I first ran into Wendi Schneider during Photo L.A. three or four years ago. I’d seen some of her work via social media in the past, but only going back a short time, really. In viewing her prints, well, this was yet another example of why we need to view photography in person as much as humanly possible, instead of casually flipping through it while online, staring at a glowing screen. The intricacies are there - color, texture, form, and the tactile nature of a photographic object. Wendi’s photographs most certainly scream this from the mountaintops like no other. Images like her are achieved only through a process of thoughtful examination and execution. A lifetime of being involved in not just photography, but design as well, her images are quite literally built from the ground up. The artists hand is evident in every single one of them, and they share the same qualities as their creator - uniqueness, elegance, and a reverence for the tangible.
My own knowledge of Wendi’s work may only go back a short time, but it has had a profound impact. Her talent and reputation in the arts withdraw much farther than I originally knew. In seeing her work now, with this knowledge, I feel as though I should have spotted it immediately. A bit of a failure on my part, initially, I must confess. Photographs like hers are not idly made, and I feel as though I must make amends for my deficiency by doing my best to find out even more, in order to share her words that support her beautiful creations. There are always questions regarding the art of others, and a friend and colleague with the talent and conviction as Wendi Schneider are necessary in getting those questions answered. My hope is that you find a place for her thoughts and ideas in your own process, as they are as successful and beautiful as the photographs she creates.
Wendi Schneider is a Denver-based visual artist whose lush images illuminate a deep reverence for the natural world. Born in Memphis in 1955, she holds an AA in Art History from Stephens College and a BA in Painting from Newcomb College at Tulane University. She turned to photography in the early ‘80s to capture images of models as reference for her paintings. Missing the sensuousness of oils, she layered glazes on her photographs to create a more personal impression. After college she worked for the New Orleans Times Picayune, where she photographed, designed and produced the award-winning re-creation of the 1901 Picayune’s Creole Cook Book. Schneider then moved to New York, where she worked extensively in the book cover and magazine fields while continuing to produce her fine art work. She moved to Denver in 1994 and soon after sidelined her fine art practice while raising her family and working in art direction, print and web design.
Schneider was inspired to return to fine art photography in 2010, when she visited her former gallery in New Orleans, A Gallery for Fine Photography. Beginning in 2012 with her ongoing series States of Grace, she has embraced the digital revolution in photography, combining it with her fine art background, capturing, layering and printing digitally. The prints are then gilded with precious metals and varnished by the artist.
Wendi Schneider's photographs have been exhibited in solo shows at such venues as A Gallery For Fine Photography, The Griffin Museum of Photography, Galeria Photographic, the A Smith Gallery, The Gallery at Mr. Pool, and in group exhibits in more than 70 venues worldwide, including Candela Gallery, Panopticon Gallery, The Center For Photographic Art, The Center For Fine Art Photography, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and the Berlin and Barcelona Foto Biennales.
Her work currently resides in the Permanent Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Memphis Brooks Museum, and the Auburn University Library, among others.
Schneider is represented by A Gallery For Fine Photography in New Orleans, Catherine Couturier Gallery in Houston, and Galeria Photographic in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She currently sits on the executive board of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Michael Kirchoff: How did your start in photography come about? Was it always about photography as an art form for you?
Wendi Schneider: I bought my first Nikon in the early 1980s, primarily to create black and white reference images for my figurative paintings. I was spellbound with the speed of creating an image – in contrast to my slow layering of oils on canvas – and bewitched by the play of light on film. Lured to the alchemy of a developing print, I frequently preferred my missteps, often increasing the grain in the darkroom and in-camera to more closely resemble my earlier drawings. My photographs expressed my feelings in a more powerful (yet subtle and refined) way than my paintings, even more so when I merged the two. It quickly became my chosen art form – one which honored and elevated the intrinsic beauty and value of the subjects and exposed my heart in a way my words could not.
MK: Your days as a designer are well known. Tell us a little of how that came about initially, and why photography ultimately won you over again.
WS: My mother had a sophisticated eye and appreciation for design, particularly in fashion and interiors.When she no longer painted, my sisters and I often assisted as she designed needlepoint canvases. Post-college and after a few years working in the French Quarter hotel and restaurant world, I was hired in marketing at The Times-Picayune newspaper, which included creating, designing, illustrating, writing and editing campaigns for a myriad of needs. My last project there was the re-creation of the 1901 Picayune Creole Cook Book for the newspaper’s sesquicentennial, merging my loves of photography, design, art direction, image research, history, editing, antiquing, and cooking. My personal work was consumed with creating and painting my photographs and I knew I wanted to follow the path to New York to work in editorial, advertising, and fine art. It was a circuitous path: in addition to photography for clients, I later returned to print design, adding web design and art direction when our son was young. When I was nearing sixty, I felt it was time to get back to my personal photography work.
MK: What is it that drives you as a creator?
