Howard Schatz: A Lifetime of Exploring Vision (2024)

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Howard Schatz: A Lifetime of Exploring Vision

By Rena Silverman

Jul. 21, 2015

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Howard Schatz has devoted his life to exploring aspects of vision, first as an ophthalmologist and then beginning in his late 40s as a professional photographer. Soon after picking up photography as a midlife hobby, his doctor’s eye, focused on precision, transformed into an artist’s eye, challenging his viewers to interpret what they were actually seeing.

“In medicine I was a retina specialist,” he said. “You make one micron mistake, one millimeter mistake, and you can have a blind eye, so it’s about getting it right, getting it exactly right. The thinking and being in a perfectionistic state is very different from creativity.”

Photography, on the other hand, for him was “so much more freeing!”

“I’m open to any ideas,” he added. “A mistake is just, a picture wasn’t so good.”

Mr. Schatz started photographing after his youngest daughter left for college in the late 1980s, and he soon converted his San Francisco dining room into a studio.

This dalliance with photography has led him to switch careers and make more than four million images and 20 books. He recently published a retrospective, two-book boxed set (which has been edited down to 1,083 images).


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His first book, “Gifted Woman,” was inspired by his wife, Beverly Ornstein, who worked at the time as the head of news and current affairs at the PBS station in San Francisco where she was, according to Mr. Schatz, well connected to famous women who lived in or around the Bay Area, including Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice.

“So I decided to learn portraiture, to learn black-and-white portraiture,” he said. “What better subject would there be than women who were known and famous for what they accomplished?”

Afterward, he decided to learn color photography, so he rounded up some redheads and photographed them for a while, publishing another book. But his third project is what really took off. For this, he set out to document San Francisco’s homeless. Every Saturday for a year — he still worked as an academic doctor during the week — he ventured out with a black backdrop, a tape recorder and a handheld camera, and photographed up to 20 subjects a day. One year later, he had more than 1,000 portraits to show.

By the mid-1990s he was receiving constant calls from editors who wanted to hire him for assignments, but he had to turn them down because he was still working as an academic physician. In 1995, his wife suggested he take a year’s sabbatical from his job. The couple went east and rented a studio in SoHo.

“It was so much fun and we would go to bed giggling,” Mr. Schatz said.

He renewed the sabbatical. And renewed it again. And again and again. After five years, it was clear there was no turning back.

“As a retina specialist, I tied my tie very carefully and tucked my shirt and wore a coat, and looked perfect and was clean and exact — that’s how I was, and how I behaved,” he said. “Whereas, as a photographer trying to find things I’ve never seen before, I’m open to anything.”

High-end magazines, such as Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Time, started hiring him for assignments, as did commercial clients, like Louis Vuitton, Adidas and Ralph Lauren.

After settling into his new full-time practice as a photographer, Mr. Schatz turned to photographing actors. He wrote to hundreds of famous actors and, to his delight, received some responses.

“I found that in making portraits, everybody has a certain face for the camera. They have a certain way of defending in this world and it’s normal,” he said. “I learned that if I could tell a story, if I could make something up, if I could get a person into someplace else, maybe I could unmask them.”

His strategy was to build a system of pre-interviews and cue cards.

While photographing Michael Douglas, he told him, “You’re a 14-year-old girl, opening her older brother’s bedroom door and seeing him in bed with a blowup sex doll.” So Mr. Douglas covered his ears, widened his eyes and dropped his jaw. Mr. Schatz had the picture (below).


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While most of his muses are people (actors, athletes, dancers and more), there is an exception to his catalog: flowers. About 15 years ago, he started photographing all kinds of flowering-plant genera in his studio (from the lobster claw to the passion flower to the peony), and mainly at night.

“I would play ‘Cosi Fan Tutte,’ Mozart’s great opera, in a dark studio,” he said. “I played it loud, it moved my soul. I played with lights, it just was wonderful.”

Although he has produced millions of images, Mr. Schatz, 74, said he was nowhere near finished.

“For me the joy is in the journey,” he said. “The happiness, the satisfaction, the richness is in making the pictures, in the treasure hunt.”

Follow @HowardSchatz1, @Rena_Silverman and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook and Instagram.

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