Austin Schermerhorn’s images are hauntingly beautiful. Scenes in nature, usually involving women in a black and white setting look like fragments from the past. There is a certain sense of nostalgia in his images that grabs you by the hair and drops you in between two worlds. We were curious about the man that creates these worlds and decided to ask him a couple of questions.
Hello Austin, how have you been? What have you been up to lately?
Hey! I’ve been well. Lately I’ve been meddling with my new 4×5 camera and some old lenses, each in various working order, trying to train myself to be a semi-accurate shutter. Also I’ve been venturing into the night a lot to catch all this moonlight and fog in the Bay Area.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Turlock, California and moved around California before settling in Reno, Nevada, where I grew up. I recently moved back to California, a small town just south of San Francisco named Pacifica, which I use as my home base while I am attending the San Francisco Art Institute.
How did you start photography? Do you remember the first time you held a camera in your hands?
My mom gave me her 35mm Pentax Super Program she used in college when I was 11 or 12 and even since I have become obsessed with photography. The camera, which is from the 1980s, is still my main camera when shooting 35mm. I remember as a young teenager I was already developing my own film in the bathroom, after one of my excursions into the Nevada desert to photograph wild horses or dead trees, dead cars—everything out there is either wild or dead.
How would you describe your work?
I am never very capable in describing my own work, I think because I have no other way to say what I feel I have to say besides showing it. But to me, a good photo must be beautiful in some way, but also slightly strange. I am all about atmosphere, and I think it is an amazing way to communicate an emotional feeling through lighting or a landscape or really anything visual. I’m still surprised humans have the capability for such abstract connections.
Who are your subjects?
Every person in my photography is a friend, family member, or lover. I believe to truly make art that has impact you have to recognize the individuality of the person you photograph, and it has to be an act of love. Some photographers can take truly revealing portraits of strangers, but I am a private person who has few but extremely strong bonds with those I care about. Plus, I am always interested in identifying artists like Rembrandt’s lovers and family in his paintings; I love the fact he made his mother into a prophetess. I think it is a lasting connection that you can share with your loved ones by making them into art, and showing the world the people who influenced you and you shared your life with, even past your death (if of course your art has any interest to anybody by then).
Your images strike us as melancholic, there seems to be some sort of yearning for days that have passed. Do you agree with this and if so, can you tell us a bit about it, where does it come from?
The way I feel like with all good art, and what I hope to achieve with my own, is a sense of something half-remembered, something you can’t quite elucidate, but which hits you immediately and you know without a doubt it is there. I think all great art is melancholic in one way or another, and I think it is a reflection of the struggle to remember, but never quite having it fully realized in front of you.
What excites you about photography?
Photography is to me the strangest thing humans have created as of yet. It is a copy of the world, but it is almost the furthest thing removed from the world: it is still and unchanging, while the nature of reality is constantly moving and in flux. It excites me in the way it allows to take something private, a memory, and release it into the world as art, so others can literally look through your eyes. Of course the preservation aspect as well, something that remains even if the original has died or left.
Have you ever tried story telling through other media?
I have always been deeply into music, if I didn’t have photography that would be my main focus as an artistic endeavor—if I could sing that is. I am also trying my hand at poetry, I am working on a collection of poems now inspired in form by Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess whose work survives as deeply piercing fragments. I enjoy the idea that her vision has survived in some facet for nearly three-thousand years, and has been indelibly changed in form by time but yet the essence is still there.
What or who inspires you as an artist?
I’m thankful to have Guggenheim fellow and world-traveler/religious expert Linda Connor as a mentor here at the San Francisco Art Institute, her photography and wisdom is very stirring in helping me realize the universality of religious feeling and its celebration through art. I believe religion and art come from the same place. As for artists of the past, I am deeply in debt to Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Salvator Rosa, Goya, van Dyck, Gustave Moreau, and Rodin, I pray they will forgive me from beyond the grave for stealing many of their ideas. I am also inspired by the poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Coleridge, Pound, and Eliot and also steal many of their ideas. For photographers, I enjoy Edward Curtis, Steichen, Nadar, Atget, and people that are alive too, like Sally Mann, Richard Learoyd, and Paolo Roversi. Basically anyone who has the power to myth-make.
What’s the best advice you ever had as a photographer?
I’ve been told recently that I “gild the lily” sometimes, which to Shakespeare was a sin, but to Baudelaire I suspect it would be a virtue. I don’t exactly take it as a criticism, nor the times I’ve been called a “romantic” almost like it was a dirty word. Probably the best advice I’ve gotten as an artist is to not be content with creating work in dialog with art or ideas of only our own time, but instead try and create art that has a place among any era.
Is there anything you’d like to accomplish with your photography and if so, what would that be?
I would feel accomplished if one of my photos made a great impact on one person. If multiple photos make a great impact on one person, even better, if multiple photos make a large impact on multiple people I would be feel more than accomplished, more than anything I could imagine. What I love most about art is connecting with another human being across time.
How would you like to grow as an artist? What are your hopes and dreams artistically?
Of course the dream is mastery over the technical aspects so I don’t have to worry about them so much and can just focus on an idea. But it nevertheless is important, and I feel too many artists today eschew it, when in fact an idea can become even stronger when unified with just the right medium. As of now, I am often too fast and dirty with everything, and am still surprised when I manage to have any kind of image show up on my film.
Any exciting new projects you would like to share with us?
Currently I’m inspired to starting creating Vanitas still-lives, I think the symbolic potential is very strong, and it is a good genre to mix inspiration from the history of art with my own touch. Also I have been working on a series called Elysian Music, based on the ancient Greek concept of the afterlife, using platinum prints, a 100 year old photographic process using platinum. I am using figures playing strange instruments in beautiful light to hopefully create something potent.
Any famous last words?
I always enjoyed Turner’s supposed last words “The Sun is God”, it seems fitting for a painter, but I believe it would be even more fitting for a photographer. I can’t think of anything right now, but hopefully I’ll have enough time to conjure up something poetic before the end.
Who should we interview next?
Either Wouter van der Voorde or Katia Chausheva.