Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2009 by Penguin (here). 512 pages, with a roughly equivalent number of color images. Includes a small number of short captions by the photographer. The book itself is small and thick, with the most of the images printed all the way to the edges. The works in this book were made between 2005 and 2008. (Cover shot at right, via Amazon.)

Comments/Context: I’ve been thinking about Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist for a while now, trying to put my finger on why his daily images have become such a pop culture phenomenon, why they seem to capture the spirit of our times so well. On first glance, it would be easy to dismiss these pictures as the straight forward snapshots of a fashion obsessive, of people watching taken to some logical extreme. But I actually think the reason these pictures are so successful is that they combine ideas from a variety of photographic genres and place them in a new 21st century context, riding the coattails of a wave of interest in authentic individual expression. This book gathers together a gargantuan sample of images taken from Schuman’s popular blog, and provides a terrific summary of his aesthetic approach.

In many ways, Schuman’s images lie at the confluence of three photographic styles: frontal portraiture, fashion photography, and street photography. While the full body or three-quarters frontal portrait goes back to the beginning of art history, its photographic roots are often laid at the feet of August Sander and his monumental effort to document the people of the 20th century. Since that time, we have seen photographers as diverse as Irving Penn, Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra, Hiroh Kikai, and Albrecht Tübke use the straightforward portrait to explore types and categories of people, the oddities and eccentricities of individuals, the evolution of personalities, and even more abstract conceptual topics (often with deadpan facial expressions). What’s interesting here is while Schuman has borrowed the traditional form, he is using it an an entirely different manner. His search is for those moments when the choices and combinations of color, texture, volume, and contrast found in our attire suddenly manifest themselves as a coherent personal style, when the parts come together in surprising and unexpected harmony. His portraits are intensely individual, but in a way that is universal; we can all look at these pictures and imagine incorporating some small piece of what we see into our own self-image, where the cut of a coat, the silhouette of a dress, the angle of pocket square, or the fabulousness of a pair of shoes can represent a piece of our own personality.

Schuman’s pictures are of course at some literal level fashion photographs. But his pictures have not been staged or constructed in an effort to highlight the dramatic elegance of a couture evening gown or the simmering beauty of a model, in the manner of an Avedon or Penn. Even when these greats of fashion photography worked in the streets, everything was minutely controlled to achieve the desired look: the pose, the lighting, the backdrop, the styling, every detail was tuned to achieve maximum glamour. While Schuman’s subjects are clearly collaborating with the photographer, and some effort has obviously been made to improve the overall composition or lighting of the found environment, for the most part, it seems the goal is not perfection, but more a genuine documentation of the uniqueness of the subject. In some sense, it is an exercise in one artist capturing the subtle originality of another.

The final piece of the artistic puzzle is the energy of the streets, the act of discovery that is the hallmark of great street photography, the recognizing and picking out of something exciting amidst the chaos that passes by in every moment. Schuman’s subjects are mostly “found objects”, chance encounters and random connections, here now and gone in the blink of an eye, hiding in plain sight, bustling by on the sidewalk. It takes a tuned eye to discern the patterns of fashion inspiration in a split second, to see the new or innovative and separate it out from the noise.

All of these photographic threads come together in Schuman’s deceptively simple images. But what I think has most influenced his meteoric rise is his timing; his artistic approach came along just as we entered the Facebook era, when the cult of the individual and the democratization of fashion came fortuitously together to make celebrities and reality show stars out of everyday people. Suddenly, it was entirely acceptable to get an authentic view of personal style from a well dressed stranger, perhaps even preferable to employing one cooked up by fashion editors who were far too removed from everyday reality. Schuman’s images have become an outlet for more voices in the fashion conversation, a way for diversity, quirkiness, and vitality to be more easily integrated into any one person’s view of fashion. There is something vibrant and liberating about seeing fashion in this way, and it’s likely the reason his approach has spawned so many imitators – it’s really a new genre that he has created.

Regardless of whether curators and collectors ever see Schuman’s works as part of the continuum of great photography (fashion or otherwise), there is something infectious and relentlessly positive about this body of work. Pick up this book and you’ll be hard pressed to put it down without picking favorites, while perhaps discovering some new ideas for finding your own individuality along the way.

Collector’s POV: Scott Schuman is represented by Danziger Projects in New York (here). Schuman’s work has not yet become available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors. Given how prolific Schuman is, I expect that print prices are generally quite reasonable.

Transit Hub:

  • The Sartorialist blog (here)

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Read more about: Scott Schuman, Danziger Gallery ~ 952 Fifth, Penguin

One comment

  1. Davidikus /

    This is a very interesting post; I have often wondered why Scott Schuman's work has become so famous. He is technically competent and knows about photography: this already distinguishes him from a million of people who try to do the same thing.

    Bu this is not enough. There are plenty of technically competent photographers who have studied past photographers. What is rather unique to The Sartorialist is that he has an eye: he has an eye for pictures, and an eye for fashion. He can find people who are original or on the contrary representative of a place, of a time. Just a look at what other famous blogs produce demonstrates this. Take Facehunter for example, he more or less photographs the same people ('alternative' / 'London' style) wherever he goes, whereas The Sartorialist will show you people who are typically Milan, or people who are typically Paris. In so doing, he captures our times far better than anyone else has.

    This is enough to produce interesting pictures but this is not enough to get us to look at them. I think he does this by managing to convince us that this is is not a picture of an artist done by an artist, but rather the opposite: the picture of a random Joe done by another random Joe. This, in turn, convinces us, all random Joes can be artists – we can be artists too.

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