Galen Schlich: Innocence and Transition
The home page of Galen Schlich’s website features an apt quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” Coming from a broken home, Schlich has been trying to illuminate a personal and artistic path through a lifetime of transition. He originally sought a creative outlet through landscape photography, but didn’t discover his personal voice until he began photographing people, as well as confronting the circumstances of his childhood. His twin themes of beauty and innocence — and their sometimes disturbing intersections — resonate throughout all his bodies of work.
Describe your first attempts at photographic visual expression.
When I first began taking photographs, my primary motivation was to put my love of nature down on film. I did that for 15 years or so. At that time I very rarely photographed people — most of my work excluded the human presence. Eventually, I picked up a book by the Czech photographer Jan Saudek. I had never heard of him before, but his work was so different from what I been exposed to; it was much more personal, and was profoundly affected by his childhood. Then, while I was working in the Antarctic for the National Science Foundation, my father passed away. After my employment there was finished I traveled back to Illinois to attend to family affairs. I also reconnected with some old friends there. I had never been around children much before, and they had two girls, Brittney and Brooke, who opened my eyes to the beauty and innocence of childhood. They were for me an expression of all that is pure and good in a world that, as we know, can be very cruel. They were an emotional oasis for me during a time of confusion and loss. They very much affected my soul as well as my work. Afterward, I traveled around the world and spent some time in Paris and southern France and consumed everything about painters and photographers that I could get my hands on. I’d spend hours in dusty little bookshops in Paris looking for new inspiration and wander the floors of the museums studying paintings.
How long did it take you to develop a personal vision and style?
I think it took a lot longer for me than perhaps others simply because I hadn’t been hit over the head with the substance of it soon enough. I really hadn’t explored deeply enough. There were a lot of things I was running away from, although I didn’t know what they were and I didn’t see it as running away at the time. When that “substance” finally did hit me, I was quite unprepared for where it would take me. Nevertheless, I dove into it and pursued it with vigor. The beginnings of this personal vision emerged from beauty. Just as I had photographed the beauty of nature, now I started photographing the beauty of women and children, but clearly with more of an idea of where I wanted to take it.
What was the biggest challenge in doing so?
Impatience. I had these feelings and ideas that I knew I wanted to express, but at the same time seemed unable to produce any material from them. I took a sketchbook everywhere and would write ideas and sketch pictures to help me visualize these ideas. I would keep postcards, brochures, tourist leaflets or any other advertising material. If it had an image on it that gave me some ideas, it was mine. Sometimes I just felt like quitting altogether; it bothered me very much that I couldn’t seem to produce anything good.
Which photographers and/or other artists have influenced you? And why?
As I’ve stated, Jan Saudek is a big influence. His photography contains elements of dreams, fantasy, beauty, ugliness, humor and juxtaposition. I like the fact that he uses symbolism in his works that often tie into other pieces, such as a window or an old rag doll. The aspect of time in his work is also fascinating — he’ll photograph a small child and years later photograph her as an adult. He is captivated by beauty, but at the same time questions it and challenges our perception of it. Robert Demachy is another influence. His eye for composition was wonderful, and his portrait and nude studies are very simple but extremely striking and emotional. He also disliked the “straight print” and preferred to add another dimension to his work through alternative processes. His work has influenced me in that I also try to achieve a different look through alternative printing methods. Joel-Peter Witkin is another photographer that has interested me. He is constantly challenging the viewer into looking at the subject of beauty, ugliness, life and death. His pictures make you ask questions or they disgust you or they make you laugh, which is what good art is all about for me.
The ethereal, dreamlike quality to these images calls to mind the Pictorialists, yet the mood and tone feel contemporary. Is this your intent?
It is and it isn’t. I have been heavily influenced by the Pictorialists and tried to emulate that feeling in my work, but I also realized that I didn’t want to produce the exact same thing. I’m also thinking that maybe my interest in fashion portraitists, such as Paolo Roversi, may be behind the contemporary feeling in the works; possibly something is slipping in there from that influence.
