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Focus on the Photographer: Chris Schoonover

New York-based photographer Chris Schoonover shoots fashion photography for its pure aesthetic pleasure. We talk with him about his tight-nit upbringing and collaborating with his brother.

Photo: Michael Tucker

New York-based photographer Chris Schoonover shoots fashion photography for its pure aesthetic pleasure. We talk with him about his tight-nit upbringing and collaborating with his brother.

We've long admired the work of Chris Schoonover and had the chance to connect with him over breakfast in Brooklyn. His work is has a retro-analog quality that only comes with a unique vision and true experimentation with old temperamental tools. We spoke on what lead him to fashion photography – things like music, brotherhood, and design.

So you grew up in New Jersey. What was that upbringing like and have you ever lived outside of the NJ/NY area?

I grew up with two brothers and both parents at home. Which I know is a huge privilege these days. I think I take that for granted sometimes. My parents did all they could to support our interests, whether it be art, or music, etc. We were out in a pretty rural area. Not in a neighborhood, so there weren’t many kids. It caused my brothers and to play together and we were always really close. I think growing up in that environment really taught us to be creative and make our own fun. We also watched a ton of TV. I say that just so you don’t think we were outside in the woods making forts all the time. During high school we all played in a band. I would write most of the music for that. That’s kind of how I would get most of my creative-ness out. I’ve lived all over NJ and NY. Never anywhere else.

Personal work

Chris for Highsnobiety

“...so there weren’t many kids. It caused my brothers and to play together and we were always really close.”

Do you feel like that tight-nit family lifestyle contributed to the fact that you haven’t left the area? I know you work closely in collaboration with your brother Jon, too — how did y’all end up transitioning from music into photography? And how similar is that creation process?

I think with every decision I make, I keep my family in mind for sure. Jonathan and I live one train stop away from one another. Which I didn’t plan, but it’s definitely not an accident. It doesn’t hurt that NYC was only two hours from my parents as well. Moving here wasn’t too hard of a decision to make. To do what I’m doing, I definitely needed to be here. Just lucked out with the location. Jonathan and I have always worked really well together. Music was our thing growing up, but I think as we went on, we saw our favorite bands fizzling out and breaking up. At the time the thought was “If they can’t make it, how can we?” Jonathan started taking photos when he was 15, so he was doing that while we were in the band and going to school. So the transition for him was rather seamless. I didn’t start until I was 23. I had been working as a graphic designer for 4 years professionally. I was just playing with Instagram and got really into it. I started getting job offers for big clients and headed in that direction. I was bored with design. Everything I would design would just get filtered so badly that the end product would look nothing like I wanted. Photography gave me the control I wanted.

Chris in Williamsburg, photo by Michael Tucker

“I was bored with design. Everything I would design would just get filtered so badly that the end product would look nothing like I wanted. Photography gave me the control I wanted.”

Are you still the lead on ideas in the way that you wrote most of the music?

Jonathan and I both have our separate careers and we are both in charge of our own creative. When we work together it always has to start with a main idea from one of us, but it’s very much an even collaboration. We each bring a different strength to the table. One of us brings the main idea and the other one fills in the empty spots to make it better. We know a lot of the same pop culture references which helps a lot with our work. Our sense of humor on set is a big stress reliever. If we argue, it ends quickly with the understanding that we love each other and we need to get over it. I really couldn’t ask for a better creative partner.

On a walk through Williamsburg, photo by Michael Tucker

As with so many people, it seems that Instagram was a big step in the direction of your eventual career. Your work, however, veered off in a very unique direction and style. Do you feel like the aspect of collaboration with your brother contributed to that differentiation? Also - I think big moves and changes are glamorized, but you’ve really seemed to embrace the idea of home and from what I can tell, that level of comfort has really contributed to the consistency of your work.

I think if you look back on my Instagram you can see the whole development. I was really learning what I liked as I went. Developing my tastes. I’m still developing my tastes. Always will be. Although I knew a lot about pop culture from watching shows and listening to music, I feel like after college I really got exposed to way more culturally. I think this was also because of the way the internet was developing and advancing. Hearing music that I’d never heard before. Seeing films I’d never had access to. Things like that. Moving to the city definitely didn’t hurt either. Culture, art and fashion are constantly in your face. When I first got into photography I think I just didn’t really care that much. It was a fun thing. Then I started to challenge myself. I got exposed to more photography that I liked and thats when I started to veer from the normal Instagram style. I decided pretty early on that I didn’t want to just do photography for likes or do what other people thought was good. Cause honestly they didn’t know what was good either. All the Instagram photographers were just being introduced to photo too. Kind of a strange time. It was like a new beginning for photo for a lot of people including myself. It was a great place to grow. During that time I was just realizing that I wanted more control in my photos. I was really interested in creating a scene. I was taking street photography, but really wanted to change what the person was wearing, or I would like the scene and the clothes, but the person wasn’t as interesting to me. That was sort of the way I got into fashion photography. It’s a forum where you can create something and photograph it for no reason other than it looks good. I had the opportunity to learn from some people that were already working in the field and taught me so much. Including Jonathan. Jonathan and I were definitely learning and growing together as well. We are always on each others sets in some capacity. Even if it’s just to lend moral support. You always need some sort of support in this business whether it be family or close friends. It would be really challenging to do all this alone. It’s a ton of work and my family, friends, and my wife pull a ton of weight for me. That has been a huge part of what’s made any of my work successful.

“That was sort of the way I got into fashion photography. It’s a forum where you can create something and photograph it for no reason other than it looks good.”

It’s interesting that you desire so much control in your work, yet I know when it comes to the tools you use, you experiment quite a bit and in doing so, relinquish a lot of control. Why do you think that is? I do wonder if some release of control is necessary to create.

I think part of that it just to switch it up. I get bored rather quickly if I’m putting out the same work over and over. With some of the older analog cameras that I use, unfortunately they are just unreliable at times. Some of the cameras I use require flash cubes. They haven’t made flash cubes in years. So half of them don’t fire, but when they do it’s totally worth it. The look of these tools is what I’m after, so I just have to deal with the issues they come with. I think some of the processes I use are what really make this romantic for me. A lot of the process is taken out of the equation with digital cameras and I think it can start to get stale. Using a new process can be frustrating and time consuming, but I think it can also make the final product that much more precious.

Chris in Brooklyn, photo by Michael Tucker

“The look of these tools is what I’m after, so I just have to deal with the issues they come with. I think some of the processes I use are what really make this romantic for me.”

What’s been your greatest challenge along the way and what’s next for you?

I think the biggest challenge really is the production aspect of everything. A lot of the time I’m organizing shoots myself. Getting a whole team together can be tough with everyones schedules. A lot of times to get great clothing, or get a good model, you need a publication to agree to publish before hand. It’s really the part of the business that is necessary, but I only really want to be art directing and photographing. Sometimes by the time I pick up the camera I’m already completely exhausted from doing three or four jobs. This is where your family, or support group comes in. You really need a solid team. As far as what’s next, I can only hope that opportunities will come my way and that I’ll choose the right projects. I’d like to start working on a series of short films with Jonathan. Overall I just want to keep it fun for myself. That’s the reason I chose this in the first place.

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