Since Henri Cartier-Bresson picked up a 50mm Leica camera and gave birth to photojournalism at the beginning of the 20th century; we have been fascinated by candid shots of people on the street. At the end of the Nineties, the advent of the internet has seen an explosion of interest in the phenomenon of street style, none more apparent than in the case of The Sartorialist.
The blog of American Scott Schuman, a 4 year old website which documents the varied sartorial taste of fashionable folk from places as diverse as London, New York, Paris, Milan, India, and Sweden (to name a few) now receives 1.3 million hits a month, and has established Schuman as a unique force within the fashion industry. Following an exhibition at Danziger Projects last year, he has compiled his favourite images in a handsome anthology published by Penguin. Dazed spoke to the man on the eve of launching his pop-up shop, The SartoriaLUST at Liberty’s during London Fashion Week.
Dazed Digital: How did the book come about?
Scott Schuman: I always knew what I wanted to do with the book and what I wanted to accomplish with it. I wanted it to reflect the blog, not so much in a literal way but in the spirit of the blog. The blog is about things not having to be super expensive, a mix of high end and low end. One of the reasons why working with Penguin was so perfect was that they were willing to do a paperback version and a hardcover at the same time. That really made it work for me. I really wanted to do a bespoke edition, limited edition, beautiful and expensive. But then I wanted people to have something not so expensive where they could rip out the pages and paste the pictures up, something like that. I didn’t want to do a big coffee table book. Penguin was totally onboard with all that stuff.
DD: It must be satisfying to see your pictures in a gallery or in a book – giving it a sense of permanence the internet maybe does not?
Scott Schuman: The funny part is that the internet will give it not only a permanence, once it’s out there it’s totally out of my control. Once they’re on the internet, they take on a life of their own but I think that technology that it is now like no other time that we’ve had before, the permanence will come from the fact that I can take a picture today and my contemporaries can make a comment on those pictures and we can capture their thoughts. Someone like Lartigue who shot a lot of people around the streets in the 1900’s or even Bill Cunningham, people can look at those pictures but we don’t know what those people were thinking at that time. But with the blog now, you know, I’m working to archive and save these comments so that in, say a 100 years, people can not only look at these pictures but also know what we were thinking at that time, what those issues were. So I really like that part. I take the pictures and capture what people are thinking right now but I also think about what this is going to mean historically.
DD: There’s the sense of community on your website where people post comments and sometimes fall in love with the subjects in your photos. Is the goal intimacy with the subject?
Scott Schuman: One of the things I try and do is keep a distance from a lot of these people. I have a very short time and I like to shoot them in the romantic way that I see them. For me it always seems to work out better that way.
DD: Terry Richardson would say he would always put himself in the portrait whereas Bruce Weber would say he would only photograph things he could never be. Which camp do you fall in?
Scott Schuman: Somewhere right in between that. There’s definitely an aspirational aspect to it – something that I want to be. One of the things that separates me from other people who shot street style before me, they always shot the most dramatic thing, things people had never seen anywhere. Like Amy Arbus, she shot for the Village Voice in the early 90’s, she would shoot the punks and the most dramatic people. Which is great but I don’t really relate to that. What’s different about what I do is I shoot something that is aspirational and something that people can really relate to. People of different sizes, races and income levels.
DD: Do you think that’s why your website has succeeded? That you celebrates different aspects of beauty and make fashion more democratic and accessible?
Scott Schuman: That wasn’t the goal when I started out. I was just shooting people that I saw that I really liked. I can find inspiration from a lot of different cultures, different kinds of people. I’m never looking for something that’s perfect, if anything if it is perfect, it’s harder for me to relate to it.
DD: You have a pic of Bill Cunningham from The New York Times in your book – an inspiration of yours? Would you like to do it as long as he did?
Scott Schuman: Oh yeah I’d love to be doing this for the rest of my life. It’s funny – I’m a self taught photographer and I can’t really say he was specifically an influence. He was more of an influence as a fashion person. My background is in fashion marketing and just like any other person I would look at his page on Sunday. But I never said, “Oh I want to be like Bill Cunningham” or anything, it wasn’t anything like that. So he was probably a loose inspiration. I do really respect him as a person, he’s so committed to it. So that’s more of an inspiration than anything else, his commitment to that.
DD: You taught yourself photography? What magazines did you read growing up?
