Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of photographer Bill Schwab. Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Detroit, Michigan and it and the surrounding area have been home for much of my life. An incredible place to be a photographer. The Ford Motor Company was the way of life for three generations of my family and I am the first to not have some role in making cars. The camera has been pretty much my life from early on and it has introduced me to some pretty remarkable people and places. I’ve spent over 40 years working with one now, had photographs published and collected the world over, yet it still feels vibrant and new to me. I lead trips to exotic places for photographers, teach various photographic processes and publish the work of other photographers under my own imprint. Through all of this, I have founded the Photostock Gathering, an annual photographic event in Northern Michigan that now draws photographers of all experience levels from far and wide. Recently, I built a workshop facility on my property in the north and am now involved in bringing some of the best at what we do to teach courses. I have no complaints. It’s been an extremely rewarding career so far and I consider myself very fortunate.
How did you get started photography?
My father’s side of the family was very much into photography. My Great Grandfather, Frederic C. Lutge had a portrait studio in late 19th and early 20th century Detroit and it branched out from there. My father always had interesting cameras and my uncle had a darkroom. I was fascinated by the gear. Even when I was too young to have a camera, I would draw pictures of them. After cutting them out I would pretend to use them and then draw the pictures “taken” with my cut out cameras and show them to people. Apparently I was hooked at an early age, but it wasn’t until I was twelve that I started processing and contact printing my own film from an old Ansco kit. After that, it is all a blur.
Did your family and childhood affect your decision to become an artist?
Very much so. Growing up in Detroit, pretty much everyone worked in the automobile manufacturing industry and I knew very well at a young age that wasn’t going to be my destiny. I can remember very clearly my dad asking me what I wanted to be at about age five. I said that I would get a job like his and he basically said, no way. Then there was my mom with her unbridled curiosity. She was an early news junky and I seriously think she missed her calling by not going into journalism. The major happenings of the day were right there on the TV during dinner and I was very aware and interested in what was going on. We had subscriptions to Life Magazine and Look and I loved to go through the pages looking at the photographs. I got a really early sense of what great photography was and how it could document and change the world. This was in the mid to late 60s and in those pages I saw everything from the Vietnam War to Woodstock to the war in the streets here in the U.S.. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. . . the riots right in my hometown of Detroit. All of this had a huge impact on me. My very early interest was in journalism and documentary photography. I wanted to experience these things and have those be my pictures on the pages of the magazines. However, it wasn’t until I began high school that I really began to seriously think of photography as a career. That was where I was able to take my first photo classes. I worked for the school newspaper and the year book and saw that this was actually something I could do well. I was also very lucky to have in the Detroit area one of the first galleries devoted to photography, which later became the first representative of my personal work. The Halsted Gallery came onto my radar as I was getting interested in the great landscape photographers. Ansel Adams was very hot at that period of the middle seventies and I saw in the paper that he was appearing at the Halsted Gallery. It was amazing, but when I got there, I couldn’t get near the man. I got a glimpse of him through the front window, but the line was out the door and down the block. To see that many people coming to see a person because of their pictures was amazing to me and had a huge impact. I never made it in to see him, but came back at a later time to see the show. It was the first time I had seen such a beautifully printed image and understood what a true work of art a photograph could be. I spent a lot of time going back to the gallery over the years and saw some amazing things. All of this had a very big influence on my going towards more creative work with my camera.
Which photographers and other artists work do admire?
Like many, I started out with Adams, the Westons, Cunningham and other photographers in Group f64. However, being a fan of documentary work, I gravitated toward Walker Evans and the other FSA photographers as well as the earlier documentary work of Lewis Hine. I also became familiar with Stieglitz, Stiechen and other more pictorialist photographers. I loved the warm, expressiveness of the style in comparison to the cool sharpness of what Group f64 had done in response. That led me to the secessionists like Coburn and perhaps my favorite, Karl Struss, two of the photographers that I consider having a large influence on my work today. And then there are my contemporaries of which some have become good friends and confidants. Fantastic artists and printers of my generation . . . Kerik Kouklis, Clay Harmon, David Eisenlord, Keith Taylor, and William Scott to name just a few. There are so many more. A lot of my favorites are outside what would be considered the realm or type of work I do. Greg Crewdson, Jeff Wall, Todd Hido, Alec Soth. There are also a lot of so-called “emerging” people whose work I watch. S. Gayle Stevens, Meg Griffiths, Clay Lipsky, Anne Berry, Eliot Dudik, Greer Muldowney, Matthew Magruder, Susan Barnett, and many more. The list goes on and I hope others will forgive my not mentioning their name. There are a lot of really great photographic artists out there when you cut through the current invasion of photographic imagery.
