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Friday, June 4, 2010

A Conversation with Photographer and Sociologist David Schalliol


[Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by David Schalliol,]


While compiling the recent series concerning the oeuvre of mid-century photographer Vivian Maier, I found it compelling to take an in-depth look at the works of David Schalliol, a masterful contemporary photographer currently residing in Chicago.

How supremely interesting to witness the deep unearthing of Maier’s photographs of Chicago in the ‘50s and ‘60s (some 1500 rolls of undeveloped film) alongside Schalliol’s current complex and sophisticated portraits of grand, mournful, strange, and quiet buildings, which, like Chicago’s little “mountains”, are continually revived and eroded by the changing life of neighborhoods.

In an interview with Martin Schwander, Jeff Wall spoke of his photograph Restoration, addressing the “massiveness of the task the figures are undertaking [“the conservation of the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne”]:

Jeff Wall, Restoration

“There might be associations of that massiveness with the futility of ever bringing the past into the ‘now’” (Brougher 41). The tensions and textures of Maier’s “excavation” find harmony with Schalliol’s vision of the destructive and fecund layers of humankind’s work upon the land.

Jessica Savitz: Dave, I imagine your work as a sort of urban take on the work of the Barbizon painters—

you are standing right in the center of the “field”—for you, the field of human activity, or sometimes in “post-human”, abandoned spaces, recording, with the immediacy of your camera, “daily trials of frostbitten fingers at winter's dawn or sunburned hands at summer's midday… answer[ing] the quest for landscape's metaphoric power” (Heilbrunn).

Do you have any rituals associated with the photographic process or photographic outings?

David Schalliol: I wouldn’t say that I have any rituals involved with the photographic process, but the idea of exploration is an important part of my photographic outings. Whether I’m in Chicago or somewhere new, I typically head off in the direction in which I’d like to photograph and then repeatedly change course because of an unusual landmark, a break in the clouds, a group of people or an unrecognized corner.

While I’m always looking for something to photograph, the act of exploration is a crucial piece of the process.

JS: I love reading about Winogrand and Meyerowitz on their expeditions together. Joel Meyerowitz: “Garry loved company. He needed to be out on the street, and he needed company out there with him all the time… Right from the beginning, he would call in the morning and say, ‘Listen, I’ll meet you at the greasy spoon on Ninety-sixth and Amsterdam: we’ll have coffee, we’ll go out, we’ll shoot.’ I was up and ready to go. I was off and running for the next three intense years—1962 to 1965—with this guy, this unstoppable bundle of nerves” (Meyerowitz 375). Do you like to photograph with a buddy?

DS: Generally, yes. I love sharing the experience of being in the field. While one can always share the images after the fact, viewing the image is a totally different kind of experience than being there. I don’t expect the typical viewer to have that experience, but I wish to share that with friends.

I suppose I have two caveats: the first is that it can be difficult to photograph with another photographer if for no other reason that one doesn’t want to poach another’s shot. With that in mind, there are only a handful of people with whom I feel comfortable enough for joint photography excursions to work fully. The other caveat is I don’t want others to be bored. Waiting 20 minutes for the next L train to pass is one thing if one is planning a shot and listening for the rumble of the approaching wheels, but it’s something else if one is simply waiting.

JS: How did you start taking photographs?

DS: I’ve been interested in photography since my parents bought me an instant Kodak camera when I was eight or so, but I didn’t seriously start taking photographs until the early 1990s. I was taking a darkroom processing class when I started to experiment with taking photographs of the Indianapolis punk rock scene as well as the transitional areas between the suburbs and farmland. Since then, I’ve built on the theme of transition across a range of rural and urban environments, mainly contingent on where I’ve lived.

JS: Who are your influences? Who are your favorite street photographers? What is your all-time favorite photograph?

