A Conversation with Photographer Aaron Schuman

A Conversation with Photographer Aaron Schuman

“Do you know the land where lemon trees bloom, 

Where oranges glow like gold in a dark leafy gloom…”

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1796

For centuries, nostalgia has hung heavy in the air of Italy. Even today it remains a place so saturated with memory that it can cause homesickness for places never seen. Keenly aware of this, Aaron Schuman brings together his new photographs from Italy in his current body of work, titled SONATA (Et in Arcadia Ego), a project he began in 2018. He draws inspiration from Italian Journey, Goethe’s acclaimed travel chronicle from 1786-1788. Like Goethe, Schuman filters his observations through the constructed fantasy of Italy, and the unfulfillable expectations that travelers bring with them. Schuman’s photographs are less about objective reality, and more about the way this special place continually challenges or rebuffs the aching desires that we ask it to satisfy. As hinted in the title, the organizational structure of Schuman’s forthcoming book will be reminiscent of a sonata’s classical form, with three chapters loosely demarcating an exposition (tempo allegro), a development (tempo andante), and a recapitulation (tempo allegrissimo). 

Schuman nods to art history in general, and to Goethe specifically, with the project’s subtitle, Et in Arcadia Ego, the epigraph of Italian Journey. While the direct translation is “Also in Paradise I am,” it is not an autobiographical declaration. The speaker is understood to be Death itself, as in Guercino’s famous Baroque painting of the same name, a masterpiece already 160 years old when Goethe himself viewed it while on his quest through terra Italia. The phrase functions as a memento mori, and a reminder that, even in paradise, death is ever present. Considered in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and its early impact on Italy, this phrase assumes an even greater emotional charge. 

Tightly cropped and rigorously minimal, the photographs convey a sense of remarkable determination. Schuman must have found this difficult, since Italy has long understood, perhaps better and longer than other places, the enduring power of spectacle and its ability to overwhelm the senses. Simply put, one must resist being crushed under the weight of all that Italy dares you to see (or to eat, in the case of her mighty cuisine). Picking up a camera there forces an artist, especially one who is not native Italian, to confront an alarming number of aesthetic snares that constantly threaten to trick one into producing pictures everyone has already seen before. And yet, Schuman manages to deftly evade the snares and produce something unique and authentic to his own experience.

Since Latin figures so prominently here, another word with kindred roots should be mentioned. Liminal: occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. Schuman’s photographs feel like they spring from the mind of someone straddling the perspectives of a local and a complete stranger. Time and again, he successfully places himself somewhere in the middle. This liminal quality can be detected on many conceptual levels, not just in the sense of cultural familiarity. That is what I find most exciting about his new project. In SONATA (Et in Arcadia Ego), Aaron Schuman walks the line between euphoria and dread, lust and death, triumph and decline, joy and tedium, tenderness and indifference. 

Adam Ryan: What first brought you to photography? 

Aaron Schuman: I started taking photography seriously when I was around fifteen. There was a teacher at my high school, Vicki Blackgoat, who was the daughter of a celebrated Navajo elder, weaver, and activist, Roberta Blackgoat (1917-2002). She had received a small grant to bring two students to the Navajo Nation during Spring Break, so they could live and work alongside her mother and other elders for several weeks, and then share their experiences of traditional and contemporary Navajo culture with the school when they returned. Desperate for any kind of adventure, I applied for the trip, but I was very reluctant about giving a formal presentation to teachers and peers, so instead I proposed taking pictures – thinking that would be “easier” – and creating a photographic essay that could be presented as a small exhibition. 

Ms. Blackgoat accepted my proposal under two conditions: a) that I not use an automated point-and-shoot camera, but instead borrow her 1974 Nikon F2; and b) that before the trip, I learn at least a little bit about the complicated relationship between photography, Native American culture, and the American West. So for the next month I spent most of my free time in the library, studying photographs by Mathew Brady, Edward Curtis, William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand and so on, while trying to understand the Nikon F2 manual and the possibilities offered by aperture, shutter speed, focus, exposure, and depth-of-field. By the time that I arrived at the airport, I was hooked; for the first time, I was consciously aware of seeing potential meaning in everything around me. Of course, the trip itself was a unique and eye-opening experience – and trying to make photographs that conveyed that experience to others made it even more so. Even afterwards, when I returned to my day-to-day, I found that if I had a camera, everything suddenly seemed potentially fascinating and full of adventure.

