Scott Schuman Talks
‘The Sartorialist’ on people with glasses and travelling to India
Scott Schuman is the original fashion blogger, the man who elevated the craft of photographing street style to an art form. He set up his now famous blog The Sartorialist in 2005 with the idea of featuring photographs of strikingly dressed every day New Yorkers that he began taking while on a break from work, to look after his recently born daughter. The intimate nature of the pictures and the inherent spontaneity of an unplanned street photographic encounter made the blog a big hit worldwide. Not only did it spawn a thousand similar blogs globally, Schuman also became a celebrity himself. Fashion websites and magazines sent him to fashion weeks around the world to take pictures of stylish people at the shows. Fashion houses like DKNY Jeans, Burberry and Gant by Michael Bastian commissioned him to photograph for their advertisements. Some of the people that he photographed became famous themselves for their sense of style that he brought out. And wherever he goes these days people expect to be photographed by him, a situation he is not very happy with.
Schuman’s newest project these days is a collaboration with Luxottica, the world’s largest eyewear company, to photograph people wearing optical eyewear in cities around the globe. Schuman’s images will be posted on the specially created Faces by The Sartorialist website. He will also be travelling to India in November for a long planned shoot, which will take him beyond the urban centres of Mumbai and Delhi.
Schuman’s favourite place for his street style photography is, not surprisingly, Italy, which he thinks is the most fashion-conscious country in the world. He is a regular here, particularly around the time of the numerous fashion weeks and associated trade events. He recently spoke to MW’s Radhakrishnan Nair on the sidelines of the annual Pitti Uomo in Florence, the men’s fashion fair that precedes the men’s fashion week in Milan.
Tell us the idea behind your new Luxottica project? Why did you decide to get involved with this?
Because it’s a great company. They know that I love shooting people and shooting portraits, especially different kinds of people. They seem to be very open. They don’t have one specific kind of customer in mind. They realize that the world is very varied and so I think it just seemed very natural to work together. They haven’t given me any kind of dictate or statement of what I have to do. Whenever you get a project like that it’s brilliant. It puts more pressure on me. For me it’s a perfect kind of project where you just go out and find what you can find. We’ve made a special separate website so it doesn’t have to interfere with my website. There are Instagram and Twitter accounts associated with it. So it just seemed like a perfect combination. That kind of freedom is pretty fun.
You have photographed people wearing glasses around the world. Does culture influence the kind of glasses people wear?
I think it does. Before I started doing this project, I was in Morocco and there they don’t have much money and they just wear any kind of glasses they can get. And in Peru, they hardly wear anything on their face despite the very bright sun. So it’s really going be interesting. I’ve shot people before with glasses, but it really wasn’t specifically for the glasses, it just helped make the photograph look great. Now I’m going be conscious about it, so I’m more curious about the cultural dimensions, about what people feel about their glasses.
You said you are coming to India in November. You have been there before. What is the sense that you got of the style in India?
It is one of those places like Peru or Morocco, where there’s innate style. India is an emerging country so it’s going to be interesting to spend time there. We will figure out whether it is going to be Delhi or Mumbai, and then maybe go to Rajasthan. It will be just like what I did in Peru. I will spend a certain amount of time in the countryside and certain amount of time in the urban centres. I think it’s going to be pretty fascinating. When I came before I didn’t get a chance to go to the countryside, so it’s one of those things where I try to be a little educated when I go to a place, but I don’t want to know too much so I don’t have a preconceived idea, I’m just seeing what I actually see. So I’m really curious to go back and see it in a different way.
Your photographs so far have largely been about stylish men and women in western style clothes. You are now beginning to travel to countries that have their own ethnic style. Is that something that you are looking forward to in future?
I called my second book Closer because I was getting closer to the real mix of what I wanted to do. But when I started the blog, I could only go where people would send me because I didn’t have any money. And the only place people sent me was about fashion, Milan, Paris, London, even though I always wanted to go to Morocco, I always wanted to go to Peru, I’ve always wanted to go to India. I’m hoping to go to Africa. This is what I always wanted to do, I just didn’t have the money to do it.
Now my business is better, the work is becoming more noticed by more people. I have the chance to pay for my own trips. I’m sending myself to India; I’m sending myself to Africa. The idea is to hopefully shoot pictures that are somewhere between an August Sander who shot people in Germany in the 20s and 30s and someone like Steve McCurry who shot people very different from his upbringing. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s really mixed cultures in their photography before. I am not talking about shooting people who are dressed for a pageant, but real people in different cultures dressed in their daily style mixed with people in the western world. Hopefully there’s going to be a real consistency in terms of respectwith which they are shot, the curiosity with which they are shot and the level of artistry with which the clothes are put together. When I go to somewhere like Peru, I’m not just shooting all the time, I’m trying to be very conscious of the emotions the shot brings.
You are starting a collaboration with Steve McCurry? Tell us more about it.
We get along well. I know him a little bit; we’ve walked around and shot. We have an idea of what we think it’s going to be, but we are still figuring out. He’s been one of my heroes and I’m a self-taught photographer. I taught myself looking at his photographs about how I want people to feel when they look at my photographs.
When I look at his photographs, I’m just like `so cool’, I’m so curious about the people in the photographs. And so I taught myself how to shoot that way. But my photographs are very different from his. So part of this project is just so I can hang out with him more and watch how he shoots, see what he sees. I really have so much respect for him, and I would do anything to try and spend more time with him and just watch what he does and see the world the way he sees. I’ve never had a mentor so it will be work-work, but it will also be a mentor thing, if I can work that out that would be super.
It’s nearly 10 years since you started The Sartorialist. What do you think you’ve achieved for yourself and what’s been its contribution for the world of fashion?
I love fashion. When I was real little I wanted to be in that world. But when you’re looking at magazines, all you saw were 22 year old boys and girls wearing designer clothes. You never saw anyone over 25 and rarely saw anyone under 25 or over 25 in a serious fashion way in the rest of the magazine. So when I started shooting, a lot of the people that became famous like Anna Della Russo, she’s a little bit over 25, a little bit. And AllesandroSquarzi, he’s one of the guys I kind of discovered, he’s over 25. These people are not young kids, but young kids look up to them and go “Wow, I want to be like him when I’m older.” So I’m very proud of that. It raised the bar of who’s fashionable.
I was just talking to the style icon Luciano Barbera last night on how we’ve lost a generation of people who were supposed to teach the young people what the rules were. Not that they have to follow the rules, but you got to know at least what they are. So I think shooting people like Luciano provides people a sense of how someone who wants to be really well dressed can be really well dressed.
On the very next day, I was shooting a guy who’s a transgender. I shot him last summer in Milan when he hadn’t started taking in the hormones yet, so he had a very feminine face, very feminine hair, very feminine make up, and jeans and a meshed top. Everything said girl, but we shoot him in this very open mesh top and people look at that picture and are like “Wait, is that a girl? A girl standing on the street in a mesh top?” Because you can see his nipples and everything. It really stops you because you’re looking at it like what am I seeing here? So I love the fact that when you look at my book or go through my blog you will see that Luciana was shot with the same respect and curiosity and interest as someone who’s a transgender. I’m not judging anyone, I think they are both fascinating and people have their own way. And I think hopefully people read the blog in the right way, it’s not about what clothes and what designer brand they have on, but how clothes and even with the optical, how it will enhance who you are.
At the end of the day, it’s portraits of individual people. That’s one of the reasons, when we were trying to come up with the name for this project, I said that we should call it Faces because it’s not just an optical project but it’s how glasses can help enhance the portrait of who somebody is. Faces is what we are shooting at the end of the day and the glasses just help.