same basic subject on the same day. The modern world can be a wonderful place.
Now, I can’t go the pub on Saturday night with these artists the same as I did with the people I directly worked with in theatre so in this regard the online world is not social, but I still think of it as a community. As I go along, I hope to get more involved with the photography world in my area in addition to the online world, but the online world is what I know now.
MICHAEL: Finally Eric, What role do you think art plays in the world? Is there a point to art even when it doesn't sell or make it into exhibitions?
ERIC: “Is there a point to art?” People want more than the necessities of life they want a more beautiful world and art is what helps bring beauty to the world. Art is more than a painting hanging in a museum. We are surrounded by art whether we think about it or not. From the clothes we wear, the houses we live in and the cars we drive, to the products we buy and the packages those products come in. All of these things are shaped by artists. It would be a pretty dull world if there were no art.
To me, art is a fundamental part of life. I think people have been making art since the dawn of human society. Art is a way of explaining or revealing or at least commenting on the world around us and a way of communicating that awareness to others. It’s what people do. They talk to each other about their lives. But art is more than basic communication. Art is like, I don’t know how to explain it, but art is like the icing on the cake.
Art, be it visual, musical or performance, makes us pause for a moment and contemplate what it means to be human. Or at least I think it should remind us about our human experience and by so doing, makes us more aware of ourselves and others. Which, hopefully, encourages us to make the world a better place. Maybe this is too much of a noble platitude, but I think art is important, regardless of whether it’s exhibited or bought and sold. Art is its own reward.
Art, with a capital “A,” brings more than just beauty. It also makes people feel and think. I have nothing against art with a small “a.” I think there’s a place for “pretty things,” but I also want things that are more than just pretty. The icing on the cake should also taste good and if it happens to be nutritious, all the better.
For better or worse, artists are people who have a special need and, hopefully, special talent to express some of the human experience to others, be it through visual images, music, performance or design. If only today’s society placed more value on artists and the work they create. I despair sometimes that Americans seem to be caught up in chasing this year’s shiny new commercial product rather than supporting art and artists. It’s disheartening when I think there seems to be an attitude in this country that art is bad for people and should be starved out. But that’s a diatribe for another interview. When life and things like this get me down, art lifts me up and I think the world’s not such a bad place after all.
MICHAEL: I totally agree. Thanks Eric. I’ve enjoyed our chat.
ERIC: I want you to know that I’ve had a great time ... You’ve made me think about things that I hadn’t considered before. And I want to thank you for doing your part in bringing an awareness of art to the world. All the best.