What do an eye surgeon and a fine art photographer have in common? In the case of Howard Schatz, they are one and the same. For the past eighteen years, Schatz and his wife Beverly Ornstein, who he calls “the real brains of the operation,” have run a studio in New York specializing in innovative editorial photography and portraiture, particularly of dancers, athletes, actors and other performers. With an impressive twenty published books to date (most recently Caught in the Act: Actors Acting and At the Fights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing), as well as numerous museum and gallery shows and a client roster that includes Ralph Lauren, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair, Schatz has been incredibly prolific over the past two decades. The photographer sat down with Resource to talk about what keeps him going and going to bed giggling, after all these years.
Not many professional photographers come from a background in ophthalmology. Was photography something you were always interested in? Is there anything that translates from one to the other?
The medicine and the art have no relationship, other than that one followed the other. Photography was always an interest of mine, and then I took a sabbatical from my work as a professor in ophthalmology and I kept re-upping my sabbatical. My work was in San Francisco, but my wife and I moved to New York City eighteen years ago under the auspices of a one-year sabbatical in order to do photography full-time. And we had so much fun. It was so rich and challenging and interesting and compelling; we would go to bed giggling over the adventure. So I took another year’s sabbatical, and then another and another and another, and never looked back. It’s been eighteen years that I’ve been a full-time photographer.
What is it that excites you about photography?
I work as an artist to surprise and delight myself. I want to see things happen in front of my camera that both I’ve never seen and that are wonderful. So I do most of my work in the studio. Before I came to New York, I worked on Saturdays with dancers underwater and did a book called Waterdance. The reason for that is, what do you suppose the greatest adversary of dance is?
I guess I would say gravity.
That’s exactly right! Underwater, there is no gravity, so I thought this would be a great place for dancers to perform in a way that they couldn’t perform otherwise. I worked every Saturday for a few years until the book was published. This was mostly dancers from the San Francisco Ballet, photographed down in a pool in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
When we came to New York in October ’95, no one really knew who I was. I’d had three or four books published already and some museum shows and gallery shows, but in terms of making a living doing editorial and advertising work, nobody really knew who I was–the phone didn’t ring for that reason. So I embarked on a project to study dance in a very concentrated manner. I essentially contacted every dance company within fifty miles of the city and went to see them. I’ve been to the Joyce Theater many, many times, the City Center, the New York City Ballet, ABT, small little theaters all over the East Village, downtown and even in Brooklyn. I studied each company carefully, like a student, and made careful notes as I wrote down the dancers that I thought were fantastic [and that I wanted to photograph]. And they came! I paid them a little—dancers don’t make much money, so it wasn’t too difficult to get them agree to work with me. I essentially spent a year or two shooting dance, virtually every day. Studying it every way I could: single dancers, pas de deux, even companies. And I’ve retained this interest in dance to this day. In the last year I photographed the David Parsons Dance Company many, many times in order to try to make new kinds of imagery; I’ve done the advertising for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, and I’m doing a project to study motion.
In photography, there’s a frozen moment–we take a picture with a flash, and the moment freezes. The marvelous and wonderful thing about that is you can study it. You can look at this moment over and over and over, the next day and the next day and the next. This moment that was fleeting, that occurred so fast you almost didn’t see it and that is gone forever, there it is, in the photograph. That’s one thing that really interests me about photographs–that you can study these moments. I’ve taken that to another step, sort of, by trying to find a way of studying the entire motion rather than a frozen moment, the motion over a half a second or a second or two seconds or three seconds. What happens, and how do I photograph that?
So you leave the camera open and you have to then expose the subject to light, either multiple stroboscopic lights or a constant, available, ambient light, and try to capture what the motion is. You can see some of those shots on my website, under Action. And you can see that I’ve been working very hard to find visual imagery that’s interesting of motion. I’ve applied this not only to dance but also to all sorts of motions, from sports to gymnastics. To this day, I can’t get enough! I haven’t run out of ideas. There’s still so much to see and explore–my basic tenet of working to surprise and delight myself continues, even after eighteen years.
You do a lot of work with people who are performers and who use their bodies for their craft, whether they’re dancers or athletes or actors. What do you think it is about these individuals that makes them good models?
Well, all performers like to perform; they like to have their photographs taken. So it goes hand in hand: my interest in making pictures and their enjoyment of having their pictures taken. That’s true with all the performing arts, as well as sports. Our most recent book, Caught in the Act, is about actors, eighty-five of them. I did interviews with them, because I’m very interested in creativity and imagination, and the interviews were smart. They weren’t about divorce and drugs; they were about ideas and work and using their imagination and their bodies and their voice to take ink on paper and create individuals from another place. I would make up parts and they would act those while I did their portrait. I’m really interested in creativity and imagination.
