Keeping It 100 With Chris Schoonover
Chris Schoonover never takes the same photo twice. The setup might be there (soft lighting, a formal portrait, eye contact that cuts straight to the heart), but every gaze alters the viewer differently, and thus, alters the photograph as well. It’s this simple confrontation of the complexity of human emotion that Schoonover has let guide his work thus far, and it’s an approach that’s working; he’s risen through the ranks of Instagram creatives to become a Milk favorite and friend of the fam. Always honoring authenticity above all else, we found that Schoonover was the perfect fit to try out Fujifilm’s new X-T100 camera with just that in mind: Keeping It 100. Read on below for our full interview with Schoonover, and check the gallery above for the images he created using the new gear. You can cop your own X-T100 here, or if you’re feeling lucky, head to our Instagram to enter the giveaway.
So obviously now you’ve been shooting fashion for many years—how has your style evolved since you started?
Yeah, I think I just sort of started by like asking a model to shoot, and I did that a few times, and then I was like, “Ok, I think I need a stylist.” But I didn’t know anyone. So I started styling myself, which was good except I couldn’t get really great clothes, and I was also broke, so we did a lot of thrift store stuff, and then stylists started reaching out to me, makeup artists started reaching out to me, so I started working with them. So every shoot I kind of built and added something different and was learning during that time period. It was really crazy. It just got more complex as I went. I never assisted anyone so I didn’t know how to do it—I was just making it up as I went along, and sort of just looking at photos and saying well how can I make something like that. So it was really interesting experience. I had a couple people in my life who knew lighting, and I met a couple people as I went along, but I’m really still sort of making it up as I go along. I don’t know what’s “right” necessarily.
How do you fill in the gaps with your knowledge when you’re teaching yourself and kind of making it up as you go like you said?
Well I ask a lot of questions. I work with this one guy Tyler, and it’s kind of a crazy story—back when I first started, Refinery29 had asked me to do a shoot and my brother Jonathan was the only person I knew who knew anything about lighting. I didn’t go to school for it, so I didn’t have that network. But I knew of this other photographer, and I ended up finding his phone number online and I just called him and was like, “Hey, you don’t really know me, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me light? Like I know this might be beneath you—I would never imagine you assisting me—but I really need help.” And he was like, “I would love to, but I can’t.” So he sent me a few names, and he sent me this one guy Tyler and we’ve been working together for like five years now. So it’s been really cool and he’s taught me a lot. I think he actually used to work at Milk Equipment. So he’s just the best. Just has infinite knowledge. It’s insane. So I’ve learned a lot from him, and I think that’s a really cool thing because it’s about being open to learning from the people you’re hiring. You have to be open to that. And I think we’ve learned a lot from each other, too, because he’ll know the ultra right way to do it and sometimes I’ll question that and we’ll find new ways to do things. So leaving yourself room to play is good too. I think you learn a lot by just doing it. And assisting is awesome too, maybe that would have fast-tracked me in a lot of ways, but I didn’t want to work for anyone else. [Laughs]
Yeah, I mean the thing about assisting or shadowing someone is that you pick up their good habits but also their bad habits, too.
Yeah, yeah, totally. And know you, I just want recognition for things I’ve done, and not just because I was taught be somebody else. I wanna earn my own way.
What was your experience like with Fujifilm prior to this project?
So the X100S, I think it came out around 2012, that was my first professional camera. So I started on that, and I started by just photographing nature. I wasn’t a photographer before that, so I had no idea what I liked photographing or anything like that. So I started just taking pictures of my food, pictures of nature, plants, stuff like that, and then I sort of had to work up to what I liked, because I didn’t know what my tastes were. So that was really cool because I started traveling a lot, getting scenery and mountains and stuff, but then I started getting people in there, almost street shots. And I loved that because people just add another dimension to a photograph for me. I just started focusing a lot more on the people, so that was great, and that was a great stress relief for me. So Jonathan, my brother, was living up here, and I would visit him every weekend and during that time we would just go do street shots. We would just take walks and photograph whoever we ran into. And that was really exciting but then I started to realize like, “Oh, I really like where this person is standing, but I wish they were wearing something different or a different color,” and that’s sort of how I got into fashion. I just realized I wanted more control on the scene. So that’s when steet photos kind of fizzled out for me. I still like it, but I think fashion is a good spot because I can control the scene and control what they’re wearing, the makeup—I can just make a whole scene for myself, and I think for me that feels a little more like I accomplished something or made something on my own. But that FUJIFILM camera was beautiful—it just looked so much like film, as close as I could get at that point, so it was a great start.