WS: I’m driven by a search for grace and the otherwise elusive glow of flow, when the awareness of time and space disappear. It’s the focus to discover the composition, to discern how best to convey the spirit of the subject, to develop an image or print that elicits a quickened heartbeat. It’s that magical moment when the senses align - when my eyes and essence are engaged and intertwined. It’s an addiction – calming and centering, exciting and enchanting.
MK: It would seem that the transition between photography and design and art direction would be a simple one, but was it really? Have they always informed and inspired one another?
WS: They have always informed one another and are indeed part of each other. Composition is integral to my photographic work, as it is to design. Art direction informs the choices made within an image, and also sequencing, curating, and jurying. Ultimately all must work together to create a cohesive whole. I believe our senses absorb everything we experience to emerge in some synthesized expression in the future.
MK: Your signature body of work, States of Grace, is a multi-faceted collection. How has it evolved since its inception? Was it always destined to develop in this way?
WS: I’d never really thought of my work in terms of series and had not been part of the fine art world since the ‘90s. My early work was defined by process and subject. Reentering the fine art photography world, I felt I needed a way to express my intent and group the images into an over-arching theme, so the possibility of expansion was built in. The series has developed organically, echoing the subject matter, though there are now images outside the confines of figura, flora and fauna. Within the theme, there are photographs that can be grouped by subject, mood, treatment, type of print, color, and composition.
MK: You clearly have a reverence for the natural world as reflected in your work. You portray these themes intimately and with a balance that only someone very close to them could possibly achieve. What brought you to these affectionate manifestations within your creative process?
WS: I suppose it started as a child seeking serenity under the undulating limbs of a weeping willow, a love affair with the elegant whiplash lines of art nouveau, the unexpected discovery of a book of photomicrography in college, and the soothing grace of the simple, sinuous lines of organic forms. I do feel a deep reverence and curiosity for the natural world. Many of us turn to nature for nurture. I think we have an innate desire or compulsion to commune with our surroundings and, at this time in particular, to appreciate what we have and bring awareness to what we are losing. The veneration of fleeting moments of beauty that began long ago is now intensified by the quickening pace of loss. Species are disappearing at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century. It’s mind-boggling, frightening, and frustrating. My work is testament and tribute, adoration and obligation.
MK: Never an easy question…for you, what is it that makes for a successful photograph?
WS: It is one that makes me feel something, see something that otherwise would have been missed, or is seen in an unexpected way. If I can create something that touches someone else, that’s the icing on the cake.
MK: The tools and materials available to photographers and artists have changed dramatically over the years. How have you kept up with these changes, or do you prefer to continue working in a way that has always worked for you? Have the changes affected your artistic sensibilities in any way?
WS: I slowly transitioned to digital as soon as it was affordable. My first digital camera was less than three megapixels. While I rented darkroom space in New York, I wasn’t allowed to tone or to print larger than 20x24, so I worked closely with printers there and later in Denver. I was excited to start making my own prints digitally in 2012, as I’m constantly tweaking them. I don’t know if my sensibility has changed, but I’ve enthusiastically embraced the immediate feedback and freedom to experiment of digital imaging: the layering I once did with paint, I can now explore digitally. I’ve also experimented with some alternative processes over the years and would like to do more. I’m drawn to hands-on work, which was one of the reasons I started working with precious metals. I appreciate the options the later technologies offer, especially when combined with other processes.
MK: You’ve lived in some wide ranging locations in the US over the years. Have these changes been work specific, and did you find the differences being reflected in the work you were creating at the time?
WS: Having fallen in love with the architecture, romance, and lushness of New Orleans as a child, I transferred to Newcomb as a Junior to paint and breathe the hallowed air where Newcomb Pottery flourished. Years later I moved to New York to work in photography, so the editorial work was reflective of the move, but even that work, my painted photographs and Polaroid transfers echoed the early themes of flowers, women, and old architecture. Sinuous lines found their way into many images for book covers and Victoria Magazine. Much of my work in New Orleans and New York was captured in my home studios and on location in historic buildings; the images of nature from those cities that found their way into my series evolved from later visits.
MK: I know that when I first met you, you were already making a big push to promote your work while also making as many personal appearances as possible with your exhibitions, both solo and group. Do you feel that that has been an important part of getting your work seen and developing the relationships necessary to further your goals?
WS: It has been a huge shift for me, an introvert, to channel my outgoing parents. It has enriched my life immensely in relationships, support systems, and seeing others’ work. I chose to attend as many events as I could to share and see work, including exhibitions and reviews, for the last few years. I think it was crucial as I felt I was starting over and needed to learn about the current photography world, which is vastly different from the world of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and get my work back out there. While I wholeheartedly enjoyed and benefited from this effort, I’m now craving and planning more alone time and more time to make work.
