Shutterbuggin’ with Russ Schnitzer
Above Photo: Dan Diez
Photos: Russ Schnitzer
TFFJ (The Flyfish Journal Photo Editor Copi Vojta): Hey Russ, go ahead and introduce yourself for our audience that may not be familiar with you or your work.
RS(Russ Schnitzer): I’m a professional photographer based in Denver, Colorado. I’m married to a very supportive, understanding and almost irrationally patient woman. We have a 1-year old son.
First, I was, and will always be, an angler. My earliest memories are of fishing with my father and grandfather. I grew up in northern Minnesota, where fish and fishing are integral to life and culture. Family gatherings featured fishing stories, and discussions on current conditions, what bait is working where, etc. It was coffee talk, it was in Sunday’s sermons. It was an odd place to come upon flyfishing. It took imagination, improvisation, and resulted in a lot of failure. But, it was magic, and I was infatuated early in life.
I came into my photography career in a pretty non-traditional fashion, as well. In spite of this, it has been growing steadily since about 2003. Today, it is my full-time gig. When I first got going, I had a 35mm SLR camera, a 50mm f/1.8 manual-focus lens, and a whole pile of film. The only thing I knew about making a photograph was what I saw in my “mind’s eye,” and I was intent on developing a relationship between the photographs I saw without a camera, and what was possible with camera, lens and film. I kept detailed notes for every exposure, which I then cross-referenced with each corresponding slide or neg frame. I then made subsequent notes about what I liked and what didn’t work. It was a very deliberate and inefficient method of learning, but, as an experiential learner, I loved it. I still have a stack of thick, beat notebooks that document that period. They serve as a two-part reminder in this digital age: Fundamentals are vital, and you never, ever stop learning. Strong parallels to flyfishing.
Outside of photography, my academic and “professional” background is rooted in conservation. I spent nearly fifteen years working for Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. Those experiences helped provide context for a good chunk of my work, and I am always looking for new opportunities to tell important stories for conservation non-profits through the photographic medium. I’m currently working with Western Rivers Conservancy, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy. The common thread that has emerged in my work is the human dimension of conservation. I’m drawn to people, their stories and the relationships that help make conservation happen. It’s always unique, it’s always challenging, and it results in some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done to date.
TFFJ: This is great…you’ve just answered at least two or three other questions I was going to throw at you…
I’m always curious as to how other photographers work, the process of creating projects and finding or thinking of that thing, that goal of a project/idea/whatever and how it gets carried out. I don’t really work conceptually, in that I’ll have ideas of what I want to find, but generally I don’t construct or direct images I make. The idea comes first, but then I let it evolve a bit if it needs to. Occasionally, I will play director, but I’m mostly finding things and finding other things and then putting those found things together to form what I think is some sort of whole. My sister watched me photographing once and was like, you’re an opportunist. I thought that was a great way of putting it.
How do you work in that sense? Anything come to mind where you might be able to relate some sort of method to the madness or thought process to what gets you going?
RS: As for how I work (on personal projects), it often begins with a broad concept. It might be a place, landscape, discipline, philosophy. I brainstorm on this, creating a “mental moodboard,” which is as far into the conceptual as I care to dig. I place a great deal of significance on authenticity, contextual legitimacy. I’m reminded of a gig I was hired for several years ago. The agency that booked me did so based on my portfolio of western cultural work, as they were looking for strong cowboy stuff. When we sat down to go over shot lists, they were very concerned that I should employ the right “props”: worn boots, spurs, chaps, and the like. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. If I’m going to shoot cowboys, I’m going to shoot folks who are for real, day-in and day-out, shit-kicking cowboys. I’m going to shoot them how and where they work. Nothing is staged. I take the same approach with any subject. I guess that is pretty opportunistic in practice.
Once I get going, I obsess about things that I perceive to be “definitive” or emblematic – again place, discipline, philosophy, etc., avoiding as much as possible anything preconceived. The more I am able to allow myself to be absorbed by a thing (place/idea/story), the more my eyes really open, ideas evolve with greater fullness, and the happier I am with the photographs. For example, when I travel, I try to embrace what it means to live in that place. I’m not interested in the superficial. The rest is pure opportunism, with the camera functioning as an impulsive extension of my senses. It serves me best when it is a simple translator of how what I’m seeing feels, or how it affects me, in that moment.