DS: It’s surprisingly difficult to identify my main photographic influences because I only casually viewed other photographers until the last couple of years. Without other photographs to pore over, I’ve always thought about my early influences as the journalistic work of George Orwell and John Steinbeck, as well as novels by the likes of Émile Zola and Upton Sinclair. In each case, I was drawn to the author’s treatment of place as a critical facet of the human experience. Perhaps the most memorable of these is Steinbeck’s use of distinct chapters to investigate facets of the changing landscape in The Grapes of Wrath. Later perspectives have mainly come from the sociological tradition. The main exception is Camilo José Vergara, whose New American Ghetto I picked up in 1998. It was the only closest thing to a photography book I owned for another decade.

Camilo José Vergara, Girls, Barbies, Harlem

As I’ve become more engaged in the photographic world in the last couple of years, I’ve made a conscious effort to identify the photographers whose work has informed the genres in which mine may be located. Like many others, I’ve come to appreciate many of the photographers associated with the New Topographics show and the Düsseldorf School, as well as those experimenting with color photography in the 1960s and 1970s.

Standouts include Frank Gohlke:

Joel Meyerowitz:

Stephen Shore:

and, of course, the Bechers:

Some of the contemporary work to which I’m drawn includes that of Jan Banning:

Gabriele Basilico:

and the team of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin:

I’m not certain I have an all-time favorite photograph, but Henri Cartier Bresson’s Madrid, 1933 has all of the right elements:

JS: Would you categorize your work as “street photography”?

DS: While I certainly take many photographs that could be considered “street photography,” I don’t usually think of them as such. Instead, I tend to think about my work as more landscape photography or some kind of structured social documentary work. The distinction may be slight, but there is often a kind of looseness in street photography that I don’t often engage. Instead, I study the built environment and approach a scene more on “my time” rather than what could be said is the independent time of the scene. That’s not to say that I’m not seeking “the moment” of a photograph, but that moment may be a little longer than a typical street photographer’s.

JS: Did you or do you ever use film? Reflecting on John Maloof’s recent discovery of Vivian’s Maier’s work, it’s just so fascinating to think of 1500 rolls of undeveloped photographs, especially from so long ago! The way we deal with digital photography is so immediate. What are your feelings about the current tools of the photographer, and the ways in which the cessation of the suspense of developing one’s photographs has changed us?

DS: I photographed using black and white film as well as color slides from 1993 until about 2003, at which point I disassembled my darkroom and switched full time to digital. I still have a couple of undeveloped rolls of film and negatives that I haven’t reviewed in years – but 1500 is almost unimaginable. I’m looking forward to seeing that output!

While I’m sure I still romanticize the process of film-based photography and the discipline of waiting, I have become an enthusiastic advocate for digital photography. That quick loop of image creation and assessment has actually strengthened my relationship to the environment, and I believe it’s made me a better photographer. With film, I felt pressures of time and money to primarily shoot images when I really understood the lighting. With digital, I’m freed from those pressures. As such, I’m able to be more experimental with light, yielding what I hope are more natural images across a broader range of situations.

That said, our relationship with the image is certainly changing. As with seemingly everything, we’re becoming more impatient, but we’re only just now figuring out what to do with the hundreds of images we can shoot a day and where their worth lies. When I’m wearing my photo editor hat, I’m astounded by the number of photographs I see of the same subject – perhaps from the same photographer. There’s no doubt that the editing process hasn’t caught up with the ability to produce an endless number of images of anything that momentarily fascinates us – and perhaps there is where the impatience catches up with us again.

* * *

A Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, David Schalliol is academically and artistically interested in issues of social stratification and meaning in the social and physical worlds.

In addition to his sociological and photographic activities, David plays an active role on several websites, including his work as Founder and Editor of metroblossom and Managing Editor of Gapers Block.

* * *

Please visit our blog site again soon; next week, we will showcase part two of the Schalliol interview.

The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers. We are located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for a verbal evaluation of your most prized works of art.

Interview by Jessica Savitz

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.

Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM

307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308

Chicago, IL 60601

Phone: (312) 814-8510


Works Cited:

Brougher, Kerry. Jeff Wall. Los Angeles; The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997.

The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.