Scott Schuman is the photographer and blogger behind The Sartorialist. His pioneering blog has defined the medium and remains the most successful, transforming Scott into a fashion authority and taste-maker. His "Art of the Trench" campaign for Burberry is often quoted by fashion marketeers as the best example of a concept that went viral. Tank's group director spoke to Schuman as he was putting the final touches to his new book, the follow-up to The Sartorialist, which was published by Penguin in 2009.
Masoud Golsorkhi So you are in another hotel room looking at pictures. What do you see?
Scott Schuman Recently I've been saying that we're heading back to hieroglyphics. We've come full circle. You can have a Tumblr and not write anything, just put images, and people have a sense of who you are, what you like. It's your take on the world, based on the visual.
MG When is the book out and what's in it?
SS September, for fashion week. Same layout, 500 pages, a mix of images. It's different in that we did 30 to 40 exclusive images not on the blog. They're a really good mix of places. Shots from Morocco, Savannah, Georgia, Las Vegas, middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. I also got the fashion capital of Phoenix, Arizona.
MG Has there been a shift in the photography?
SS Growing up as a straight kid in Indiana, interested in fashion and football, I felt an outsider. When I started shooting, I didn't want to be too close to my subjects, I had my imaginary way of thinking about them. But now I've been doing the blog for a long time, meeting more people and creating friendships, I felt that wall was dissolving and I was able to start shooting people for who they are as opposed to my imagined version of them.
MG Blog currency is driven from everything the web offers: free access, immediacy, democracy. How can these be translated into a book?
SS You become totally addicted to taking a picture, putting it on the internet and getting that reaction, that daily conversation.I replaced that by growing the Twitter part. That's been fun, challenging myself to figure out communication that's different to the blog.
MG What's special about Twitter? What's different?
SS They want even more of an idea of getting in somewhere they couldn't before. Twitter is great for when you're going to parties that most people couldn't get into, or a market appointment. It shares your personal experience. There wasn't a lot of text, which helped my site grow. If you were in China, you could enjoy the photographs just as much as someone in Milan. You didn't feel you were missing anything because there was no text. With Twitter, it's the same thing.
MG You're contributing to the "hieroglyphication" of culture.
SS Me talk pretty. Me take pretty picture.
MG How have you changed since transforming from an outsider to insider? Your edge was that outsider's view.
SS People like to imagine I was on the outside. I'd already worked in fashion for 15 years before the blog. I was on the sales side as opposed to media. And how you shared fashion was new. I was an outsider in the sense that I wasn't going to shows. It's easier to take pictures of the big fashion stars, but harder to get consistently good images when you're trying to find them on the street.
MG So sharing what you see at any given time appeals?
SS I was looking at these beautiful Nike tennis shoes I've had for years. The leather is worn to just the right patina. I took my camera out real quick. The light was nice, I posted it, and immediately it was retweeted 50 times because it was a good shot.
MG What companies are you working with, and what stuff are you doing?
SS J. Crew wanted us to find and photograph people that their new markets could relate to and say "This fits into my life". I've done a version of the Burberry "Art of the Trench", but it's really about casting.
MG Whose idea was "Art of the Trench"?
SS Theirs. A lot of these companies finally woke up to the potential of blogs. When I started, they were scared because they couldn't control them the way they controlled magazines. They were afraid of what people were going to say. Now they've gone the opposite and go after any blog. They figure that, as long as they're all talking about it, it must be good.
MG How did it work out?
SS We wanted to figure out a project, just didn't know what it was. Even when shooting, it wasn't exactly clear what the project was. They just knew they wanted me to shoot a hundred different people wearing a trench coat. So it really becomes about editing and finding the right people.
MG Then you had to tell them, this is very different from what you were doing before. You had to style them, rather than discover them.
SS Same with J. Crew, it's finding people that look like they're right for the area. I shot a guy yesterday in Berlin and he had Dior jeans, Nike tennis shoes, a great T-shirt and a J. Crew cashmere cardigan. He looked like a cool guy, you'd see him on the street and wouldn't immediately say "J. Crew" but it is and fits with his look. That's where we work well on these projects. A lot of these people I don't know, so it's my perception of this person. I understand what makes people visually unique or even the romance of that person. I'm not reporting anything, I'm not telling facts. That's what makes it an art as opposed to journalistic reportage.
MG It's become like the litmus test for high-end designers, hasn't it? When it's really worked on the street, then you know it's worked.
SS It helps them. They create their own little world for each collection. They know people aren't going to wear it head-to-toe. It's given them more confidence to realise "OK, someone can take my jacket and mix it with somebody else's pants and actually look really good." That's why companies like Burberry, J. Crew and Tiffany are saying "We trust you. Go out and find real people. We don't need models to be the only people projecting our image." Real people are cool enough to promote them not just these superhuman beautiful models.
MG Magazines are often frustrated by certain brands; they want us to only shoot a total look, which makes the editor's job obsolete. How do you deal with situations like that?
SS I don't really have to deal with them. I don't care. I never talk about brands on my blog, I don't put people's names. People that are into that already know the labels. [With girlfriend, Garance Doré], our influence is due to a sincerity in what we do. We like style, we like craft. It really doesn't matter whether it's Zara or Céline. That's the democratisation. It just has to look good and make an interesting visual connection. That's our artistic language.
MG How do you feel about the very popular bloggers that are wowed by the industry and have become an extension of the brands' PR message? They basically translate what the brands want to say like an echo chamber.
SS I'm surprised - well I'm not, I guess - that there's not more new, respected blogs that have come out really saying something interesting or different. And separated from everyone else because so many of them are playing that same game. The brand gives them a bag and they're so happy. They're not strong enough to say no thank you. The internet is international, it breaks boundaries. Your audience can be the entire world, but I meet a lot of bloggers who say, "I've got the most important fashion blog in Poland." How big can it possibly be? I can understand the passion and the drive. You hope they don't peak too early because it's a tough business.
MG There is an incredible potency to the innocence of youth and enthusiasm. There is also something to be said about somebody with depth of knowledge and experience.
SS Right. The problem is, a kid who wants to fit into that world, they're 18 years old and live in Nashville, Tennessee. They try and act like a fashion editor from New York, as opposed to being comfortable enough with themselves and saying, "I'm going to talk about what it's like to be a kid in Nashville who loves fashion." They're not talking about their reality, they're putting on this act.
MG The make believe. You're starting to sound like Plato, saying "know thyself".
SS You're talking about Plato the philosopher, not the dog from Mickey Mouse, right? Oh that's Pluto! OK, good.