MK: You recently received artist representation through the Catherine Couturier Gallery. How was this achieved, and how has the working relationship affected the way you create and sell your photographs?
WS: I began following Catherine on social media a few years go and entered two shows she juried last year with hopes of meeting her. I was unable to make it to the exhibit at Center for Photographic Art, but was able to spend time and share my work with her at the Center For Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins. It hasn’t changed the way I make work, though I have been spending time replacing sold prints and fulfilling commissions. It has added a wonderful venue for my work in Houston, which I hope to soon visit, and an opportunity to have my work back at AIPAD after several decades. I have tremendous respect for the vision, knowledge, dedication, and perseverance of gallerists, and have been extremely honored and fortunate to be represented by A Gallery For Fine Photography in New Orleans and Galeria Photographic in San Miguel de Allende.
MK: You apply gold and silver leaf in the majority of your prints. Was there a process of discovery in using these materials in your prints? I would imagine a specific learning curve as well.
WS: I tried, unsuccessfully, painting with gold pigments in the ‘70s, after having fallen in love with Klimt’s paintings. Seeing Louviere and Vanessa’s work with gold leaf in 2010, I was inspired to find a way to incorporate leafing into my photographic work. In 2012, I attended a platinum and gold leaf workshop with Dan Burkholder. We spent a little time printing on vellum and leafing, but it was all I needed to get started. I then began experimenting with different materials and applications. As a painter, I am drawn to nuanced color and the luminosity the leafing infers, and I continue to play with the metals to enhance the palette. I’m still experimenting and refining the process seven years later.
MK: With regard to creativity and the projects you take on. Do you feel it is better to create work that fits a particular style for yourself, branch out and try new things, or better to simply leave yourself open to possibilities that happen organically?
WS: I’ve always lived and worked rather organically and intuitively. There are several old processes I would like to learn, but I have not made time to devote to them. The ones that I have dabbled in are on a back burner, simmering with ideas for subject matter, method, and presentation. They may develop in the future, or perhaps meld into something else. So while I do enjoy experimenting with new processes, ultimately it will still develop organically. As far as style goes, it seems that whatever I do, some can always identify the work as mine.
MK: I have to ask this question of you because we’ve touched upon it in the planning and scheduling of this very interview. I think of time as both a friend and enemy within the creative process. So, time management - how do you handle this aspect of your life in a very real and honest way with regard to balancing personal and working obligations?
WS: Time management is kind of like a dance, musical score, or puzzle. There are rhythms and fluctuations and you have to find a space for all the pieces. Since I opened my business in 1988, I’ve always worked at home, so I intersperse work and home tasks and find the breaks from concentration necessary. That said, there are of course deadlines to be met and tasks that are less pleasant than others, but I enjoy most of them and find balance in accomplishing them. When I first started creating book covers or magazine assignments, I would feel pressure to get jobs done quickly, but soon learned that doing so would impede the creative process. I was on my own until I was 39 and have always found it best to do what I was inspired to do at the time. My husband is creative and self-sufficient and we were able to find a balance that leans towards more work than together time. When our son was born, it was more challenging. I still feel that I was too wrapped up in my work and didn’t give him enough time, but fortunately he feels that I was always there when needed and inspired his independence. Ultimately, I prioritize, but go with the flow of what I feel I can do best or what needs to be done at the time, and somehow the pieces of the puzzle magically fit together most of the time.
MK: I always like to ask those with a lifetime of experience in the arts if they have any thoughts or advice for those willing to take the plunge into photography as a career. Any words of wisdom?
WS: Find your voice. It will come if you follow your heart and make images of what you are drawn to in the way you want to make them. Experiment, take chances, soak in everything you can – visually and otherwise. Explore all of the senses. Visit museums, galleries and libraries. Watch films. Study the history of art and photography. Volunteer at a non-profit photography center. Work as an assistant for someone whose work you admire in your area of interest. Research reviewers at portfolio reviews. Look for multiple outlets in which to market your work. Keep in mind that you can raise your prices but not lower them. Find your audience. Breathe. Live. Make work.
MK: How do you see your work progressing into the future? Do you have anything new you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
WS: My current exhibition ‘Evenings with the Moon’ includes a selection of illuminated impressions of the night paired with poetry and music. Engaging the moon as muse, I draw on the power of our universal needs and desires for harmony and balance amidst the chaos in which we live. The images are printed on kozo or vellum and gilded with white gold to echo the luminosity of their celestial inspiration and to suffuse the subjects with the implied spirituality and sanctity of the precious metal. Hopefully this synthesis of form and content will allow the viewer to consider the commonalities in our collective consciousness – to unify and find acceptance and transcendence. We all live under the same moon. The next incarnation of the exhibit opens in September at the SE Center for Photography in Greenville, SC. I have a few things percolating that I’ve not yet had time for, so too soon to say what’s to come, but hopefully it will be an evolution.
You can find more of Wendi's work at her website here.