Scott Schuman: American GQ was the first fashion magazine that I started reading when I was in junior high. I-D, Italian Vogue…But growing up in Indiana, it was hard to get those magazines and there was no internet and the fact that we didn’t have many things like that helps me to keep the romance of it. For me there’s still this romanticized idea of what the fashion world must be like. It took so long for me to actually move here that it was so ingrained in my head and I still see the world that way. Not growing up with the magazines that I would have liked to had that effect on me.
DD: The book is dedicated to your late father – how was he inspirational to your life?
Scott Schuman: Like any good father. His inspiration was more as a person and in some ways that’s the very core of the book. How he looked at people and how he looked at the world. He was always very respectful. So I like that. I shoot a lot of people for the blog whose style I wouldn’t necessarily wear but I can think it’s great and respect the quality of what they do. He grew up in North Dakota which is even more rural than Indiana, and he used to say he was too stupid to know that he couldn’t do something. And there was this acceptance of being naïve which I think is beautiful. With this blog, I didn’t know that I could become a photographer for GQ, I didn’t really know anything about photography. I knew it probably was a stretch. But I came up with my own take and to me, there was no reason why I couldn’t be. I didn’t realize how big that world was but I let myself be stupid. So sometimes ignorance can be bliss.
DD: Has there been a specific favourite highlight over the last few years?
Scott Schuman: The moment when I really knew I was on to something was when I would get these really beautiful, heartfelt emails from people. So it’s those things – the true emotional response from people, ‘cos you can’t buy that. The next steps were having someone like Carine Rotifeld ask me to shoot something for Paris Vogue, that was a big deal. But the number one thing was the community we were able to create on the blog that crosses a lot of different cultures. That’s probably the thing that’s going to last the longest.
DD: How does it feel to hear that respected designers like Lucas Ossendrijver use your pics in their mood boards?
Scott Schuman: Oh it’s great, I love that. When I was in fashion I would work with designers so I would know how they work. So that’s how I want to shoot it. I don’t want to shoot things that are trendy. By the time you shoot it, it’s over. I want to shoot things that I was reacting to whether it was perfect or not. I’m glad that some really great designers are using the site in the way I hoped that they would.
DD: What did you make of The Refinery29’s chart of how to get photographed by The Sartorialist?
Scott Schuman: Of course I saw that. I saw it within minutes of when it went up. I got 40 emails about it! I thought it was done in good fun and the thing that I like about it is that it has so many different branches. People think I only shoot one kind of thing and there are so many different branches there – young and old. When you build something successful, those are the kind of things that you can expect.
DD: How did you find making the transition to shooting for mags and major ad campaigns?
Scott Schuman: Everybody wants me to do my own thing. Because I never been to many other shoots before my own, I had no qualms telling people what to do on my own shoots! The transition’s actually been great because I shoot in the exact same way that I do. I tell my agent, “Don’t put me in a situation I can’t win.” I only accept jobs that I will be able to shoot in my way. I’m lucky I’ve been able to shoot a lot more, and my ability as a photographer has grown and grown, but the essence is the same. It really is the next step of what I do.
DD: You’ve travelled the whole world with your blog – is there anywhere left you’d like to go? Are there any worlds and cultures you’re still fascinated by?
Scott Schuman: Seems like I’ve travelled the world, but there’s still a lot of places I haven’t been to yet. I haven’t been to Japan, that’s the next big one I want to go to. But the way you keep it honest and real is to continue to go to new kinds of places. Maybe after Fashion Week has ended I’ll have a little bit more time to go to a place like Beunos Aires or Peru and shoot not only the fashionable people, but also the folkloric dress and national costume.
DD: Is there anyone you’re dying to shoot? The Queen, for example?
Scott Schuman: Not the Queen. (laughs) The one person I wish I shot, that I would have got the chance to but I didn’t jump on it was Gianfranco Ferre. He’s a big guy, but he always looked so great. I went to a few of his shows and he was there but I never made time to take pictures of him. When he died, I thought he was someone I would really have loved to have photographed. He was always so elegant. I thought the way he dressed himself was so much better than what he did with his menswear! I just thought he seemed really cool.
DD: You’re curating a space at Liberty’s and just did a similar thing at Barneys in NYC. Is this the next step in developing the brand of The Sartorialist?
Scott Schuman: I wanted to take the concept of the blog and how I look at fashion and put it in a real-life setting. I had this idea of the pop-up shop, The SartoriaLUST with stuff that you would really lust for, things that you would really love. It doesn’t have to be super expensive things. It can be APC jeans mixed with Japanese jackets. That’s how a lot of men dress. Part of the ulterior business of the pop-up shop was creating this idea of what the Sartorialist would be as a retail business.
Article excerpted from dazeddigital.com