The Sartorialist Ponders Street-Style Blogs As Social Documents, The Worldwide Ubiquity of Denim Cutoffs
In fashion circles, it’s a particular point of pride to get snapped by Scott Schuman, better known as the Sartorialist. Schuman—along, of course, with the genre’s mainstay, the Times‘ Bill Cunningham—can take a fair amount of credit for reinventing and popularizing street-style photography as we know it, and he remains one of its sharpest practitioners. Fiat invited Schuman to present some of his favorite images of Italian style for tonight’s “An Evening With the Sartorialist” at the Italian auto marque’s Soho pop-up gallery. (It’s 7 to 9 p.m. tonight at 18 Wooster St. in NYC; the event is open to the public, but RSVP is required at TheSartorialist@framenoir.com.) Style.com called Schuman bright and early this morning—immediately following the Royal Wedding, in fact—to talk street style’s ascendance, history, and aesthetics. He opened with a mock admission: “I admit it,” he said with a laugh when reached by phone. “I’m the designer!” A slightly more factual conversation followed.
OK, so you’re not Kate Middleton’s mystery designer. But if you saw her walking down the street, would you shoot her?
Uh…next question. [Her dress] seemed appropriate for the day.
That seems to be the consensus. In other news, Fiat is presenting “An Evening With the Sartorialist” tonight. What’ll we see there?
Just, like, a mini presentation of images that highlight Italian style. Fiat called me because, you know, I have a particular fondness for Italian style. It’s more about craftsmanship and fit and beauty than it is necessarily, you know, over-the-top wildness. So we printed photographs—we actually printed them probably about four times larger than the ones I usually print. They’re 30″ x 40″, so they’re pretty good-sized prints—beautiful Italian style at its best.
The landscape has changed so much since you started taking street-style photos.
There’s definitely a lot of people doing it. I don’t do it particularly as competition, but there’s definitely a lot of people doing it now and I think it’s great; I think it makes a great historical document at this moment. In the past, there were people like [Jacques-Henri] Lartigue, who shot street style in Paris in the 1910′s, 20′s and 30′s. Pretty much I think he was shooting the very high end. He came from a very rich family and he was shooting the very dramatic, high end of fashion. And people like the Séeberger brothers did the same thing—shooting the very high end, people going to the racetracks and all that. Bill Cunningham really was one of the first to start shooting on the street, everyday people, from some dressed at a very high level to some dressed at a very interesting level of less expensive clothes. But I think a lot of times he tended to go to the more dramatic.
Now I think the next step of that evolution is people shooting everything, from the overly dramatic to the very subtle to the very trendy. The technology gives us the ability to make a great document of this time.
Now all it takes is a digital camera for anyone to become a blogger—even if her only subject is herself.
I’m not really a fan of personal style blogs—you know, the ones [on which] these girls just shoot their outfits and all this stuff. I haven’t seen one that I really like or that draws my attention every day. The good and bad of that is that most these girls only have a limited wardrobe; they don’t have many clothes to shoot and I don’t think most of them have come up with looks that are that interesting, that draw me.
However, I do think that it will leave a great social document for 100 years from now. A lot of these girls are just everyday girls from cities all over America and all over the world, and it will be great to be able to look back and say, “Wow, this is how real girls were kind of into that thing, dressed at that time.” And then maybe historically they’ll be able to pull out similarities. It seems like every girl, everywhere in the world, has a pair of denim cutoff shorts…but I don’t think it’s so much of a contemporary thing but what it will mean historically.
Is that something that you were aware of when you yourself began? An eye to the future, to posterity?
I’d always been a fan of Lartigue, and someone like August Sander was a huge influence…probably August Sander more than anyone else. I kind of understood the potential historical meaning of it, but it didn’t really click to me until I’d been doing it for a while and started getting a lot of comments on the site. When it really clicked is what it meant right now in this moment, and we had photographs that mean something in this moment—that are in one way very contemporary and in another way very historical. With someone like Lartigue, nobody really saw his photographs of these women during that time; these were photographs that were discovered much later. And the Séeberger brothers, when they took their photographs, I think few people saw them and I think they were published in some magazine, some local things, but on a very small scale. I think just in France and very, very small scale, seen by people probably of that same class. Where, here, you have photographs that are being seen from all over the world, from regions all over the world, that are being seen in this moment, but then they also have a historical aspect. So what may be noticed is, when you really think about it, this is the first time—not because of me, but just because of technology and the way it is—these images have something that means something absolutely in this moment, an absolute contemporary expression, but they’re also an absolute historical significance in terms of what they mean, what it captures.
But then in terms of this immediacy, do you feel you are changing the moment? Do you find that people are dressing for you or dressing for these photographers in a different way than maybe they were?
Maybe only at the fashion shows. That’s why I don’t feel like a lot of these sites are competition because a lot of them are just fashion show photographers that go to the shows and shoot there, and nothing happens again and they just run those shots out over the next couple of months until the next shows. And there I think it’s changed a little bit, but I’ve never really been shooting just the big editors. When I started shooting Giovanna [Battaglia] and Anna Dello Russo, nobody really knew who they were, so to me they were just editors like anyone else. And I still push harder to find more unknown people, the girls in the second row, in the third row, and the girls helping dress the shows, behind the scenes. When I was up in Harlem for Easter, those three or four people I shot up there had no idea who I was. So it only changes things in a very small part of what I shoot. I was just down in Savannah, Georgia, and in Atlanta. Garance [Doré] and I purposely try to go out of our way to get different places to shoot where we don’t really care if people know who we are. It’s really about just trying to find something new to shoot.
Does anyone say no?
Yeah, people say no all the time. But that part doesn’t really bother me. When I used to have a showroom and was selling collections, people said no all the time, [too]. It’s just part of the job.
Are there other street-style photographers whose work you like? That you’re interested in?
I think Tommy [Ton] does a great job. I really respect how he’s been able to evolve what he does; he took a big step and took a different format, but I’ve been watching how his work has evolved. Before, he was shooting just very much details of the clothing and the product, and he started to slowly have more faces, more of the people, so I like how he created his own thing but it continues to evolve. I think Mr. Newton does some great stuff. Of course, Garance—she’s a whole different thing. I like the Face Hunter, he just keeps doing his thing; he’s been doing it now for a long, long time. He’s treading in that fashion world but he’s also just in his own thing and I like that he hasn’t really changed. He’s just doing his thing. So it gets more of a respect of people who are really into it and haven’t let the other things affect them. I see Yvan [Rodic] and Tommy, I see a lot of those guys all the time and I like how they keep doing it. The ones that I think really have risen to the top are the ones who are doing it the same way with the same passion from day one, when none of us knew if we’d ever make any money at this or be able to do it as a living. I think those guys are all doing it for the same reason as they were from the first day, and you can see it in the consistency of the work.