Tim Schenck is an engineer-- the kind of photographer who builds a graphic structure within every image. And then there is the fact that he is an actual engineer--a structural engineer. Really. "Blessed and cursed" with two callings, Schenck uses his architectural eye and career path to aid his passion for documenting significant architectural construction, renovation, and demolition. He has a knack for using color, shapes, and mathematical principles to create a striking image. His 9/11 Series is on permanent collection at the Smithsonian. He documented the before, during, and after of the creation of the High Line.
Schenck's style is very different from my own, on every level from equipment to purpose; so when I caught up with the photographer, who was nice enough to agree to a chat, I wanted to know everything-- background, inspirations, what makes him click, his take on digital versus analog-- and everything he did tell:Julia Wideman: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you first became interested in photography?
Timothy Schenck: I am blessed and cursed to have two callings. In addition to being a self-taught photographer, I'm also a structural engineer. Structural engineers collaborate with architects to design buildings, specifically the "skeleton" or "bones" of the building (think steel beams, concrete walls, etc). We create computer models, perform calculations, draft plans, and help administer the construction process. I started out in photography by taking photos of my projects in construction--out of necessity, I needed to document the work progress. Gradually I found myself taking shots of little details and vignettes around the jobsite. I was using the company's cameras, early digital models, and thought to myself that this was fun and I should get my own camera. I bought my first digital camera, a cutting edge 1MP point-and-shoot and I quickly grew out of it. I then took the plunge and bought a DSLR. This was a major turning point for me as the level of adjustment available in the DSLR piqued my creative curiosity and forced me to learn--and of course my photographs got much better. I was hooked. I started carrying the camera with me everywhere I went. I shot more and more and eventually started developing my own voice and aesthetic.
JW: I called it "a graphic quality," but what do you identify as some of the main themes in your photography? Why are they compelling to you?
TS: My personal work largely focuses on found and carefully composed color and form, shape and symmetry. I have heard people describe my work as very "graphic" and think that it is an entirely appropriate description. My analytic background in architecture and engineering greatly informs the making of these types of photographs. I appreciate the beauty of mathematics in nature and the built environment. The engineering and the photography allow me express this beauty in two quite different ways that are very satisfying to me (the old left brain, right brain thing).
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JW: From your projects, current and past, it seems that you are passionate about documentation on the subject of architecture, particularly the building and restoration processes-- from the Highline to the Guggenheim to the crates in Queen and the 9/11 Series at the Smithsonian. Would you say this is accurate?
TS: Coming from a background in the world of architecture and engineering and starting out in photography the way that I did, this seems to be a natural progression. It is a part of my every day, so I just try to find the bits that I think will be of interest or historical significance. Sometimes I am involved in the projects on the design side and other times I hear about them and start making calls to get access. I am fortunate to know people and get my lens into so many places where the average person would not be allowed. I'm not aware of anyone doing this for the current batch of landmark projects, so my aim is to document as many of these projects as I can in the tradition of Eugene de Salignac and Charles Ebbets (who shot the famous workers lunching on the beam at Rockefeller Center). I am very passionate about these projects because I think we are losing out on something important when this type of work is not recorded.
JW: Also reminds me very much of Peter Moore's visual history of the demolition of Penn Station. It seems like a really obvious thing to say but documentation feels very important in photography. I guess as a photographer myself, it feels purposeful to focus on recording something, whether a neighborhood or event, etc, rather than trying to make a "painting." That's not to say that, for example, something like Kertesz' Distortion series, isnt as impactful and important...
TS: Indeed, another great example. Moore's work is certainly a notable touchstone in this legacy. I like that you mention Kertesz because I think his Distortion work is a great example of how photographers can make the work, however straightforward it may initially appear, uniquely their own. His series is on the extreme end of the spectrum but I try to apply the same principles to my documentary work. Always see with your own eye.
JW: On a similar note, have you made a conscious effort to do architectural "portraits" as opposed to those of people, and if so why?
TS: Most certainly. Early on, I had zero interest in photographing people. I think part of my lack of interest stemmed from a perceived lack of control over the subject. I also felt that people distracted the viewer from the message I was trying to convey with my photographs--the humananity took away some of the magic. I struggled then and sometimes now struggle with the human variable in my photographs.
JW: In that way you are making a distinction between your style and that of de Salignac and Ebbets, no? I think some of their most powerful photos do contain people. I take then you are really recording before and afters as you pointedly label them on your site, as opposed to the process of converting the before to the after, which would inevitably have to involve the subjects carrying out that task.
TS: Not necessarily. The documentary work I have undertaken over the past few years has been instrumental in getting me to think about people as more than distractions or minor accessories in my photographs. They are in integral part of the documentary process for some of the the projects on which I work. Having people in these photographs lends a human face and allows the viewer to identify with and emotionally connect with the project.
Regarding portraiture, I am always trying to push my boundaries as a photographer and in that spirit I have a few "portrait" projects in the works that I hope to execute in the near future. Of course my goal will be to bring my distinct voice to the portraiture.
JW: How are you liking the differences between the two so far? Any sign that your preferences will convert?
TS: Photographing people as the main subject (aside from street and documentary photography) scares me a bit, but in a good way. I feel like I am pushing myself and growing as an artist by trying to put my spin on things that are new to me. I doubt I will ever become a portrait photographer, but I am learning to enjoy the give and take of working with people. The photographic process is much more of a collaboration. It is not so much that I am making a portrait of someone, rather I am making a portrait with them.
JW: The Great Debate: What is your take of digital photography versus film photography? What do you practice and why?
TS: I shoot 100% digital using mainly Nikons and my Iphone. The choice of digital stems from the fact that when the time came to buy my first serious camera, digitals were really coming into their own and dslrs were becoming reasonably priced. That seemed like the natural way to go at the time and I don't regret the decision in the least. I have great respect for film shooters and there is obviously a quality to film that digital can't touch. I would love to know how to shoot and develop film, especially large format, but the time and expense are prohibitive for me. I quite like clicking the shutter and getting immediate feedback. The idea of film is very romantic but the reality for me is not so much--I don't think I could handle all the waiting and the messy chemicals. That being said, like any judicious photographer I firmly believe the final image is what matters most regardless of format.
JW: But what about the digital editing process, you know, selecting "the shot" out of the X number taken of each scene? [...] As someone who uses film I'm interested to know the breadth of that task. And I completely agree that film can be a bit antiquated in the resources necessary to get an image.
TS: Honestly most of the editing I do is done in the field with the camera--shots I decide to pass up because something is amiss and I know I can do better. I also do rough editing with the camera, deleting shots that don't pass muster. My editing process once I sit down at the computer eliminates more shots from the running and isn't that much different than what it might be in the film world. By the time I'm through I have usually found "the one" or figure that I have to go back to the drawing board.
All Images Timothy Schenck. From Top: From Colors | Forms | Figures series, from Before | High Line | After series, from Before | High Line | After series, from Colors | Forms | Figures series