By Geoff Mueller
A photographer walks into a bar and finds a crumpled man ploughing through endless glasses of vodka Bloody Marys. Chewing on a boozy olive from the elixir, the man begins to cough and choke and shoot tomato-y fizz from his nose. The photographer now has two choices: Heimlich, or snap the shot. The question, then, becomes this: Which lens is most appropriate for the occasion?
Colorado-based flyfishing photographer, Russell Schnitzer, isn’t one to let the down-and-out suffer, but he is someone immensely fascinated by human idiosyncrasies and experience. Whether those moments stem from dimly lit dive bars or occur on Pacific Northwest rivers shaded by towering evergreens, it doesn’t matter. The appeal transcends all.
In his late teens Schnitzer began to “see” things as still frames in his mind. “Moments, landscapes, scenes, expressions, and details, lots of details,” he says. Those nuanced views entered a mental photoshop, where they were captured and processed. And even without a camera, “I began the lifelong process of establishing and refining a photographic vision.”
Today, with camera firmly affixed to face, Schnitzer is busy lending his inspired view to flyfishing and conservation publications, as well as clients such as Scientific Anglers, and ranching operations across the American West. Always in search of the next dynamic shot, he’s convinced that finding diamonds is a matter of scratching beyond the peripheral, diving into the guts of what drives people to think and do, and sourcing the foundational elements that bring authenticity to the places we fish.
His story starts here.
Geoff Mueller: How has photography shaped you as a person?
Russell Schnitzer: It’s the single biggest influence shaping how I view the world and the people around me. I’m a photographer, thus everything is a potential photograph, all the time. With every shot, I’m trying to communicate something in a way that might be genuine and unique. It is an attempt to pilot the camera and lens toward creating a moment with which someone else might identify in a visceral, perhaps even emotional way. That is a powerful form of art, and one to which I feel beholden to apply in meaningful ways.
GM: Briefly walk us through your journey into the realms of lifestyle, travel, flyfishing, and conservation photograph.
Russell Schnitzer: I started to really “see” things in my mind as still frames in my late teens and early 20s. I didn’t have a camera of my own until I was 24, let alone any experience with professional photography. Leading up to that, even without a camera, I began the lifelong process of establishing and refining a photographic vision. I talked about it often, such as where I would see a shot, and I’d speculate as to how I’d make it. ‘That would be a cool black-and-white,’ that kind of thing. It all started to line up for me shortly after I moved to Washington D.C., following what was kind of an ugly end to a relationship. I was short on cash, didn’t own much of anything aside from flyfishing gear, and moved into a shitty apartment.
Seriously, I couldn’t even stand upright in the kitchen, and had to roll around on a little cart between the dorm-sized fridge and the fun-sized stove. One day, a package arrived from my ex containing some miscellany I’d forgotten in my haste to leave. It included a 35mm SLR camera body and a note of encouragement. Not all bad blood, or… it had largely passed beneath the bridge.
I ordered the only lens I could afford: a 50mm f/1.8, and a box each of Fuji Velvia 50 and Fuji Acros. Carrying that camera everywhere I went, I kept journals documenting the settings and thoughts behind every single exposure I made, and cross-referenced the developed slide or negative with those notes. I worked as an assistant to some incredibly gifted, gracious, and patient photographers. Over time, I began to line up a photographic concept in my head with what was “seen” by the camera, film, and lens. For me, this fundamental approach remains unchanged.
Outside of my passion for photography, flyfishing is my life. Therefore, it was an obvious outlet for practicing shooting, and to provide my first serious forays into professional work. I’d worked for Trout Unlimited for a few years, and had established a few relationships with both flyfishing industry people and other non-profit conservation colleagues. I learned some general guidance for editorial and commercial work and set out to gain a toehold.
GM: Your portfolio has a distinct place-based feel to it: from the American West to Colombia, Belize, Bahamas, and beyond. As a traveling photographer, what is it about new locales that you love? And walk us through your upcoming travel itinerary for the season.