So how did the shoot go? What was it like picking up a Fujifilm again after starting with one all those years ago?
The X-T100 felt familiar. It was really great, still pretty much the same honestly with the adjustment ring and the quick menu. It felt very familiar to me. And actually when I was looking at the files, I know the camera isn’t a pro version but I love the quality of these images. The colors are so good and yeah, I was pleasantly surprised. I knew they’d be good but wasn’t expecting them to be as good as they are. So yeah, it was great.
And on the note of authenticity in photography and “Keeping it 100”, how do you make sure a photo still feels genuine when you’re controlling every aspect of the image with fashion?
Yeah. I think whenever you’re building sets you’re always on the border of making it kitschy, especially when it’s retro. So I think it’s just: don’t go overboard. I don’t know if I worry about it being authentic, I just don’t want to look stupid. I don’t want anyone to look at it and be like, “That’s really cheesy.” But sometimes I’ll just go really really simple, you know, just throw a piece of fabric up and make it work. Or sometimes I’ll run up a $600 bill at Home Depot buying set materials. So I think it’s important if you’re going to do something big, to look at the details, but you can also do something really elegant and strip it back and just have that simplicity. It’s different every time. I try not to build my shoots on top of eachother; like, in my head, I just wipe the slate clean. I don’t want to just build on what I did the time before. I always think about what I haven’t done in my work or what I could do differently. Or if there’s a spot that’s empty in my book, you know I’ll try to create that kind of photo. But I always end up getting these kind of very formal portraits. And I don’t know if that’s intentional or not. There’s been a ton of shoots where we’ll try and do a lot of movement, and it just doesn’t feel real. It just feels dramatic for me. I think there’s some people that do it really well but for me I just end up liking somebody just staring right at me. And not giving people too much direction is nice sometimes too. I don’t know. I think the photos that excite me the most, the ones that make me say like, “My God” when I see them, are always the ones that are just completely composed, and still, and you see their eyes and it’s just haunting or uneasy; it just feels the least contrived. Because anytime you’re taking a photo, there’s no way you can just be the fly on the wall. It doesn’t exist. Anytime you’re taking a photo of somebody, it’s always going to be different than it would have been if you weren’t there. Even if you’re taking a picture of someone sleeping or something like that—you’re there, you’ve changed the environment. So I think that just feels like the most honest picture, just somebody looking at you. There’s definitely exceptions to that but for me that’s just what I’ve always been drawn to. That’s the strongest image every time.
Do you feel the pressure to always be pushing the envelope and trying new things and techniques?
I think that’s just how I like to do it. I get bored with doing the same lighting setup every time. This weekend I just grabbed two new lights for an editorial that I had never used before, and we were just making it up as we go along, and those are some of my favorite shoots. It’s fun to insert some sort of new tool or process in every shoot that I do. And then sometimes I’ll get very process heavy and so for the next shoot I’ll just shoot portraits and strip it all back. I like to keep it fun for myself. You can do your best controlling all the elements but at some point you just kind of have to let it go, and have fun. That’s the only thing that keeps me doing it. ‘Cause at the end I’m so proud of the end result. I always said if there was a way to take the photos without all the equipment and without the camera, I would.
Who are three people you admire in photography? Either within your community or outside of it.
It’s actually three people who were around during my first years photographing, and they kind of grew with me. One is my brother, Jonathan, who helped me learn a lot of what I know about lighting and photography in general, Stephanie, my sister in law, and she’s been there the whole time and been photographing just as long as Jonathan. They started before me, so they started when they were like 15, but I didn’t start until after college and a couple jobs. So they were around in my formative years as far as photo and they kind of told me what I was doing wrong, what I was doing right. Just as I was learning, because you don’t really know when you’re starting out. So they were huge in my growth for just learning what my tastes even are. And they’re still like that—even last night they came over and I showed them what I shot and got their feedback. You know—they’re just people that I can bounce my ideas off of and show my edits to. And I help them the same, so it’s a really cool creative group that we have, we’re always on each other’s jobs and always know what the other person is working on.
And then James Lacroix—we were both in a photo show in San Francisco maybe four or five years ago, I really liked his work, and met him there and we just hit it off. He was a really nice guy and we were both in the same situation of not knowing too many people out there so we just hung out the whole weekend, and he’s visited a couple times since, and every once in a while we get back in touch and just talk photo and life…so yeah, most of the people are just good friends of mine, really close to me, and family. And I love all of their work. It’s great.
“Keeping It 100” is a series in partnership with FUJIFILM North America
Stay tuned for more from our “Keeping It 100” series for the FUJIFILM X-T100