The Fine Art Photography of Alex Schaefer

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Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Target

Alex Schaefer is a photographer based in New York City. He divides his time between working as a camera assistant on feature length and short films, and photography. You’ll notice several themes running through his fine art work – use of natural light; highly stylised imagery using dark backgrounds; self-portraiture and a lot of Photoshop manipulation. The result is a series of beautiful, thought-provoking images.

Alex Schaefer interview

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and where are you from? How long has photography been a hobby and career of yours and what motivated you to get started?

I was born and raised in a small rural town in central Massachusetts where I spent a lot of time exploring the woods in the state park across the street from my house. I’ve always believed that informed my sense of adventure and nature when it came to pursuing fine art photography. When I was 18 I moved to New York City to study film and television production at New York University, and I currently reside in Brooklyn.

Film and photography have always been a part of my life. I remember finding my dad’s old black and white video camera when I was younger and being so intrigued by it. We didn’t have any tapes at the time, so despite my inability to record anything, I still found myself running around the house trying to capture every moment as it happened. My sister’s friends would sometimes say my Dad looked like Steven Spielberg, so I think I somehow adopted the nickname “Little Spielberg” among her friends. That was a long time ago, so it’s actually quite possible that didn’t even happen! But somehow that memory stuck out in my head.

While I’ve always been interested in photography, it wasn’t something that I took seriously until about a year ago when I took a job as an intern in the photography department at Saturday Night Live. That was my first real experience and exposure to the commercial photography industry. The photographer, Mary Ellen Matthews, has such a distinct style and vision for her work, and I think the idea that I may too be recognised by the style of my work one day is what really motivated me to begin shooting more seriously.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

End of the Tunnel

How would you describe yourself and your personality? How does your personality affect the way you take photos?

I find it difficult to describe my personality because I see myself very differently than those who know me do. I don’t think highly of myself and have often struggled with insecurities around my confidence and self-image. And while it’s not something that I usually speak about, I find that with respect to my fine art photography it’s important to talk about because so much of how I feel informs the photographs I take. Photography has been and will continue to be a medium through which I can freely and creatively express my anxieties and emotions. My best photographs are the ones that I was terrified to take because of what people might think of me.

I didn’t always set out to take self-portraits. But in fact, I’ve learned more about myself in taking these pictures than I ever would have otherwise. It’s given me a chance to explore and better understand the things that make me tick and the things that I am deeply afraid or insecure about.

I can see that you use natural light in a lot of your fine art photos. Why is that, what is the appeal of natural light for you?

I’m drawn to shooting in natural light for two reasons. First, is that I don’t have any lighting equipment that I can bring on-location with me. And while this limits my ability to use artificial lighting, it gives me the opportunity to take advantage of the resources at my disposal such as practical lighting or the sun.

The second reason I like to shoot in natural light (magic hour, specifically) is because it gives me control of the shadows. By shooting at dusk and magic hour, I’m able to get a beautiful light across the image without any shadows cast by the sun. This way, should I want to do any compositing that involves suspending myself above the ground, I have the ability to add the shadows in later and don’t have to worry about matching the directionality of the sunlight.

How would you describe the quality of the natural light where you live? How does it change with the seasons, and how do you use this in your photos?

I absolutely love shooting with the natural light in Massachusetts. If you followed me around, you’d probably find that I spend most of my time shooting in the woods where the natural light filters through layers of leaves from above. Not only does this breakup the light and give it a nice texture, but it also means that I’m able to shoot even earlier than magic hour and still have a soft diffused light source because the sun drops below the tree line before the horizon.

I find shooting in New York City to be much more of a challenge because it lacks the seclusion you might find in a small rural town in Massachusetts. I enjoy the experience of roaming alone through the woods to get inspired and you just don’t get that in the city. On the other hand, New York City offers what could be an endless amount of other locations that are absolutely stunning. It’s just a matter of seeing things differently from how you’ve seen them in the past and learning to adapt to each environment.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Static

The media has a way of shaping who we are or who we are supposed to be. Conforming to social norms comes at the risk of becoming static: you lose what it means to be an individual and more importantly you leave your true self behind.

