Since beginning his influential blog, "The Sartorialist," in 2005, Scott Schuman has become a leading figure in the world of street style photography. His photographs have appeared in GQ, Vogue Paris, and Interview Magazine and have taken the form of three books: The Sartorialist (Penguin, 2009), The Sartorialist: Closer (Penguin, 2012), and The Sartorialist: X (Penguin, 2015). I caught up with Schuman as he pedaled through Manhattan looking for new models.
Above: On the Street… 21st Street, New York, October 2013.
Photographs © Scott Schuman
Cory Rice: When you began "The Sartorialist" there was no Tumblr, Instagram, or Snapchat—Facebook was only a year old. Today, there is no shortage of self-appointed style gurus taking street style photographs and posting them online. Has the genre been exhausted?
Scott Schuman: I think street style is still incredibly viable. People still love looking at other people. Especially when it’s not just pictures people take of themselves. I think street style is even more special because people tend to curate their own image so strongly. So, it is refreshing to see someone else’s outside take of everyday people on the street. Especially when you can add a certain fashion point of view.
You worked in a showroom as the director of men’s fashion before starting "The Sartorialist." How important is having a background in fashion to do this kind of work?
A lot of people are taking pictures, but very few are taking ones with a good fashion point of view. A lot of the people who are at the shows taking pictures are paid photographers who are there taking pictures for clients and they may or may not have any fashion sensitivity. When I started, Bill [Cunningham] was in New York but there wasn’t anyone really doing it in Milan. There were a few people in Japan and Paris—not so much in London. It was always the same thing: an editor and a photographer. The editor had to tell the photographer what to shoot—but you can’t tell a photographer who has no sensitivity to fashion what to focus on. I think that was what separated me.
It also separated me from Bill in the sense that he was really kind of reporting what he was seeing, whereas I wanted to capture it in a little more of a romantic way. Anyone can come in if they have a strong point of view. But that’s the thing that a lot of people just don’t have. It’s like someone who doesn’t love sports shooting a basketball game. They can shoot it, but rarely will they put themselves in the right place, because they just don’t know the game. So, that makes it a little trickier.
What makes for a strong street style photograph?
It is 1/3 the clothes, 1/3 the person, and 1/3 the setting. When all three come together, you have a great image. There are a million times I see someone dressed in an interesting way, but I can’t find a way to get the right feeling in the image. So, to me, it is really about those three things. Having a background in fashion and adding a little romance is really important. That is what a lot of people, I think, are missing. They don’t dream.
How do you usually go about approaching someone on the street?
It’s different each time—a lot of non-verbal communication. You have to figure out a way to approach someone that is gentle but also communicates that you know what you are doing. I have always found that if you act like you don’t know what you are doing, or you are too embarrassed, or too worried about taking someone’s time, they won’t give you their time. People can read your confidence.
I think moving around helps. It communicates right away that I really want to take a good picture of the person. Rarely do you walk on the scene and see the best angle for a particular person. I always shoot a little bit, then try to talk to the person a bit and then take a few more shots. It’s usually in that second round when they relax the right amount that you get the shot. I think there is a certain amount of charm in production that you need to be a good street photographer.
How have you seen the relationship between street style and the fashion world change over the course of your career?
At first people saw its potential benefit but were kind of wary. Then, all of a sudden, they loved it and everybody jumped on board and wanted to figure out their way of doing it. One of the consequences of street style that people haven’t talked much about, but I think is true, is the fact that a lot of the people who had very high positions didn’t get shot as much as they would have liked, or they felt they deserved, because of their position in fashion. And a lot of people who were important people, but maybe not that stylish, didn’t get shot very much, and I think that kind of made them upset. As a photographer, you can’t help it—you say it is nothing personal, but it is a little bit personal because you are judging people when you shoot, and I think there was a definite backlash after a while in some parts.
The brands seemed to have realized the marketing potential.
At first, they held off, because they didn’t really know what they would get out of it, until they realized they could just dress these cute girl influencers and have them come to the shows. The brands have really been pushing it like crazy and not, I think, in a very chic way. Really pushing like “oh look at us with…” even though they don’t really know any of these people, and a lot of the influencers don’t really represent what the brand is about in their everyday life. It turns into a kind of very heavy-handed way of marketing, and the street style stuff can be the same way.
It becomes difficult for viewers when confronted with so much noise.
In the old days, an editor was supposed to give you a selection of what is out there, and a good point of view. Now, I guess because it is digital and they can put up as many photographs as they want, there is no editing. No selection, so poorly done. I still think good street style still does great. The problem is that the market is flooded with really bad street style, and editors not really knowing how to make things work online. Instead of editing down a hundred pictures, they think: “why not just put all hundred pictures up and see what happens? Let the viewer pick. As long as they click we win.” It’s not like in the old days, you only had maybe two pages, or whatever it was, and you could only fit so many shots on them, so you’d have to edit down. Online, that doesn’t seem to be happening, and I think what has been hurting street style photography has been the lack of good editing.
And then this carries over to the photographer who is expected to provide so many shots.
When I am at Fashion Week, I may only see in a whole day seven or eight people worth shooting. Some of these photographers are paid to hand in a hundred shots a day. It’s crazy. They all stand together in a big group. If you had any feeling for a particular shot, you wouldn’t stand in a big circle with everyone taking the exact same shot, you know? None of them are deciding on their own what’s the important thing.
They are afraid of missing someone important.
Right. It’s that fear of missing out. And that is exactly where you see that they have no fashion point of view. Because the strong ones, they know what they want to get, and what they want to say. That is why I feel so lucky that I have my own media, so I don’t have to sell my photographs to anywhere else, and I can be my own editor. If I feel like I only got two shots that are worth showing, then I only got two shots. I think everybody finds his or her own level. Some people want to see as much as possible, and what famous people are wearing, that is fine. There are a lot of people who do that, but if they want something with a little more point of view or romance, they come to me or Tommy [Ton], or someone like that.
In 2018, I will be included in a show at the Getty Museum, about the history of fashion photography, that I am very excited and humbled to be a part of. I am also working on a book about India that will look at the growing fashion element there. I’m also working on updating the design of the blog.