Your wide-ranging career and diverse list of accomplishments show how valuable it is to be a polymath. How did you bring together this patchwork of university teaching, writing, curating, and art making?

To be honest, most of it happened by accident. I consider myself a photographer first and foremost, and have approached everything I do professionally from that perspective. However, after graduating from university, I felt a bit out on my own, and desperately missed the camaraderie and community that many photo-education programmes are so great at nurturing. 

After a few years, I started an online photography periodical, SeeSaw Magazine (2004-2014), primarily so that I could keep up with former peers and celebrate their work, as well as stay informed about contemporary photography at large. It was a basic website that I built in my spare time and ran from my bedroom, which featured a few portfolios and an interview in each quarterly issue. But, it was 2004, and although there were several excellent blogs out there, there were very few photo-related “magazines” online. SeeSaw Magazine gradually developed a strong following because it often featured completely unknown or “emerging” artists alongside interviews with and portfolios by some of the most prominent photographers at the time – Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach, Carrie Mae Weems, Ryan McGinley, Broomberg & Chanarin, and so on.

This led to invitations from more established print magazines to contribute articles, essays, and interviews, as well as assorted curatorial commissions and teaching opportunities. All of a sudden I was not only an artist, but a writer, curator, editor, and educator. Through all these activities, I was able to collaborate on various levels, and be an active, invested member of the photo-community (or the photo-family as I like to think of it) that I’d so dearly missed when I was focused exclusively on my own work.

For years it felt like I was spinning a lot of plates at once, and it took time to recognize that rather than these roles being separate, they were all informing and overlapping with one another in fascinating ways, and collectively forming a diverse, holistic art practice. Once I realised that, I began to more consciously interweave and combine them. I also discovered that many of the photographers I admire most – past and present – had/have a polymathic approach to the medium as well. From its inception, photography has been multidimensional and multifaceted, and being a photographer has always involved a wide variety of activities and disciplines, well beyond simply carrying a camera and occasionally clicking the shutter.

Your 2016 monograph FOLK (published by NB Books) is a peculiar book that blurs the lines of personal and ethnic history. It resulted from your invitation to curate Krakow PhotoMonth and your collaboration with the city’s Ethnographic Museum. The items there resonated with your own family’s Polish roots. What was it like to feel such a personal affinity for museum objects and archival photographs you’d never seen before? 

Between 2008-2013, I was invited to the Krakow PhotoMonth festival several times. As soon as I landed in the city, one of my first stops was always the Ethnographic Museum. I was obsessed with the place, which is full of unexpected and fascinating objects, presented in a somewhat old-fashioned yet quirky and accessible way that felt both exotic and familiar. My great-grandfather was from Poland, and my mother still keeps some traditions and family heirlooms that were reflected in the collection – intricately painted Easter eggs, elaborate Christmas decorations, bits of hand stitched fabric and embroidery, and old recipes – but I’d never considered myself particularly Polish or felt connected to that history. 

When the opportunity arose to curate the festival in 2014, I was excited to learn that the Ethnographic Museum was an associated venue. I immediately pitched an idea for a collaborative project, whereby I would engage with the museum, their collection, and their archive through my own personal history. To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in discovering specifics about my family’s past – I just wanted to dig around the museum’s back rooms and see what other fascinating treasures I could find - but it was the perfect “in,” in terms of connecting with the collection and its curators, who were fascinating treasures in their own right. 

After researching the field of ethnography and investigating how it was used throughout the museum’s history, I settled on the idea that - rather than following in my great-grandfather’s footsteps - I would stay within the confines of the museum itself, and follow in the footsteps of the museum’s founders. I became an amateur ethnographer and treated the museum as if it were a small village I was trying to document via its histories, customs, traditions, artefacts, inhabitants and so on. Having grown up in America in the late 20th century, I felt little personal connection to the two hundred years of Galician rural life and culture presented by the museum, but as a photographer, I felt a strong affinity with those who had strived to understand and preserve it. In a sense, FOLK is an exploration of various histories – personal, cultural, collective and national - but as you say, a peculiar and playful one, which also shines a light on the prisms through which such histories are projected, reflected, refracted and absorbed 

You completed SLANT (published by MACK) in 2019, a book that combines police report excerpts from Amherst, Massachusetts and obliquely suggestive photographs you made in the region between 2014-2018. You’ve previously said that the project began lighthearted, but became something less innocent. As an artist, how do you remain sensitive enough to let your work transform with the changing times? 

