[Ed. Note - Some of the imagery within this post contains artistic nudity. If you prefer not to view these images, don't click the "Read the rest of this entry" link.]

There never is a dull moment, because every moment is meaningful.

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Howard Schatz: Photographer, Retinal Specialist M.D.

Howard Schatz is a man not easily described. His interests and passions run deep and broad. His choice of photographic subjects is wide ranging, from pregnancy, to newborns, to athletes and dancers and people with rare talents. He studies and photographs the human body and the way it moves, as well as light, water and fauna. Howard photographs stunning models flaunting their freakish beauty in extraordinary settings one day, and rare flowers exhibiting pure grace the next. Prima ballerinas underwater at his custom designed pool in a dream of weightlessness, and breakdancers on the stage of his versatile New York studio.

He photographs actors famous the world over as well as those not yet known anywhere. He directs them for his lens from no more than two feet away. Prisoners at Sing Sing, the homeless on the streets of San Francisco, club goers in New York, Cirque Du Soleil in the ring, and boxers, both retired and still fighting, the world over all make appearances in his camera. He paints fonts with light and creates other fonts out of nimble and acrobatic dancers. He shoots campaigns for Sprite, Showtime, Ralph Lauren, Epson, Neil LaBute and Macdonalds. He shoots editorials for Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and Time to name just a few. He does all of this with an exactitude fitting a surgeon. His photographs are exhibited at museums and galleries in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Canada, Argentina, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo, Edinburgh, Brussels, Stockholm, Paris, Cannes, Florence, Antwerp, Milan, Lausanne, Lisbon, Kiev and on and on…

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Myself: Bart Babinski, Howard’s assistant; Aspiring Photographer

Born in Poland, grown up in Libya, Italy, Germany and northern New Jersey; BFA in photography NJCU; Cinematography student at The New School and the Kieslowski Film Dept. of Silesia University; Passionate about looking, seeing, and making images, plus life, people and the world, in all its color.

Photography
We all know what it is, but what is it really? It’s unlike any other profession. Perhaps in some ways it’s akin to filmmaking, in others to painting, and especially today, it has much in common with illustration. Despite this, photography is very much a singular medium. Its realm is one of creative reality – to capture a moment in time, something real, and present it as truth, a record of what happened. It does so, as we also know, in a way that leaves little room for creative manipulation. Somehow though, the possibilities are endless and the creativity of photographers yields images that can inspire, infuriate, and fill a viewer with awe.

Photography is a medium whose most important aspect is that of looking at reality then interpreting and recording it. The sheer and arresting power of a still photographic image derives from these ‘laws’. Photographs do not build buildings or bridges, get folks from point A to B, they don’t give social services, nor do they politic. The still image is like a bare fact, always open to interpretation.

Yet images can be used to drive the economy, help form opinions, shift views, illustrate complex ideas or world affairs, and they can certainly document history, if not outright write it. Equally and simultaneously photographs can be works of great art which speak about and to the human soul. To be a professional photographer is to be a professional looker and seer, and as the very word Photographer suggests, a ‘writer with light’; Just as a writer of language can say much on many topics and in endless ways, a photographer can ‘write’ creatively about reality.

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Assisting

A photographer has a vision, a creative mind-state, and needs help to execute or make concrete the ideas which float about an imagination. An idea in order to be realized will need to be produced. The photographer’s assistant is something of a mechanic, a general contractor, whose abilities and skills help realize this vision. In such a role, the assistant learns intimately and intricately what is involved, which ingredients to add in what measure and in which order. It’s an apprenticeship, which if well maintained and approached with good energy, can be an unparalleled education, and perhaps a stepping-stone to a meaningful career in the field.

I can easily write about the things which are daily duties and responsibilities, but that would be a bit of a chore to read. There is endless work which needs doing and which contributes to creating the images. There is physical labor, but mostly the labor of scheduling, coordinating, planning, imagining, puzzle solving, organizing, supervising, equipment readying, set building, lighting, re-lighting, technical troubleshooting, calculating, set striking, cleaning up, and then doing all of it again and again and again can be frustrating and exhausting, often too early or late in a day to enjoy. But there is an opportunity hidden in the pleats of this work, allowing one to learn so very much, to understand better, to try in new ways, to improve, become more efficient, more careful, more refined about it all. With time comes a new opportunity to master all of it: to re-learn, re-understand, re-try, re-refine. It’s as true for an assistant as it is for a photographer, hence a great place to cut one’s teeth and sharpen difficult skills.