Would you tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you overtime?
That’s a hard one, simply because there are so many photographs that have been important to me. It might seem out there, but one that recurs in my mind most often would have to be Arthur Rothstein’s, “Dust Storm, Cimarron County, OK, 1936”. I wouldn’t say it is my favorite, but it is never far. It holds much of what I think is great in a photograph. Like Robert Capa, Eddie Adams, David Turnley, and others, he’s made that one image that goes beyond being a topical record and becomes an embodiment of a period in history.
In your mind what makes a great photograph?
For me, I not only need an emotionally moving subject, I need to see something of the artist. If it is void of the person making the work, it is less exciting for me. Though not the rule, I also tend toward the idea that the image relates to something in me, my emotion, my experience. I like that connection.
With the rapid changes in how people make and view a photograph, how do you view the world of art and photography?
I’m somewhat worried that the art is currently being overshadowed by the method and magnitude of the delivery. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We are bombarded with visuals around the clock and it is hard to see what matters. There is so much filler passing for art these days that I think it has had a negative impact on how people experience and value the photograph. Seeing the Instagram of the day on the morning news doesn’t impress me. Content is not king, the content of the content is and I definitely see this over saturation reflected in the marketplace. I know a lot of photographers, both commercial and artistic, that have been negatively impacted by the everything for free delivery system we have now. It chews up and spits things out at such a rate that not much takes hold. I’m not sure I’m down with life in 140 characters.
How did you come to using the different processes for your photography, such as platinum?
Although my interest in alternative processes comes from many of the photographers whose work influences me . . . My more recent use has been a direct result of the digitized world taking over photography. There was such a rapid change in the way pictures were made and viewed and there was paranoia that film would soon disappear. Many printing papers and films became extinct. Even Ilford, the manufacturer of the papers I love to use, was having problems at the time. It looked like the analog world I knew so well was collapsing. Having delved deeply into digital B&W printing early on and not been at all satisfied, I began looking to the past. I felt even more was creatively possible through the alternative processes and the resulting work seemed so uniquely expressive and void of the homogeny I see in a lot of inkjet work. I just began exploring more and eventually embraced digital technology as part of the alternative process through digital negatives for printing and positives for platemaking. A marriage of the 19th and 21st century.
Do you have a favorite process?
I like to change it up a lot and work in a variety of processes as it keeps the creative doors open, so I can’t say there is a standout favorite. Wet plate is extremely fun for me, but what I do best is the traditional silver gelatin print. Recently I’ve become very interested in photogravure and plan on continuing in that direction as well.
Please tell us about North Light Workshops and Press.
Back in 1981, I attended one of Fred Picker’s Zone VI Workshops in Vermont and had one of the better experiences of my life. Not only did I learn a lot, but it was the first time I felt part of a photographic community. I thought the possibilities were endless in putting people together like this and that is where the seed of North Light Press and Workshops began. Move ahead ten years and by that time I had a pretty good career going. I purchased ten acres of property in my favorite part of Northern Michigan with the dream of building it not only into a home, but a place where I could root my idea of offering an experience like that I had back in Vermont. It took another ten years to start to realize this and begin development of the property. Then, in 2006, I hosted the first gathering that was to become Photostock. It was fantastic and has been growing ever since. Held during the summer solstice each year, it is an annual gathering where photographers can get together, share space, work and ideas. A place where people of all experience levels can come, put egos aside and play. It has taken on a life of its own and become more than I ever dreamed. Last year, I took it to the next level by building a permanent workshop facility through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It was truly humbling to see so many in the community come forward with their support and belief in the project and North Light Workshops now has a place to bring some of the best at what we do to teach and share their knowledge and experience. The building was dedicated at last year’s Photostock and the plan is to offer up to a workshop a month. Although the interior and darkroom are still being completed, we have now had three sold-out workshops and it is all happening. 2014 will see even more, including what I hope will be the best Photostock yet this June 19th – 22nd. In the midst of all this, I launched my North Light Press publishing imprint in 2005 with the intention of it being a way for me to publish not only my own work, but that of other photographers that I felt deserving of wider attention. This too has grown with fifteen books and ten photographers published to date and more on the horizon. It will be expanded soon to also represent the work of the photographers published. There are always more plans.
