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Just Looking

April 11, 2007

Before reading about Scott Schuman — the photographer and fashion connoisseur who runs the blog The Sartorialist — in an article printed in the February 26 New York Observer, I’d never heard of the guy. I now wonder how I could have missed him. He seems to pop up everywhere: downtown, abroad, on friends’ lips, in print. A few of his photographs will appear in an upcoming issue of French Vogue. He has contracts with several Condé Nast publications. The New York Post recently reported that the April 13 issue of Time Style & Design will name Schuman one of the top one hundred influential people in the design world. The Post article also reported that Schuman’s blog, a disarming site that features photographic portraits of people on the street and of fashion dignitaries, recently drew one million visits in a month.

I’m no critic. While I enjoy looking at nice things as much as the next person does, I can’t even claim to be a fashion, design, or photography enthusiast. So it was with not only obliviousness but also a real naiveté that I first explored Schuman’s photographs (the same naiveté with which I write about them now). I found the site and its images — of hipsters, dandies, Harlemites, businessmen, tailors, skaters, Easter Day Paraders, and many, many other folk — accessible, appealing, artful. I also found the images uncommonly humane. I’m trying to figure out why.

In April 2006, the novelist Jonathan Carroll wrote this of Schumans’s subjects:

    They’re almost all smiling in happy, unposed ways. It’s obvious they’re delighted to have been stopped for this picture. Flattered that someone in the know, a stranger, said to them out of the blue, “You’re dressed wonderfully today. Can I take your picture to post on my web site?” There isn’t an ounce of smug in any of their expressions. In fact many, no matter how old or sophisticated they are, they are smiling with real delight. They’re thrilled by this nice surprise and the expressions on their faces are an inch or two away from the joy of children.

Like Carroll, I can’t overlook the role acknowledgment and pleasant surprise must play in Schuman’s photographs. I imagine most of his subjects put some thought into their appearance on the day Schuman encounters them: I will wear this red scarf, these pink shoes; I’ll tilt my hat just so; I’ll mix these patterns, these textures; I’ll invoke this or that era. When Schuman approaches a subject, he’s not simply saying “Damn, you look nice.” It’s likely he appreciates about the subject the very thing that the subject appreciates about himself. Schuman’s acknowledgment must feel something like the acknowledgments that nudge people toward love; I’m thinking of the way it feels when someone you adore notices in you something you thought only you knew or maybe even something you hadn’t yourself noticed — not the obvious qualities, but the subtle mannerisms, the quirks. Schuman sees such lovable idiosyncrasies in the length of a pant leg, the drape of a skirt, the width of a lapel. He admires designers and their designs; he also admires people and the way they adorn and create themselves. Carroll mentions Schuman’s passion for his subject. I see passion and reverence too — not only for the subject (fashion), but also for the subjects (people).

“…you have seduced me, and I was seduced.”

It seems difficult for photographers to avoid condescending points of view in portraiture; people so often look like objects or tokens in photographic portraits, at least many of those I’ve seen. It might be blasphemous or maybe just dilettantish to say, but condescension is what I see in Diane Arbus’ portraits — but then her point of departure can’t be (or rather, can’t have been?) farther from that of Schuman. For Chrissake (and I’ll get to him in a second), condescension is often what I see in travel photos, both my own and my friends’: Look at this precious child from a developing country! Check out this adorable old man in his straw hat! Isn’t this a neat sari? What I’m trying to say is that it’s difficult to maintain a genuinely reverent posture from behind the lens without drowning in schmaltz, but Schuman manages to do it. It’s telling that he finds his inspiration in August Sander’s work. In the same way Sander’s arresting portraits of fellow Germans might have been animated by the photographer’s feeling for his countrymen, Schuman’s images might be animated by his feeling for his fellow sartorialists.

Which clumsily brings me to Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, which is currently playing at the Film Forum in New York City (but not for much longer).

Like its subject, Into Great Silence doesn’t ask to be evaluated. It doesn’t interfere, it hardly asks questions. It certainly doesn’t judge. The film instead observes Carthusian monks in their mountain environment and in their daily rituals of reverence and devotion.

Where Schuman’s work is at least in part about trappings, Gröning’s is about the absence of them, in terms of both the monks’ asceticism and the filmmaking itself. A friend to whom I recommended the film, the writer Dustin Beall Smith, saw it and wrote to me, “ …it made me think that audiences might be ready (again) for films in which stillness is portrayed and silence evoked — or if not pure silence (as in ‘silent film’) then at least a silence uninterrupted by the human voice and the engineered soundtrack produced for studio executives who don’t trust silence — punctuated perhaps by incidental sounds, like footsteps, raindrops, wind.”

It takes a certain, well, reverence to let footsteps, raindrops, and wind be. Gröning lets these sounds punctuate the film’s scenes as they would if we were to regard the Carthusians firsthand. The only other punctuating elements are repeated excerpts from scripture and other sources. The most transcendent of these: “Oh Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.” The words seem to capture the monks’ frame of mind as well as they do the filmmaker’s.

Reverence might, as E.M. Forster once suggested, be fatal to literature, but man, does it do wonders for the visual arts.

— Suzanne Menghraj

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