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Being Howard’s assistant

Working as an assistant at Schatz/Ornstein Studio is something of a challenge to describe. I can say it is extraordinary, incredible, incomparable, a daydream, mind-blowing, charged, supersonic, unpredictable, inspirational, sublime… all of it would be the truth. It is by far the most difficult and challenging job I have ever held, by far the most demanding, and by far the one with the utmost in unique experiences and rewards. I find it particularly difficult to describe my role as Howard’s assistant, because my role is so vastly organic and changes so much every day.

It is a unique experience by all accounts. Every day is unlike any before, and every shoot and project that Howard takes on is an exploration into an unknown. My role is to be the person who makes this exploration as fruitful and rich as possible. My reward is being a part of the journey, and learning along with Howard about the thing in which both he and I find great joy in. This “thing” is something I was asked to identify during my interview for the job: “How does one make a GREAT photograph?” My answer was deeply honest: “That’s a great question… I don’t know how to answer it.”

It’s been a question that I took very much to heart and have been looking to answer since I started here. Many answers have presented themselves, and many continue to do so. Ultimately, the answer is never ending, and wonderfully so! A great photograph, like any great thing, is elusive and perhaps un-definable. Yet to try to find it, to find how to get to it, has been an exploration which makes me forget that what I do is work.

Not so long ago I met an incredible individual whose talent and job is a most unusual one: He has a superhuman sense of smell. With it, he can deconstruct an intricate dish to its most basic ingredients or judge what any person in a room had for dinner two days prior. His talent has been tapped by food and alcohol producers, make-up manufacturers and some of the largest perfume houses in the world. I asked how he came to have such an amazing skill and expected to hear that he was born with it, a canine among men. The answer was incredibly inspiring, and completely surprising: As a young teenager in Germany, he entered a pastry shop one day looking for summer work. He observed a man making intricate delicacies, as though by an invisible force. He was awestruck and the longer he observed the more amazed he became. This chef seemed to exist in a world outside reality, and seemed to the young man like something on the other side of a looking glass. He thought to himself “I want to be like him, I want to learn THAT!” He became a devoted apprentice for many years. Every day he learned from this master. As his skill improved and his sensitivity to nuance increased, his abilities, which were wholly dependent on his sense of smell, over time became superhuman.

When I heard this account, I had already been working with Howard for some time. Instantly this story made perfect sense to me, because I had been experiencing something parallel in my own “apprenticeship.” Being Howard’s assistant has never been a job to pass the time or bring home bacon. Each day has been and continues to be a world of magic, because each moment is meaningful.

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Why it is special

Howard’s talent and energy attracts many fans around the world to collect his art. It also attracts many inspirational individuals to become subjects of his photographs, and just as much, it attracts hard working, extremely talented and deeply knowledgeable individuals with whom I get to work on a daily basis. It’s a wonderful and unparalleled experience which makes me feel very lucky.

Howard likes to refer to his studio as his photographic laboratory. He has a love for understanding light, each time anew. His ideas never stop coming, and each needs to be addressed, deconstructed, imagined, planned, and finally realized. Every idea which is tried, instead of bringing a final resolution, raises new questions. In turn every question begets a new idea, and one out of many begs to be tried, this in turn raising newer questions. It’s a self-perpetuating cyclone.

I get to sit in the eye of it, a perfectly wonderful place from which to help the storm spin along! When working we pay attention to each nuance, adjusting lights ten degrees, moving them four inches, and changing their intensities a tenth stop at a time. We master the nuances, and can from there imagine and judge how four-stop shifts will change everything without thinking but a moment. It’s a sharp skill to hone. We learn what every subject requires and are sure to treat them with great respect to make the right shot. It takes tact and intense focus to differentiate such minutiae and account for all of it in a calculating control of the set and session. Plenty of thought goes in and new ideas always come out.

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What I contribute

It’s been quite a road to this place. After a year of college I realized I hadn’t a clue what direction I wanted my life to take. I decided it made more sense to taste life than to slog through school where nothing made much sense. After a bit of hard labor, I happened on a photography book which, like an epiphany, made me realize this was a career that could make me happy. It was a book of plants and flowers which I can no longer recall, but remember clearly how it blew my mind at the time. I learned everything about photography that I could find on the subject, signed up for night classes with a darkroom, bought a camera, and looked for what ever interested me to make images of. After returning to school full-time, I would sit in class thinking it can’t be true that I’m there, in a group of like-minded individuals, prints tacked to a wall, talking, thinking, doing photography. It was an unbelievable feeling and experience.