All of that said, I guess I really don’t like to think about it very much. Too much thinking clouds vision, or, more appropriately, reaction. One of my favorite photographers and artistic influences, Robert Frank, said: “It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.” I think that is what makes the photographic medium very special. The more you try to process that reaction, the more contrived it becomes. Very quickly, the whole thing degrades into something less than a photograph, or, at least, the photographic ideal I share with Mr. Frank.
TFFJ: I’m really good at overthinking. To the point where I will think myself out of making a picture, which I don’t believe to be always a healthy thing.
Do you remember the first picture you sold?
RS: I know what you mean about overthinking.
I’m trying to remember the first photograph I sold. I didn’t try and sell any for a long time. It was all very personal and internalized. Therapy. I think I had a photo or two make it in a Trout Unlimited calendar. I don’t recall which ones. I do remember being super stoked about it, because some of the other names were folks like Andy Anderson, whose work I still place on a pedestal. There was another one around that time that somehow got into the hands of American Angler magazine. I definitely wasn’t looking to “get published,” though. I didn’t know the first thing about working with editors, managing workflow, shooting for a story. Not that I’ve since become a fountain of knowledge, either. But, the whole enterprise took me some time to do in a way that was right for me. And, this was all unfolding at a time prior to the evolution and proliferation of digital photography, way before social media. Not everyone had a camera and took photos, unlike today. I sound like an old dude, but this is all less than twenty years ago.
I’m pretty sure the first physical print I sold was this black-and-white shot of cannery dock pilings at low tide during a characteristically rainy autumn morning in Cordova, Alaska. It’s not a particularly stunning photograph, but I remember liking it as soon as I placed a loupe on it. It was included in this little gallery show in DC, where I was living at the time. It was the first gallery thing in which I participated. I printed it pretty big, which is how I see a lot of my shots. I spent all I had to get it printed and framed with just a basic gallery frame and single matte, which was ridiculous. It ended up being one of the first prints sold at the show, though, and I maybe broke even on the deal. Beers all around. With the exception of the 4×6 proof, I’ve never made another print of that shot, though I look at the negative every once in a while with sentimentality and intent.
TFFJ: It’s a type of therapy for me also. That’s great, actually. Although I can’t say I’ve thought of it as such, but it’s very selfish. I guess I’ve just gotten used to doing it for myself. The whole process is very therapeutic, obviously the actual pressing of the shutter and the places that happens, but as well, the editing, for me. Separating and filtering out certain shots, letting them rest for a while, revisiting them. Looking, choosing, hating myself for not doing/seeing one little detail or moving a few inches or feet. But you learn that way, or hope to.
Do you still print your work often?
I’ve also wondered, with the launch and inclusion in the 2015 F3T and success of your Wild Fish Works film, how that transition went for you, from photography into motion. Was it something you knew you’d do? Do you plan to continue?
And 20 years ago I was 14. Maybe ‘older’ is the operative vocabulary? For perspective you know. I know I have to be careful about that word in certain company.
RS: I rarely print any of my work. Occasionally, I’ll make a print for a friend, or client as a thank-you. I stopped doing gallery stuff (except for Surface Film) a while ago. I just didn’t see the point, at least for the type of stuff I do. Recently, I’ve been compelled to make more prints just for my own purposes, to have a physical manifestation of the digital photos with which I’m most satisfied. I don’t like that there are these many thousands of photographs reduced to binary code and locked up in hard drives. It seems too abstract. That’s part of the reason why I love contributing to The Flyfish Journal and a select few other publications – it provides me with a sense of the photos actually living, placed into context. It is also why I’ve returned to shooting much more film. In addition to my desire for certain film “looks” in more situations, it also provides that tangible end product.
The transition from photography to motion, even if only an interlude, was wrought with challenges. It was something I resisted for some time before actually giving it a shot. I still see photography and videography as very different exercises. I try my best to adapt my still-frame vision to motion outcomes, and I love the associated challenges and learning opportunities. Beginning in 2013, I teamed up with my friend Ivan Orsic(Yukon Goes Fishing) on a couple of projects, to have some fun and see how it might work. We produced a couple of video shorts, “Cold Blue Nights” and “Long Shot,” as The Fly Collective. With that meager scrap of experience, I began work on Wild Fish Works, knowing that it would be a longer-term project. I was committed to telling the conservation story, though, and to see how I could piece it together as a motion picture. It certainly was educational. Looking back, I am most pleased with the stills I shot during the making of that film – it is how I see stories, and everything else, and that’s not going to change. It’s always been still frames in my head. That said, I do plan to continue pursuing motion projects on a limited basis, though never again will I try to do everything myself. For the future, and beginning with this year’s film projects, I’m most interested in being behind the camera and contributing to the creative vision as a collaborative partner.