There is a strong link between the landscape and the portrait in your work. How do the landscape and the light inspire you? What are the challenges and rewards of working outdoors?

I find that nature has an organic element to it that can’t be replicated on set or in a studio. There is always an uncertainty about what you may find when you go exploring in the woods and I find that adventure to be extremely thrilling and rewarding. There is nothing better than stumbling on a great location and thinking, “I have to find a way to shoot here!” That happened to me once and it turned out to be private property that I was trespassing on. It happens.

Of course while shooting in nature has its benefits, it can also come at a price. The thing that always comes to mind is trying to shoot in the winter. I am much more of a summer-lover and usually hit a dry spell in my photography when the winter season rolls around. There are two reasons I’m not as inspired to shoot outside during the winter. The first, and obvious reason is the cold, which makes it difficult if you want to take a shot submerged underwater (believe me, I tried it once!) The second reason has to do with the environment itself. I find that snow has a way of reflecting a lot of light and becoming a giant white blanket in your frame. In addition, all of the trees have lost their leaves, which makes shooting in the woods look pretty barren. That all being said, there are certain images that would work very well in this environment. But for me, I find that the winter gives me the chance to change things up and try to find new ways to be inspired to shoot in locations that might not be the woods.

I’ve noticed that quite a few of your photos are taken in low light. What is the appeal of low light for you?

I’m drawn to images in low light because it gives the audience something to wonder about. Darkness is compelling to me because of what it can hide. It also serves the theme of my work, which is about finding your own light in the darkness.

What are your influences? Who are your three favorite photographers and why?

I’m inspired by the portrait work of Gregory Crewdson. He has a very cinematic approach to his lighting and is able to tell extremely compelling and through provoking stories in each of his images. There is such a level of detail and precision to his work that is almost unmatched.

Brooke Shaden is another artist I admire and respect, not just for her photography but also her passion and personality.

Mary Ellen Matthews, whom I mentioned earlier, is another great influence to me in both the way she is able to define such a distinct style within her work and also how she conducts herself on set. She really knows how to get a great performance from her subject and she embodies the personality and confidence that I’d one day like to have as well.

There is a conceptual side to your portrait photography. Where do you get your ideas? What themes are you exploring in your work?

As I mentioned earlier, photography is how I express what would otherwise stay buried inside me. The ideas for my images are born out of things I am insecure about: friends I’ve lost touch with, the difficulties trusting those who are close to me, losing control of myself, and the fear of change.

Ultimately, while these ideas often come form a dark place, the message I’m suggesting in my work is that despite our greatest struggles and insecurities there is always a light waiting to be discovered the dark. The trouble is, we don’t always see it. We are all damaged whether we choose to see it or not. The intention behind these photographs is to show that there is beauty in our darkest moments, but it’s ultimately up to us to find it.

How important is post-processing in the creation of your portraits? What work do you do on your photos to achieve the dark effect that so many of your fine art photos have?

Post-processing is an essential part of my workflow and is perhaps the most necessary part in executing the vision I have for an image. I typically shoot at a proper exposure and reduce the contrast before bringing everything into Photoshop. I want my Raw images to have as little contrast as possible in order to give me the most flexibility in editing.

To achieve the dark look in my images, I create individual selections of areas that I want to be darker and darken them as necessary using curves adjustments. I rely on layer masks to give me the most control and flexibility over which parts of the images are dark and which areas stay light.

One practical effect I like to achieve in-camera, specifically when shooting in nature, is to use a very slow shutter speed- sometimes up to one or two seconds long. If you recall, slower shutter speeds render motion blur for movement. Because the leaves of the trees naturally move in the wind, I can shoot at a higher f/stop to ensure my entire subject is in focus but still create a nice soft focus of the leaves in the background. There is something very natural and organic to the out of focus background that you can’t quite replicate in Photoshop.

Of course, this will only work if your subject is able to remain completely still for the entire duration of the exposure.

Perhaps you could explain the thought process behind a couple of your photos?