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
I feel that a creative community is essential for the camaraderie and sharing of ideas as well as the mutual support we can all lend to one another. I’ve long been part of an online community of artist friends and since I’ve started photostock, that community has grown into one that shares the physical world. It’s truly remarkable to see how everyone’s work has progressed over the years within this community. Getting together at least once a year and sharing work has propelled everyone to a higher level. At first we shared loose prints as well as communal shooting expeditions, but now people come with fully fleshed out and beautiful portfolios. We’ve shared knowledge of various processes and now people are doing a bit of everything. Wet plate, platinum, gum, bromoil, photogravure and more. We are not anti-digital in any way, but we have helped expand horizons and contributed to the continuation of traditional and alternative means of making photographs. I think this is not only healthy for all included, but for photography in general. Such communities are popping up all over and I think this bodes well for us all as photographers.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
I think the biggest challenge that photographers and artists face is the declining value of our work. Where photography was a legitimate career path for many in the not too distant past, I could not in any good conscience advise someone to make that choice today. Like many other careers, the digital age has impacted it in such a way that there is no real viable living to be made save for the very few. With stock houses virtually giving imagery away and young hopefuls providing their work for free in exchange for “exposure”, the value of photography at large has been degraded. Anyone actually making their living from photography knows what I am talking about. The real challenge we all face is once again developing a viable marketplace for our work. Educate potential collectors on the value of the original print. Teach young photographers that giving their work away destroys the chances of them and others to make a living. Make content providers pay for work published, especially when they are capitalizing on their product and brand.
How do you over come a creative block?
I just keep working at all costs. Shifting processes and subjects helps, but sheer perseverance is my best weapon against a block. We’re all going to have them as it is the nature of what we do. We are so affected by our lives and emotions and have to keep tuned into that. Everything in life ebbs and flows and creativity is no different. As long as you keep breathing, there is another day and you never really know where your next inspiration will come from, so you have to remain open for when it comes.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
Currently I work between my home and workshop in Northern Michigan and my workspace here in the Detroit area. I’ve got a beautiful, but small, darkroom, an office and dry working area and a mounting and shipping space as well. Most of my business operations and photographic expeditions are run from there, but there is never enough room. This is why I am looking forward to fully relocating to the workshop building in the woods of Northern Michigan. It is perfect and was built for what I want to do. Large, covered porch for breaks and socializing, a large, dry work area that can be easily changed and reformatted depending upon what I am doing or what workshop is scheduled. There is a large, teaching darkroom that has four enlarger bays, a plate burning area and a large, central, walk around sink for demonstrations. There is also a full bathroom with shower, as well as, storage and guest quarters upstairs for visiting instructors. To add to that, it is situated out in the woods with a lot of privacy and many beautiful places in the vicinity to work. I’m very excited to get it fully completed and in service.
With so many photographers coming into Detroit and showing only the sadness, your series on Belle Isle truly shows the beauty. Do you have a new series along those lines in the future?
I am currently working on expanding my Detroit work along the lines of what I did with Belle Isle. Among other projects, I consider that work to be ongoing. There is a spirit here that doesn’t exist in abandoned buildings and I think many have completely missed the point. Nothing about the real Detroit is revealed in much of that work. Gawkers are not what Detroit needs. Look at the work of other photographers who realize this. Dave Jordano and Bruce Giffin come to mind easily, but there are many more. The ruins of Detroit are over.
Would you like to share with us any future projects or shows?
Thanks for asking . . . right now I’m working on new work and a couple of personal book projects. I’ve also begun printing for the first in a planned series of portfolios from over the years. I’ve never really taken the time to take stock of what I’ve done and I’m having a lot of fun with that. Maybe I’m at that age. . . There is also the 11+1 project. I’ve been selecting the next few books and looking ahead. The current one is shipping and I have one more planned before summer. I love doing them and giving people that shot at a fun, little book. I do have one exhibition in June at a small gallery near my home in Northern Michigan called Three Pines. It is to coincide with Photostock 2014. It’s called, “Photographs and Drawings” and is a collaborative show with Pittsburgh based painter, Ken Kewley . I’m also working on a gravure piece based upon a line in Emily Dickinson’s, “The Gorgeous Nothings” for another group show later in the year.
Thank you Bill for sharing your work and your words. We look forward to hearing about Photostock 2014. To learn more about Bill Schwab and the Photostock Gathering please visit his site. Bill Schwab Photographs.
To learn more about Arthur Rothstein please visit this site. Arthur Rothstein Archive.
Thank you to the photographers that share there work with us.
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