Yeah, 20 years ago I was 20, so you don’t have THAT much on me! ‘Older’ is probably the right term. That said, I only started shooting 16 years ago. Never had a camera before that time. Admittedly, digital had begun to take hold, and I even had a little Canon 2.0 MP point-and-shoot as early as 2002. But, quality SLRs were prohibitively expensive for twenty-something dirtbags and would remain so for me until I picked up a Nikon D200 in early 2006.
TFFJ: Quality DSLR’s are still quite prohibitively expensive for thirty-something dirtbag editors also. I’m considering heading back to the local camera shop and picking up a sweet used Nikkormat setup. $80 bucks. I took a swim with my other film camera last winter and it didn’t like that much. Holgas are a great way to untie yourself from all of the knobs, dials and f-stops of the DSLR’s. You can set it for sunny/cloudy or sunny and then the focus dial is cool too, you can set it to a mountain, a crowd of people, a family or a headshot. Frees things up a bit, so you can focus on what’s in front of it.
Ever done an everyday project? I’ve been rolling the idea around on my tongue as I think it would be a great exercise.
Where do you turn for inspiration, be it photographic or otherwise?
And what sort of new projects do you have going on? Anything you’d care to share?
RS: Valid point, man. Gear is way too expensive. I think too much attention to gear gets in the way of making good photographs, admittedly, I geek out about certain lenses. But, I also subscribe to Don McCullin‘s quote: “I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.” I like simplicity. I love Holgas. I’ve been lusting over this cheap Lomo Polaroid thing lately, too. It can be converted between instant and 120.
I’ve never done an everyday project. I’ve thought about it, and I’d love to do one. I think it would be very helpful, and result in some new inspiration. I guess I just need to begin. Have you done one before?
For inspiration… I look at new work every day. There are a few Instagram accounts that I find useful for this. Also magazines, and a few blogs, some are friends, others are genre-based media outlets. I’m motivated by a lot of the creative coming out of the skateboarding and BMX scenes. I’ve really been into portrait work lately, not posed and engineered, but the raw, evocative stuff. I’m very keen on human stories. Beyond that, anything that helps me open up: travel, music, books. These things help challenge and shape my perceptions. Finally, my son is a constant source of inspiration, a daily reminder of how to view the world around me.
Regarding new projects, I’ve been deep in a documentary project based in Oregon’s Tillamook County, and that work will continue through 2015. Called the Salmon Superhwy project, it includes both video and still photography products, highlighting the relationship between communities, residents and habitat reconnection projects for salmon and steelhead. I’m just beginning to dig in on a longer-term motion+stills project in partnership with American Rivers. I’m excited to have an opportunity to tell more conservation stories. I’ll be spending time this year photographing in the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Finally, I continue to work on a long-term personal project seeking to document the current state of “blue collar” life in the western US, and what “middle class” looks like in today’s rural West.
Curious about what projects you have in the hopper, man.
TFFJ: I haven’t done the everyday thing, but would like to also…maybe we can help each other.
Sounds like you’ve got all sorts of irons in the fire? I don’t see how you keep it all together Russ…
I don’t have a ton going on. Started a photo project on hatcheries here in the Northwest. Not sure how it’ll turn out. I was inspired by the infrastructure of them and have been touring when time allows. There is so many, but I’d like to visit as many as possible. I’ve put up a few newer bodies of work on my personal website but I feel those are old news at this point. I’m always on the lookout for drift boats and have a small collection going that I’d like to think will turn into something at some point, but otherwise, keeping things together here, and generally in a sort of a photographic funk.
Well, for brevities sake I think that perhaps we should wrap this up. Anything else you’d like to add Russ?
RS: Always a lot of irons in the old fire, make no mistake, it isn’t always kept together. In fact, most of the time, the wheels are on the verge of coming off. I don’t know how else to do it, though.
Funk happens, man. Inspiration doesn’t always grab us by the nuts, you know? That’s what makes the good stuff that happens so fulfilling. I’ve been trying to keep track of your website updates, and enjoying the gems you share. Dudes have to abide.
Let’s wrap it up. I’m grateful for the opportunity, man. Thanks again for obliging me.
TFFJ: Thank you for taking the time Russ, I really appreciate it. You can check out more of Russ’s work at his website, schnitzerphoto.com and his Instagram, and stay tuned here for more Shutterbuggin’ features as they happen.
Keep Scrollin for another handful of Russ’s work…