SLANT was inspired by a small selection of police-reports that I came across in the local newspaper, The Amherst Bulletin, while home visiting my parents in the summer of 2014. Amongst the more predictable small-town incidents, I discovered reports so surreal and absurd that they made me laugh out loud. Here are two examples: 

“CITIZEN ASSISTANCE – 4:14am - A man shovelling snow on State Street told police he saw a strange orange glow coming from the eastern sky that might have been something on fire. Police determined the glow was probably the sun coming up for the day.”

“SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY – 5:53pm – A woman called police after being approached by a photographer in downtown who asked if he could take pictures of her feet. The photographer was not located.” 

Having lived in England for nearly twenty years, I now experience culture shock when I return to America – even in my hometown – where simple things that went unnoticed now seem similarly absurd, often in a quietly funny way. I embarked on a tongue-and-cheek project, combining these odd police reports with photographs reflecting my own off-beat observations, and spent five years doing so.

Over that same period, the ridiculous notion of a Trump Presidency became reality. Alarming political and cultural shifts put an entirely different spin on the material, at least in my mind; what was initially meant to be an affectionate and lighthearted reflection on where I grew up suddenly seemed charged with something more disturbing. Subtly embedded within the police reports and the photographs, especially when combined together, were hints of deeply unsettling themes representative of the cultural moment and prescient of things to come – paranoia, xenophobia, misinformation, superstition, religious fervour, misogyny, and so on.  

When I start a body of work, I might think I know where I’m going, in a very limited or specific sense. Or more likely, I have a spark of inspiration, follow my instincts, and see where they take me. But inevitably, as a project grows and evolves, it takes on new meanings, and only through revisiting, re-editing, re-sequencing, reflection and revision (and finding ways to consider the work at arms-length and in retrospect) will it start to make sense in wider contexts. 

I’ve gradually learned to trust my instincts, and have faith that - by allowing this extended process to unfold - they will eventually lead me somewhere that’s interesting and meaningful in an entirely unexpected way; but I’m still genuinely surprised (and relieved) every time I reach the point in a project where I find myself saying, “Oh that’s what this was all about.”

 

Underneath both FOLK and SLANT, I detect the conceptual foundation of home. As an American expat living in the UK, how has your thinking about home and family changed over the years, and how has that influenced your art? 

Early in my career, I went through a phase of the “National Geographic thing,” going to “far-flung” locations – China, India, Brazil, Tibet, Turkey, etc. – and mimicking photographs that already existed, or reiterating the obvious tropes and preconceptions about those places. These experiences were fascinating, informative, and rewarding for me personally, but I eventually realised that the photographs I made there were not. Looking back at them, I can’t point to what was unique or interesting about the perspective they offered, what meaningful insight they provided, what real purpose they might serve for others, or even what they had to do with me. 

Since then, whenever I’ve had a new idea for a project, instead of trying to justify it generally, I ask myself, “But why me?” How is my own life, background, experience, voice and perspective informing and improving this work? And how can I justify – to both myself and others – that it’s me making it, rather than anyone else? In the broadest sense, maybe that’s where your notion of my work being grounded in “home” originates, in my efforts to conceptualize it in a place where I “live”, “come from” or “belong.” 

As I said before, I’ve lived in the UK for almost two decades, so my sense of home is somewhat fragmented and confused – which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, as it no longer feels like America is just a quick flight away. Over the years, “home” has been New England, New York, London, and now the southwest of England. In some ways, they all still feel like home – despite the fact that when I’m actually in one of those places it never feels entirely so, and I end up longing for the others. I also felt a hint of it, at least in a distant familial sense, walking through the streets of Krakow and rummaging through the archives of its Ethnographic Museum. 

As I let slip earlier, I can’t help calling western Massachusetts home, even though I haven’t lived there for twenty-five years. When I am there, I quickly realise that home is where my wife and children (and dog, and friends, and work, and books) are; nevertheless when I’m in England, I rarely feel completely “at home” either. Despite my best efforts, I’m prone to nostalgia in the original sense of the word – that profound ache of homesickness merged with a deep yearning for the past. Perhaps that explains my fascination with photography; a medium that, albeit imperfectly, captures and contains fragments of the past and propels them into the present. Although I haven’t really thought about it in great depth before, I think you may be right: that one aspect of my work, buried deep within it, is the question or idea of “home,” and my attempt to understand what that might mean, and where I might find it. So thank you for that.

 

To see more of Aaron's work, visit his website at: www.aaronschuman.com.