Over the course of working toward a BFA, I experienced many wonderful things, learned much, and was always grateful and thrilled that I could think about what meant everything to me. At that time I met many great teachers, all of whom helped add skills and knowledge to my toolkit and vision. On the last day of one semester a teacher told us that there is a vast world of photographers out there and that they need assistants to make their images happen. He described his own assisting experiences, including working for Arnold Newman and among other things, he casually added how he got to fly on aerial shoots. That was all I needed to hear! I quit my job that summer, read ‘The Photographer’s Assistant’, and had my first work freelancing as film loader, scouter, lighting grip, burro, equipment organizer, lab runner, slide filer, and errand jogger. It was heaven. Within a year I had been on some of the coolest rooftops in NYC and got to fly in a helicopter hovering over the Chrysler Building’s spire. What began as an unlikely dream, became a reality almost overnight. Assisting was an amazing experience where every day was new and unusual, and it helped me to get through school and earn my BFA.

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I’ve been working as an assistant for something like ten years by now. There’s a bit of a knee jerk reaction about that. But what’s the point? About three of these years I’ve been working with Howard Schatz. Hands down I have the coolest and most unimaginable job I ever landed, with an incredibly creative and prolific artist and individual. Of course being an assistant this long has its benefits: You don’t make stupid mistakes, you learn good judgment, you know what to expect, even when you haven’t a clue about what happens next, you’ve seen most things that can go wrong do just that, you’re over being disillusioned about photography as a career choice, you learn to know what just about every assistant in the room is thinking, sometimes before they do, and you know you can handle just about anything.

It’s one of these funny things about photography that there’s always an ingredient which makes for a great and amazing image, and that ingredient is best described as ‘the impossible’. The more impossible it is, the better the photograph on the other end. It’s a comforting feeling to know that you can deal with the impossible. Of course it takes amazing talent and sensibility like Howard’s to wrangle such an impossible to yield something amazing. But as his right hand person, not only do I have an unprecedented place to see him handle such a situation, I’m also the person he relies on to do the dirty work involved. I feel like there isn’t any other place I could want to be at this stage of my life.

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What type of relationship it is

It’s a working relationship which constantly evolves; One of trust and respect, creative collaboration and the sharing of learned experience. Howard’s passion for his art is as pure as it is deep, and I think he derives enormous pleasure from the fact that his art is his life teacher. He loves to share what he discovers and he nurtures a heuristic atmosphere where not only do we all who work with him learn from his discoveries, but we are constantly encouraged to make our own. It’s a symbiotic environment where the art is the beneficiary and we its pupils.

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How it differs from assisting any other photographer

Much of the above already tells how being assistant at Schatz/Ornstein Studio is unlike just about anything. But how else? What makes my job different from other assisting work?

Although we do work for commercial clients to fill their creative concepts for advertising campaigns, most of what we do are actually personal projects. These in fact are why clients hire Howard; The personal work begets commercial work. This is an especially wonderful environment to be a part of, because what we do day to day is create art. The clients come for this aesthetic to help brand their products. As an assistant, it’s unusual to be at an artist’s studio such as this and to be involved in making art for art’s sake. This is something I could only have wished to be part of as a young student. I cherish it because to me art has always come before anything else.

The other way this experience differs is in the scope of people I meet and get to work with. From the amazing individuals who come to be photographed to the unimaginably talented artists who design sets, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the amazingly skilled retouchers, assistants and interns, all of whom never cease to impress with their thoughtfulness, creativity, ingenious problem solving, hard work and dedication to photography. I also have the rare opportunity to work closely with a very impressive lineup of tremendously knowledgeable professionals with whom Schatz/Ornstein has well-established relationships, among them Fotocare, Bron-Color, Leaf, Hasselblad, Canon, Adobe, Lexar, SeaCam, Epson, Chimera, ColorRemedies, the MAC Group and many more. I speak on a daily basis with these great people who help me troubleshoot and figure out so called ‘impossible’ problems; Every one of these folks helps us achieve just that. Thanks to this, we don’t simply work with the most talented people or use the best products, but we learn to do things in ways which they haven’t been done before. It’s something of an open-ended photographic research experiment.

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What have I learned?

More than I think, every time! It’s absolutely impossible to list. I learn so much every day. I’ve learned everything I can think of from A to Z (including how to make an alphabet!), and everything I knew when I took the job has evolved to an entirely new level. I learn what photography is and can be, and how to push it somewhere new. Howard has a quote he likes to repeat to his talented subjects: “If it’s impossible, it’s never been done before!” There is more truth in these words than bees in a hive. And how do they respond? They know it fully well, and they take on the challenge! I knew working with Howard Schatz would be a challenge unlike any other, and I couldn’t wait. I continue to grow each day. It’s an amazing feeling to know I can make ideas come to life. This is what we do daily, and I grow more able with every hurdle.

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Thanks for reading to the end… And a great many thanks to Scott and Brad for making this excellent venue possible and for having me on Guest Blogger Wednesday!

Howard Schatz’s photographs can be explored at howardschatz.com or howardschatzfineart.com and many of his books can be found at amazon.com. My own work can be viewed at lookseelook.com.