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Withered

I was inspired to create Withered after a walk I took in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I came across a sidewalk that was overgrown with weeds and bushes – a rare sight in a city where every block has that same clean, sterile sidewalk appearance (and yes, I use those terms loosely). I was compelled by the idea that something that had been neglected for so long could be seen as beautiful. I knew that I needed to find a location that fit that description, and so I decided to shoot this portrait in the ruins of an abandoned psychiatric facility located about an hour outside of Manhattan.

To me, Withered represents rebirth and the idea that even after something is abandoned it has the ability to be filled with a new life. This thought extends further to suggest that our lives, too, are cyclical and that feeling lost or empty is only the start of a new cycle. In order to see the beauty in ourselves we can’t be afraid to be lost and abandoned first.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Commodity

Commodity is perhaps the image that I am the most proud of as well as the one that has the most significance to me. We’ve become a society reliant on the idea that unhappiness is a weakness and that those who show their sadness are struggling. I’ve lived with depression since high school and know what that stereotype feels like. I’ve become both aware and insecure at how people see me and because of that have adapted to be very good at hiding my emotions.

This image is an objectification of the front we put up to protect ourselves. Happiness has become something of a commodity in our society where we think we can obtain it through material possessions, medication, and articles that tell us how to change.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my fine art series, it’s that it can be extremely difficult to be vulnerable, but only when we are open and honest with ourselves are we able to truly understand that despite our biggest fears and insecurities, there is always a light that hides within the dark. You just have to be willing to go look for it.

Links

You can see more of Alex Schaefer’s work at these links:

Alex Schaefer’s website (check the About page for a list of other interviews)

Alex Schaefer on Flickr

Alex Schaefer on 500px

Alex Schaefer Facebook page

Photo Gallery

Here are some more of Alex’s photos.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Trust

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Suspended

I am caught in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Through the Soul

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

The Rivers That Once Moved

I took a walk in the woods and was inspired by a dry riverbed that I found. There was no water flowing but you could still make out the path the river had carved through the terrain.

I love the idea that the river still exists but only as a reminder of what was once there. This thought reminded me of a friend I had growing up. Though we haven’t spoken or seen each other in a while, I know that I will always be able to look back and see exactly how my life was shaped by the time we spent together.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Reach

It took me a long time to realise that what I was reaching for was the very thing that held me back all along.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Nightmare of the Phoenix’s Angel

The Phoenix is a symbol of change and rebirth. To start again. This nightmare reflects my anxiety toward the inevitable changes that are destined to occur.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Fixtures

Is it still art when we’ve sacrificed our thoughts and ideas to please others?

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

The Fires we Started

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Control

In life we’re faced with difficult choices that take a certain amount of discipline and control in order to follow through.

 For the past few weeks I’ve been faced with a difficult decision that has been looming over me. It is easy to tell yourself over and over what needs to change, but until you find the strength to do so the words will always seem to find a way of consuming you.

Fine art photography by Alex Schaefer

Cardinal

Further resources

Explore the topic of portraiture in more depth with these articles:

How to Shoot a Model Test (featuring the work of Alba Soler)

More interviews with portrait photographers:

320 Icelanders

An Interview with Portrait Photographer Natalie Fong

Shadow and Light: An Interview with Portrait Photographer Betina la Plante

Ballerinas by Eduardo

Amongst the Shadows: An Interview with Portrait Photographer Alex Benetel

Light and Landscape: The Portrait Photography of Sarah Ann Wright

Winter in Italy: An Interview with Portrait Photographer Anna Karnutsch

Colour and Light: An Interview With Portrait Photographer Alessio Albi

Colour and Contrast: An Interview With Portrait Photographer Cristina Hoch

The Creative Portrait Photography of Tori Mercedes

An Interview with Miss Aniela

An Interview with Photography Patrick Wack

Click the link for a list of all my interviews with photographers.

The Natural Portrait

The Natural Portrait ebook coverThe Natural Portrait teaches you how to take beautiful portraits in natural light. This 240 page ebook, published by Craft & Vision, takes you through the entire process of natural light portrait photography through from finding a model, deciding where to shoot, working with natural light and post-processing your images. Click the link to learn more or buy.

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