I’m also interested in physical prowess. The other thing about dancers especially, them and athletes, is you don’t become great unless you’re coachable. If somebody’s a jerk and can’t be coached, when you can’t make suggestions or they can’t take editorial ideas, they’re never going to make it in this world. Same for you as a writer: you have an editor–everybody needs an editor! If you get emotionally upset about intelligent editing, you’re never going to get really far. It’s the same thing with dancers: a dancer can make a movement, and I can then say, “Well, that was terrific, but what I want you to do now is, that left hand that went up, I just want you to raise it about an inch. And bend the foot that way and turn the head slightly.” I can say all that, and they hear me and do it. They’re smart, they listen, they’re coachable and they have complete control over their body. It’s a magic thing. It’s almost like working with a little clay model–you can move it and have it do anything you want. All I do is use my imagination and my words and my suggestions, and the dancer can do it.
It’s the same way with athletes. The biggest professional athletes—I’m talking NBA and major-league baseball and NFL—they’ll come to my studio and say, “Just tell me what to do.” They’re coachable; they’re editable. You can direct them. And it’s very satisfying to do that; you can collaborate to make images. The other thing now is, with digital, you can show the subjects the pictures you’re making. I can show them how great they’re doing, and then show them how we can better and improve it. They can see the image, and then they’re in on it! I very much enjoy directing; I like making suggestions and then having the performer carry out these ideas in their own creative way.
A lot of the attention you’ve gotten in recent years was for your series “Athlete,” in which you had photographs of a wide range of athletes and, based on the body type, people would try to guess their sport. What stories do you think the body reveals about us?
Well, it turns out “Athlete” has gone viral. Really, we’ve gotten calls in the last week from people in about twenty different places, from Sydney, Australia, to Asia, Europe and England. It’s quite interesting.
There’s a thing that I call nature and nurture: the athlete is born with a certain physical structure that will fit a sport, and then he or she will work to hone their body to do the sport well. For instance, somebody could be 6’8” and not necessarily know how to dunk a basketball or do a jump shot or block a shot. They work hard to learn these skills. But you have to be 6’8” in order to play this sport. If you’re a great little athlete and you’re 5’3”, you become a gymnast. You don’t become a gymnast if you’re 6’4”. So there’s nature, there’s what they’re born with, and then there’s what they do with it. And then there’s their neurophysiology, their ability to react quickly and analyze a situation. I find that very interesting.
Tell me a little bit about what your shooting process is like. Do you tend to sketch and plan things out beforehand?
Here’s what I do. When I’ve scheduled a shoot, say with a dance company, I’ll really think about it and write down ideas. I’ll usually have too many ideas–I’ll have twenty or thirty things I want to do, which is of course unrealistic. So I hone it down to maybe ten ideas. We start with the first idea and we leave it open. Sometimes an idea will lead to another that I never would have thought of. You try different things, and then you see stuff.
Your first question was about ophthalmology and photography, which is medicine and art. And the big difference is, in medicine, there are no mistakes. You make a mistake and somebody could die. In my field, as a retina specialist and surgeon, a mistake or miscalculation of one millimeter could cause a blind eye. So there were no mistakes; it was about being extremely thoughtful and careful and compulsive and exacting and rigid, to the point of having a life that was mistake-free. Whereas in my studio, it’s just the opposite. It’s about trying all kinds of things, about making mistakes, about collaborating, about trying stuff. In medicine, you don’t go try stuff, but in art, you can try anything.
Yesterday, we did a shoot with a very famous painter who painted a model. I’m doing this project called “Beauty Body,” where we make a beauty picture in the morning and then we use the model’s body as a canvas. So this girl was painted white with black circles all over her, and that was the shoot. The artist also painted a twenty-foot canvas behind her that matched. It was great, and we shot all day. When the artist left—he had had enough—I kept on shooting and I said to my make-up artist, “Why don’t we get those circles to drip? Let’s imagine they’re sources of black fluid and they’re dripping.” And we did that. It’s just trying stuff. What was there to lose? We already had a great photo, we had a willing model, so we dripped and then smeared the paint. Photography is really about playing, about trying things and using imagination and having fun—that’s where the surprise and delight comes.
In past interviews, you’ve described your work as a treasure hunt. What haven’t you found yet?
There’s still many things that I know are out there that I look for. But part of a treasure hunt is sometimes not knowing what the treasure is. So I study very hard: I look at everything; I look at the Internet and magazines, I go to museums and galleries. I study photography, as well as movies and films and art. I carry a pencil and a little notebook with me all the time, and I’m constantly writing down ideas. I go to Barnes & Noble and look at books all the time, and I write down ideas. I have big, long, huge lists of things I want to do. I just want to keep going and going and going and doing this, because it’s a fascinating, rich existence. Even after eighteen years. New things are always happening. When people say, “Well, everything’s been photographed,” they just don’t understand. There are so many unlimited ways of seeing new things.