Your photographs are very sensual, yet they also project innocence, which creates a certain energy and contrast.
Yes, that’s true. I think my focus in many of the pictures was to create something very simple for the eye and at the same time very sensual. The subject of innocence is very obvious in my work because it has always captivated me. It’s a question for me, and also something that goes hand in hand with beauty in children. The innocence of a child combined with beauty is magical for me, but that innocence is fleeting, like the blossoming of spring flowers; you know that in the not too far-off future that bloom will be over. Children live in the moment and, unlike many adults, are constantly dreaming and questioning things, however simple. For me, it’s nice to be a part of that simplicity and innocence. I believe that beauty and innocence are two of the aspects that compel me in most of my work.
My initial read on many of your photographs is that they’re meditations on the transition from childhood to adulthood. For example, you have an image of a ballerina that's cropped so that the position of the hands and arms is that of a pregnant woman cradling her belly, yet the subject seems to be an adolescent.
They could very well be looked at in that light. Yes, the ballerina picture does specifically play with the idea of transition. When I started exploring the themes of youth, innocence and beauty these naturally brought up questions for me about time, birth, aging and death. Even the young girl in the image “The Dreamer” evokes the idea of life and death. On one hand we see a beautiful girl who looks as if she’s asleep, and on the other hand one may also perceive her as being dead.
Your image of a young girl’s legs — bare, ghostly white, smudged and cropped at the knees, seemingly suspended in midair — has a disturbing elegance and surreal intensity that reminds me of similar imagery in some of Luis Buñuel films. Do you recognize this affinity?
Yes, this is one of my favorite photos. Although I’ve only viewed one of his films, there is definitely that surrealist element that I relate with. Your expression, “disturbing elegance” is exactly what I was trying to represent with this image. I like that it leaves the mind to wander a bit about what is happening here. It’s not so clear-cut to the viewer and yet it’s not an overly complicated picture.
The still life of the dead birds and fruit and the double-exposure portrait “Natalie Two” also project a subtle surrealism. Is this planned, or is it a spontaneous result?
Yes and no. The double exposure was shot on an 8x10 camera and I forgot to flip the film plate, thus the double exposure. When I exposed the negative and printed it, it became apparent that this was a far more interesting composition than it would have been had I not made the error. With the “Still Life with Dead Birds” I planned this to have the surrealist element. I wanted to override the traditional “still life” with something that would breath new life (or death) into it, something completely out of place. I messed around all evening with different variations of these birds, and the one I eventually came up with seemed to show a mixture of tranquility, the nice peaceful arrangement of fruit and wine, overlapped by the tragedy of these birds that look as if they had just dropped out of the sky onto this table. Sketching ideas onto paper is very important to me in the visualization of planned shots such as this. I can be spontaneous, but I find that if I already have an idea to work from, spontaneity becomes much easier.
Still Life with Dead Birds
Looking at the portraits on your website, I get the impression of very concentrated, intense shooting sessions, and of a sense of collaboration with your subjects. They seem to be full and equal participants in the process, at least in terms of their emotional involvement.
Participation is the one thing that I require. If the subject doesn’t understand my work or at least what I am trying to capture, then oftentimes the end result doesn’t work. I try and involve the subject into being an active participant in the creative process. I explain what I am trying to capture, be it mood, feeling, et cetera. I often find that the second shoot with a person is much better than the first, because they’ve had a chance to see the results and have a better understanding of what I’m looking for. The exchange between subject and photographer is paramount to realization. When everything fits there seems to be a unique stillness and unspoken conversation between us. I find this very calming; it’s like someone telling you a bedtime story when you’re a child. For most of my portraits I use an 8x10 bellows camera. This slows everything down and allows for that space to emerge. I try and set an atmosphere of tranquility and work slowly so there’s a very tangible calmness when it comes time for exposure. Children are wonderful to work with — anything that involves attention and imagination seems to compel them, although sometimes it’s hard getting them to be still for long.
