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Double Vision 

Photographer Michael Schoenfeld finds time for local characters between commercial gigs.

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After a couple of volleys of telephone tennis, I finally catch up with photographer Michael Schoenfeld as he returns to his studio in Salt Lake City after a trip to Tulsa and its environs, shooting commercial photographs for an aerospace company. It’s perhaps fitting that the route it took to talk to him included a few detours, because it mirrors the shape of his own work: making time for side excursions from pictures taken to make a living to those that open his eye wider to life around him.

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“As I travel around on business, I try to arrange an afternoon or even a whole day to hunt up indigenous local characters,” he says. These detours have taken him everywhere from Haight-Ashbury to Hollywood, New Orleans and to Boise, where “a chance encounter with a cowboy poet there led me to taking shots of saddle makers and barbers in Emmett, Idaho.

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“Rather than plan, I try to see whom I can meet and be moved by the moment, make quick relationships and get into people’s characters,” he continues. “People are more visceral than objects. They are electric. I try to meet a total stranger and see what I can get them to reveal about themselves.” He brings what he describes as “a classical portraitist look” to the approach but then narrows the focus so you feel you are talking to the subject.

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His development as a photographer took a few detours as well. Originally from Kaysville, he studied photography at Weber State University and eventually became a U.S. Army photojournalist, as well as playing in USO bands in the 1970s. “In those days, we’d sit in West Germany across from our opposite numbers, seeing which army could outdo each other in drinking and doing drugs,” he recalls with a laugh. “We were profoundly ill-prepared if the Russians had actually done anything.nn

He moved back to Utah with the intention of writing some songs and taking them to Los Angeles but got a job as an assistant to photographer Gerald Bybee and eventually found himself behind the lens. For the past 25 years, he has operated his own photography studio and has become one of the best-known local photographers, as well as making a name for himself nationally. He took a lot of pictures at the old Zephyr Club, including Al Di Meola, Chet Atkins, John Doe (of the band X) and Laurie Anderson.

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The 15 black-and-white photographs in this show, he says, are all portraits in the street photographer genre. Images like “Santa Fe Fortune Teller” (above) are intimate yet mysterious, revealing yet never voyeuristic. A stock car racer and a Southern gentleman bear lines on their faces written by time, but their stories seem to be their own, rather than imposed by the camera. “I don’t try to capture hidden moments,” Schoenfeld says, “but make it cooperative process.nn

As with many commercial photographers, his for-hire work shows an artistic eye at times. Subjects like a young man holding a camcorder look like they could just as readily tell you their stories as the product’s. He feels that advertising has largely blurred the line between art and commerce, a line he tries to keep intact. “With digital photography, images are manipulated to feel ‘real’ now,” he explains. That realist style that has filtered down to ad agencies from art galleries has become another marketing tool.

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The Modern8 venue itself represents the fine line between art and commerce: It’s the home of a local ad agency known for artsy images which also has housed innovative art exhibits for more than two years. This show includes paintings by Joel Jarrard, whose landscapes Schoenfeld says are quite different from his own work. “But we connect by sharing a classical artistic influence,” he believes. While Jarrard’s paintings depict mythic British countrysides, Schoenfeld continues to survey the length and breadth of America. His secret: “I’ve gotten really good at sleeping on planes.nn

Michael Schoenfeld
nModern8 Gallery
n561 W. 200 South
nThrough June 15
n355-9541

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