If you look at John Schell’s work, you might think to yourself “surfer” or “skater.” If you do, then you’re pretty much hitting the nail on the head. “Growing up on Long Island (New York), I spent the majority of my summers either at the beach surfing, on a boat, skateboarding, BMX-ing, or just hanging around causing trouble with my friends. It was a pretty outdoorsy, suburban-type childhood, so, I think the reason why I love shooting what I shoot is because it’s so reminiscent of that.” John is what you might call a “lifestyle” photographer, a style that is rather polarizing in the photography community. “Believe it or not, this wasn’t an easy thing to admit. Like almost everyone else, I went through several iterations of my work; dark, moody, sexy, none of which seemed to click quite like what I’m doing now. And to be honest, I love it.”
John’s story, like the stories of many of his contemporaries, is one of history and love of the craft. “Growing up, my father was somewhat of an amateur photographer and so I’ve been around cameras and photography for about as long as I can remember. Throughout my teens and twenties, I always seemed to have a camera with me. Whether it was a still camera, or a video camera, there wasn’t one too far from my hand. In my twenties, I got away from it a bit, but always managed to keep at least a small Canon point and shoot with me. Fast forward a few years later, while I was in my Master’s of Education program, a good friend of mine started bringing his Canon 40D to class. I gave him a hard time about it for a while and then, after having backpacked through Europe with only my Canon Elph point and shoot, I decided that I needed to upgrade. I bought a DSLR and I messed around for a while, taking photos of landscapes and my dog, flowers, and friends. From there it kinda of snowballed.”
John now has the privilege of shooting some of San Diego’s finest, filling the books of many a modeling agency both in Southern California and throughout the state. So what keeps his inspiration flowing? “I guess you could say everything about Southern California [does that]. For as long as I can remember, I wished I lived in California. I would hang posters on my wall and dream of living on the beach, surfing spots like Swami’s, Cardiff Reef, Malibu, Black’s, and Rincon. I was a big fan of 1960’s surf movies and the lifestyle that went along with it, surfboards, skateboards, bikinis, Chuck Taylors, golden tans, orange sunsets, bonfires, old roadsters, everything. I just wanted a piece of it. When I moved to Southern California in 2005, I wrapped myself in it like a blanket and just let it absorb. I guess what you see now is a product of all of that.”
John’s photos don’t feel like they’re pushing a brand, but they very well could be. They balance the line between commercial and art. “It’s somewhere in the middle, I think. I won’t flat out call it art, but I’m not going to downplay the artistic merit of it. I mean I can step away from it and see that there is an artistic value in it – in all photography, really. But honestly, I think it’s more of a craft. Since I began, I’ve gone through so many versions and styles of shooting that when I pause for a moment and look back, it’s easy for me to understand that with each shoot I was in some way refining a technique or a skill or a look, so the work I’m putting out now is a result of a number of years of working hard at it, putting my time in, and developing a look. It’s a craft in that it’s a work in progress that I want to continue to develop and hone as I continue to move forward.”
John isn’t without ambition, always dreaming big. It’s what keeps him going, and what keeps him reaching those goals, one small step at a time. “I want to go big; I want the campaigns, I want Converse, I want Roxy, Billabong, and Quiksilver, etc. I want to continue to be a working photographer, be recognized and sought out for my work, and I’d want to continue to grow as much as if not more than I already have. This has all been such an incredible last few years and I feel as though I’m really starting to hit my stride. I recognize how lucky I am that people respond to my work. I want to continue to have people look at my work and see something special in it. Photography has already taken me to some amazing places and allowed me to meet some incredible and truly inspiring people. So, I want to continue to have that happen as well.”
John’s Favorite Gear
Canon 1V (when I want to shoot film)
John’s Advice to Emerging Photographers
“Probably my best advice would be to just keep shooting – even if you haven’t discovered what it is you are meant to do, it’s important to keep producing because I found that sometimes what we’re good at only revels itself to us after we’ve done a ton of work in just about every other direction.”
“Take a long look at what inspires you and start to recognize the fact that what you bring to the table will be different from everyone else – even if you feel the work is similar there are always going to be nuances which separate it from that of your peers. Finally, probably the best, most life changing advice I’ve ever gotten is that if you want to be a photographer, then be a photographer – if that’s what you want, then find a way to make it work.”
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