It seems that portraiture is your preferred genre. Do you find it more expressive than, say, landscapes or documentary?
I find that portraiture is much more expressive for me. I mentioned that years ago I only shot landscapes. That fulfilled something in me at the time, but even then I felt there was something missing, and that basically I was just composing another “pretty picture.” I like the truthfulness and reality of reportage, but I have never been able to express myself or my vision through that facet of photography. Portraiture provides the unique opportunity to seen inside someone else, to get to know them, enjoy their beauty, and try to work together to capture that vision on film.
What specific ideas, themes or attitudes do you try to express in your photographs?
I try to find beauty first and foremost. If the subject has a unique look, I might try something with a different idea in mind, such as the girl in the photo “Camille.” I wanted to capture her beauty, but also the feeling that if you stumbled upon her in the forest, your first reaction might be run away. Those piercing eyes evoke a sort of evil wood nymph image. I like to experiment with different themes in my work, so it depends on what kind of physical features my subjects possess. I like to depict children as beautiful, innocent creatures, but at the same time tip the other end of the scale and portray another side of them, which is their ability to be mischievous and sometimes downright mean. Youth is a wonderful way for me to contrast immortality. Everyone can associate with youth, the days when nothing seemed to matter. There’s something about the freshness, beauty and pureness of youth as opposed to aging and withering away of the body and mind that captivates me.
I also sense feelings of loss, regret, nostalgia.
I have also perceived that in my photos. Subconscious or not, it’s definitely a recurring element. Something that was totally unexpected for me in my photographic endeavors was that there would be questions popping up about my childhood and past in general. I come from a broken family — my father raised four boys alone. I definitely lacked a female presence in my life, being four when my mother left, and thus also lacking the nurturing and love necessary for a child at that age. My father went through an amazingly hectic life to ensure our well-being and safety, but lacked the ability to show affection. I often wonder if what comes out of my photography may in fact be tied to childhood issues. I believe that’s where some of those emotions you reference come from. I relate to the nostalgia of being a kid and feeling carefree, of yearning for an age when things weren’t necessarily easier, but simpler. Many children today have never had the chance to explore wooded areas or sit outside, stare at the stars and dream. Many can’t even see the stars because of city lights. Activities that children used to participate in and learn valuable life lessons from have been replaced by videogames, iPhones and television.
Is it fair to say your works more on emotional than intellectual levels?
Although I like to include a hint of something thought-provoking in my work, my favorite photographs and paintings have always been those that hit me emotionally first. I think a work of art should try and elicit both from a viewer, or at least attempt to.
What do you think gives your work its individuality?
I would have to say that much of it evolves from the way my images are cropped and the overall feelings associated with my subjects. One’s inclination is to photograph a whole object, or at least something the mind recognizes easily, like a face. It’s not standard to crop a visually vital element out of the picture, such as half of a person’s head. This disturbs some people, who are used to seeing the whole picture. Bu I believe this can be a positive first step for viewers to use their imaginations. In “Girl at the Gate of Time” one first wants to know what the rest of her face looks like. But as the eye wanders around the frame, the focus is soon withdrawn from her face to the other, more important aspects. Symbolically, there’s a lot happening in this photo. The cropping also draws attention to areas of interest that provoke an emotion — like the girl’s neck in “Devon.”
Has your approach to photography changed through the years?
Dramatically. I see photography as an avenue to express my ideas and myself, whereas before I wanted so bad to just make that “pretty picture” that would make it in a magazine? Photography, like any other art form, should try and raise questions and emotions, not just feelings of joy at something pretty to look at. The aim of art is to challenge. If one isn’t challenged, then one stagnates. I want to create images that one can’t pass by, but are forced to take a second and third look because they contain elements that won’t leave you alone.
Girl at the Gate of Time
(I wrote about Galen Schlich for issue 54 of Black & White magazine. Spend some time with his work at: www.galenschlich.com)