Interview: Sean M. Schmidt
SEAN M. SCHMIDT
Conducted July 2014
Issue No. 5 – September 2014
Rock and Roll. Skaters turning tricks on curbs at dusk. Salt and sweat, water straight from the hose. Hot coffee on hot days. Jeans, no shirt, no where to go. Up late with the windows open, trees outside his window in the night. Planning life from Brooklyn. Friends in the mountains, Hawaii, mom in the Midwest. Road trips through Canada, propeller planes in Asia. The middle of nowhere.
Sean M. Schmidt is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose portfolio can be found at www.seanmschmidt.com.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Between photo series set in Italy, Cambodia, Hawaii and the Deep South, you’ve developed a reputation as something of a go-anywhere, shoot-anything sort of photographer. What are some of the differences between shooting in a paradisiacal rural setting and an urban space like New York City? What are some of the distinct challenges presented by the places you’ve traveled?
SEAN M. SCHMIDT: Getting film through the security lines at the airport, asking for “hand checks” and generally not abandoning my girlfriend along whatever trip I am on, just to sneak off for a photo. I guess that is mainly what I am thinking while traveling. Getting time off work to travel isn’t easy, so when I do, I feel inspired to photograph, and don’t really stop to ask myself what is difficult about a place, even if things are difficult. Cities can be hard to photograph though because everyone is so paranoid these days. So it’s harder to do a certain kind of street photography. Rural scenes are hard because it becomes easier to take interesting landscape photographs instead of interesting people photographs.
BA: Do you find that making photography helps you become better acquainted with a place? In what way does the presence of a camera lens between yourself and your subjects transform the act of ‘seeing?’
SMS: I don’t think it does transform the act of seeing for me so much, but that’s because I am always seeing photographs when I don’t have a camera. “Would-be” photographs that I miss or don’t take. So the presence of a camera really doesn’t change what I am seeing, it just puts the pressure on and says, “OK, big boy, here’s your chance, are you gonna step up take this hard photograph or not?”
BA: Can you speak about your Cambodia project? This particular set harbors a kind of unanchored, melancholy mood apart from the rest of your work, yet consistent with the heaviness of life in a post-genocidal state. In what ways did Cambodia surprise you? How did that experience differ from working in the U.S. or Western Europe?
SMS: Cambodia surprised me in how much it felt like a culture that wants to modernize. The genocide isn’t discussed a lot in the US, but Cambodia is a young population, and there was glitzy TV programming even in the most rural places I visited. It felt like the culture wanted to move forward, even though I personally see a lot of value in their old way of life. On whole I thought photography was easier to do than other places I have lived in, because people just assume you’re another goofy tourist interested snapping cool shots of basic differences between the first and third worlds. Which, to some extent, is true of me too.
BA: Your portfolio shares a visual language with the American “snapshot aesthetic” —how informed is this comparison?
SMS: I think that’s what I am going for. Try to make a hard photograph look like it was easy.
BA: How do you interact with your human subjects in your photographs? Some pieces appear constructed as posed portraits, but others seem to have been taken in passing, particularly in your New York City archive. Where do you draw the line between the documentary and showing the author’s hand?
SMS: I try to stay out of it, but I definitely felt like I went through a Joel Sternfeld phase. I know how to make that posed street portrait possible through conversation, how to enter a person’s space and ask to photograph them. But generally I like this idea that I am hunting – trying to find and take photographs of interesting things without disrupting whatever they are.
BA: As an artist living and working in Brooklyn, what is it about New York City that invites such photographic obsession? The city has been shot to death and back for a century – how do you keep it fresh and avoid clichés?
SMS: Honestly, I try to limit my intake. But it seems like creative people think of things at the same time, which has a lot to do with why you see new aesthetic pop up instantly, trend all over Instagram and Tumblr, and then get adopted by brands for mass consumption soon after. Living in New York does feel like you are at the center of things- photography included. In New York you’re put in your place, because there is so much talent everywhere. A photographer gaining digital traction in Texas doesn’t feel the weight of all the talent people out in the world with the same magnitude of those working close to art and fashion communities in New York City. Their audience is still real, and jobs, and paychecks, but remote proximity to the powerhouse city can distort a photographer’s sense of importance. Talent is dense here, and the city doesn’t care about your come-up.
BA: You largely use analog film and older, cheaper cameras. It seems that we’re several years past the digital tipping point. What advantages and disadvantages do you see in continued reliance on older technologies? What does your typical analog process look like?
SMS: The advantage for me is that analog photography inspires me in a way digital doesn’t. The disadvantage is that you have to get good at asking for “hand checks.” My process also includes lunch hour walks to CRC Lab on 22nd to pick up film, and two to three hour scanning sessions where I play electronica music at inappropriate levels for a building with walls as thin as mine.
BA: On your Facebook profile, you describe your work as “Grimy Grungy Funky Shit,” and you oftentimes capture images of youth in rebellious context. What sparked your interest in documenting youth culture?
SMS: Hmm…It doesn’t feel like a conscious decision to document youth culture, though I suppose it is just what I relate to. Staying young, having fun, freewheeling around. There is some rebellion in what I am seeing as a photographer, I think there is also some alienation, some humor, and a silence about my photographs. Even in my really punchy, noisy looking shots, it stills seems like there is something quiet underneath them.
BA: You have developed a following and a popular rapport through social sites such as Tumblr and Flickr. Can you speak to the usefulness of online networking in photography?
SMS: I have a lot to learn. See above – living in New York and being surrounded by avenues and avenues of success people. My photographs have an acquired taste to them, but I like to think that ‘real recognize real,’ you know? Essentially I feel like the photographs that are really good, will get seen. Somehow, eventually, they find their way on their own. If you are counting on stardom or trying to make a reputation for paid work, then social sites can be very useful as a networking tool. The analytic reporting from some digital platforms can be very interesting. I’m amused that the photos get seen, and happy when people respond to them.
BA: What advice do you have for young photographers who are trying to document their own neighborhoods and cities?
SMS: I guess I would just say good job for being interested in something, and don’t do hard drugs. Assume no one will ever care about your photography and ask yourself if you are still inspired? After you eliminate all the things you photograph because you think it will help you gain fans or followers or jobs or money, you are left with what you should be photographing all along. Don’t deviate from that.