RS: I’ve always loved going to new places. Maybe it’s instinctive. I’ve had to move around the country a lot. With each move, I’m trying to really get to know a place. It’s more than finding cheap beer or good pizza joints. I like to understand a place and its people. No matter where I go, I work hard to identify what’s unique and idiosyncratic. The good stuff is found beneath the superficial commericial-tourism layer. It’s in the sketchy neighborhoods, in the dive bars, in the lives of the people that work for a living. It grounds me, and provides a solid foundation from which to begin my own work. Using a photojournalistic approach, coupled with my ‘style,’ whatever that means, has proven to be a compelling way to tell stories, whether they’re good ol’ fishing stories, or a conservation campaign. This has also translated well to travel and cultural assignments. Travel, particularly to new places, is so refreshing for any photographer. Naiveté and lack of familiarity create unique perspectives, provided you have the confidence to shoot in that context.
That said, I’ve had a busy year already. A couple trips to Florida; I’ve also been to Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, and Montana. Typically, this kind of racket would continue through the year. But this year is a little different. My wife and I will be having a child this summer, and I’ll be devoting some time to that major life change. It will also allow me to get caught up on the production of a few video projects. I’m also tentatively planning a shoot in New England, as well as a return to the Pacific Northwest. Hopefully, Belize or Honduras will also make the slate for after the Colorado snow begins to fly.
GM: One might think flyfishing photography is a cutthroat business. But it seems, at least here in the Colorado, that the community is thriving and friendly. What’s been your experience?
RS: I totally agree. In fact, many of my closest friends throughout the country are fellow photographers, something for which I’m grateful. Some of my favorite fellow-Coloradans are Mark Lance, Tim Romano, Josh Duplechian, and Ben Knight. I’m also a huge fan of New Jersey photographer Rob Yaskovic, with whom I hope to collaborate on future projects. The same goes for Dave McCoy up in Seattle. Others I admire include Nate Luke, Paolo Marchesi, and Corey Arnold.
GM: Between blogs, social media-scapes, and traditional print avenues, there are a lot of people shooting flyfishing these days. What’s the key, in your opinion, to standing out from hoards?
RS: It reminds me of the old story of the well-established artist who, when asked about what it takes to be a successful artist, replies: ‘Make good art.’ There’s no formula, obviously. For me, it means staying true to my vision, and being there with a camera at the ready. I’m pulled all over the place by conceptual shots that have come together in my head over time. In between, I occasionally get lucky. The only constant is that I have a camera in my hands and a couple of lenses that see moments exactly the way I feel them.
Another factor is surrounding myself with good people. If my photographs are an attempt to effectively convey a certain authenticity of experience, be it flyfishing, travel, or otherwise, it requires people who are down with that life, willing to really dig in and be present in those experiences. My job then becomes pretty straightforward: recognize the right conditions, and anticipate shots before they come together. I’m fortunate to know a lot of these people, and I hope that my work causes me to continue to intersect with them.
GM: The perfect shot, or shoot? What are your inspirations when you’re on the job and what elements and esthetics are you seeking in order to bring superlative images to light?
RS: I do all that I can to become part of the scene. Whether it is in a studio or fifty miles from the nearest road, I’m looking for definitive elements. It might be a person, it might be a group of people, it has been colors, patterns, and other details. My inspirations frequently have to do with an idea related to a quintessential experience or detail, and I build out from there. I tend to gravitate more toward the stark, in contrast to complex composition. Even when I have a detailed shot list prescribed, I try to avoid preconceptions, and create the right moments as they flow out from those elemental ideas.
GM: Is there a photo journalistic project you’re pining to tackle… that doesn’t involve rods and a bunch of dudes slamming PBRs?
RS: Definitely. I’m in the process of wrapping up a year-long project that documents human—and mostly non-fishing—relationships with wild salmon and steelhead along the Oregon coast. I’m hoping to begin a longer-term project on western collaborations between agricultural producers and conservation interests. I’d also like to pursue some ideas pertaining to the resurgence in the number of US-based micro-industries (textiles, clothing, tools, bicycles), as well as “urban homesteading.” I’d also love to line up work on behalf of a major conservation campaign during the year ahead.
For info on Russ and to view more of his images, check out schnitzerphoto.com.
Follow his adventures via Instagram at http://instagram.com/schnitzerphoto.