It's a beautifully simple concept: Take photos of people on the street wearing cool stuff in cool ways. Post the photos to a blog.
That's it. That's what Scott Schuman does with "The Sartorialist," his influential and popular photo blog consisting almost entirely of photos he's taken of people who he thinks look really good in their clothes.
Schuman speaks at SCAD Style 3:30 p.m. Tue. April 26 at the SCAD Student Center downtown.
What makes The Sartorialist so appealing, however, is not just the visceral, immediate quality of Schuman's photography. It's also the fact that rather than sniping or being catty about fashion, he glories in it - and his subjects - unabashedly, in the manner of an explorer rather than a critic.
We spoke to Schuman by phone last week.
Would it offend you if I said you are a journalist?
Scott Schuman: No, as long as you don't say I'm a stinky journalist or an ugly journalist (laughs). The word doesn't bother me. I don't know if there's a word for it, but a lot of people say - and I think they have it slightly wrong - they say "your pictures tell stories."
It's not so much that my pictures tell stories, it's that they give people a scenario for their own story. I don't even know the stories of these people. Journalists would be a little different because I'm not even trying to tell facts. It's totally my artistic take on this person. Most of these people I don't know. A journalist wants to tell facts, while I'm shooting them just as I'm seeing them.
People will say wow, isn't that a great picture of that person? But that's not necessarily what that person's really like. This person is much stronger or louder or whatever. But that's your take on that person. I'm not a storyteller, but maybe a story scenario-giver, which is not a very good phrase! (laughs)
I'm fascinated by the mechanics of how you do this, how you approach people. I'm guessing even in New York most people don't know who you are.
Scott Schuman: It depends where I am. In New York a lot of people know about it, so that's easier. Even if they're not sure at first, they may have hears something about it. That makes it easier, A) Because they've heard of it, and B) I can maybe move them a little bit - I usually don't move them much from where I found them.
It doesn't really help when I'm stopping an old lady in Milan. So you just have to handle it as it comes. By not having a set way of doing it, it allows me to be more light on my feet. To deal with different people you've got to approach each one in a different way. I approach an older woman in a different way than I'd approach a husky guy. There's no typical thing.
One of the points is you don't just explore what's going on in the fashion capitals.
Scott Schuman: I've been to a lot of other places: India, China, Scandinavia. One reason I'm going to Georgia is to branch out. Unlike someone like August Sander, who shot a cross section of people in Germany in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and who didn't have a daily element. He would go three weeks and not have to get a shot.
For me it's different because I've got a daily blog. I don't put anything up there that I don't believe in, but I have to be careful when I travel that I can have a day or three days where I can have no pictures and I can leave something up there that can cover that time.
I'm going to LA next week and then to San Francisco. I went to Denver recently, went all over Denver and just couldn't find anything. I've shot matadors in Madrid, a square dancer in Atlanta.
To me it's more about style. But it's tricky, to shoot and still have it at that level. I'm not going to have just any old square dancer just to shoot a square dancer. It still has to speak to me.
Many people have commented how unusual your work is in that you don't judge, you're not snarky or condescending. Is that by plan or are you just a nice guy like that?
Scott Schuman: I'm not really a people person and when I was learning photography - I'm not a trained photographer - I was looking at it more like Bruce Weber, a famous fashion photographer who would shoot his neighbor in Montana with the same level of respect that he shoots Kate Moss. You could see that in the photographs. I was not only seeing the world visually but teaching my kids to look at the world in a way that informs the way you shoot.
Being visually greedy is one of the areas where it's positive to be selfish. I'm not judging other people, but I'm being very selfish in what I can get out of it. People will say, "oh it's really great that you're shooting older people." You know, I don't really try to shoot older people. It's just that my openness to inspiration is very wide, and if they happen to be old, great. If I can get something out of it, great. If I can shoot a young person, whatever.
So it's not that I'm a nice guy. It's just that I'm very visually greedy and I have a very open tolerance and a very wide net that I throw for that kind of thing. That's one reason I don't use names very much - it's not about that person but about the idea of that person.
I was going to ask you about trends, but I get the impression you don't really care about spotting trends.
Scott Schuman: I don't really look at trends. I go to the shows because I love fashion. That's one of the reasons I started the site, because there's a real disconnect between what's happening on the runway and what's happening out there.
Stylish people almost never dress head to toe in something from the runway. They mix it up with pieces they've had for five years or one year or brand new.
The magazines are trying to tell you what's new in stores, but by having such a narrow focus they've lost a lot of interest. Magazines aren't bad, they're just doing their job of telling you what's new. Whereas what I'm doing is saying this is how to really make it part of your life.
Is purple really important to be the trend color? Only if it really works with the colors you work into your thing.
I'm just shooting, and it's up to other people to take in their own greedy way. I don't think I intentionally influence people, but again, it's that idea of the beginning of a story.
A lot of designers use these images not to copy a lapel or copy a print idea, but their reaction to how they feel about those people. My photographs might be all over the wall at Ralph Lauren or whatever, but they're not direct fashion pieces or fashion shots. They're more style shots - they're looking at these guys and giving a feeling of how they feel about it. It's more an abstract inspiration.
Men's fashion was so static for decades. But it's really undergone quite an explosion in the last ten or so years, well beyond the "metrosexual" pejorative. What accounts for this?
Scott Schuman: With guys it doesn't matter if you're into fashion or not, but there definitely is a style. My dad wasn't into fashion, but he definitely dressed like every other retiree in his country club (laughs). There are guys who are into football, and they know exactly what jersey they're wearing. So men are very sensitive to that.
For the first time you're seeing a lot of straight men, straight, virile men, who look great and have great style. And other guys will look at them and say, Oh, that's a man, a real man's man. He looks cool.
It's just giving guys a visual backup where they can feel like, OK, there are guys like that round the world and I can dress that way and not feel self conscious.
I'm proud of that. It's shined a light that it's not just gay or just metrosexual. There are straight guys out there who dress beautifully. And at just as high and artistic a level as any other group.
That's one reason we've sort of seen it open up, is guys are seeing something they can visually relate to. They're also figuring out how to talk about it. You can talk about beautifully made clothes the same way you might talk about a beautifully made car. There are stitches per inch and all these measurements.
It's not so much about color, these guys are talking about craftsmanship. The same kind of thing they love about a car they can love about a suit or shirt. They're realizing they can talk about clothes in the same way they might talk about a strategy or something (laughs).
It's a new day and a lot of guys are waking up to that. cs
All events are free and open to the public.
Mon. April 25
Derek Lam, designer, 4 p.m., SCAD Student Center, 120 Montgomery St.
Tue., April 26:
"The Sartorialist" Scott Schuman, 3:30 p.m., SCAD Student Center, 120 Montgomery St.
Waris Ahluwalia, jewelry designer, 5:30 p.m., SCAD Student Center, 120 Montgomery St.
Wed., April 27:
Screening: Bill Cunningham New York, 5:30 p.m., SCAD Student Center, 120 Montgomery St.
Thu., April 28:
Glen Senk, CEO Urban Outfitters, 4:30 p.m., SCAD Student Center, 120 Montgomery St.
Fri., April 29:
Town & Country editor Whitney Robinson hosts"Jacqueline Susann and the Style of the 1960s: The 45th Anniversary of Valley of the Dolls", 4 p.m., SCAD Student Center, 120 Montgomery St.
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