Jo SchwabUntitled (2015)

Studio work de-emphasize setting and by extension temporality. The notion–or at least the notion as I understand it–is that this contributes to an isolation of the subject and through that isolation any adornments or distractions are removed and the viewer is confronted by the visual embodiment of an individual identity.

I think what bothers me about studio work is that I’ve always felt it jumps up and down and screams: look, I’m telling you the truth! Unfortunately, I feel that other factors shift and upend the implicit truth value.

Arguably, good studio work requires image makers to remove their own intentions from the picture so that the image will function as a sort of confrontation of the viewer; the camera and the image maker disappear, in a fashion, and the audience is placed in direct correspondence, vis-a-vis another person.

But the relationship between the image maker and the subject isn’t some sort of catalyst that foments the reaction and completely burns away in the process. It fundamentally shapes the resulting image. In other words, the pose and composition are only half the equation. Invisible things–like the mood of the image maker, the mood of the subject, how warm or cold the studio is, the shape and form of the relationship between the subject and the image maker. (Does the image maker want me to like the subject? Be wary of them?)

There’s at least half a dozen reasons why I dig Schwab’s portraits. Partly, I feel like he gets out of the way more the most folks who embrace studio portraiture. There’s a simple, effortlessness–which I know enough to realize is anything but–to his images. You get the feeling that you aren’t face to face with someone who is trying to be liked or disliked. His work feels very much like that moment when the facade cracks and the real person shows through–like that de Botton line about hav[ing] to be quite heavily invested in someone to do them the honour of telling them you’re annoyed with them.

Not that Schwab’s subjects are annoyed with the viewer… it’s more that their expressions belie emotions outside the norm of decorous interpersonal interaction. The model in the above image seems that she could’ve been given the same instructions–give me a look of “world weary ennui” that Sally Mann gave her daughter in this image.

I especially like the lighting in the image above. It’s simple and imperfect. I’d guess a key light with a softbox on the left, overhead and angled down, with some sort of bounce board or reflector on the floor–giving that background just a little kiss of light to separate the subject from the background.

But note also how background behind her hair remains completely dark, pushing her hair forward in the composition, emphasizing the texture. In fact, I think that’s one thing that holds true of the work beyond the amazing expressions–there’s a ridiculous capacity to use extensive technical acumen to parse the frame in such a way that the subjects take on something more akin to a sculptural dimensionality.

It’s really quite impressive.

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