For glossy fashion magazines, it can take a village to make a genetically blessed model decked out in $8,000 worth of designer clothes and accessories look just the right kind of fabulous. But the supremacy of the carefully crafted fashion shoot is being challenged by the street style photo blog, an instant-gratification blend of artistry and reality, starring appealing amateurs who are their own stylists. And no one is doing more to spur the revolution than Scott Schuman.
Indeed, Schuman’s 4-year-old photo blog, the tSartorialist (thesartorialist.blogspot.com), has become a daily habit for thousands of devotees, making it consistently rank among the 50 most popular blogs in the world. By artfully spotlighting men and women who dress themselves with uncommon panache, the blog offers its passionate followers a quick hit of style as regular as the sunrise.
“The Sartorialist is the first thing on the Web to set up meaningful competition to the fashion magazines,” said Peter Jones, a New York-based fine art photographer, dealer and collector.
Schuman greeted fans in Los Angeles in October at signings of his recently published book, “The Sartorialist,” a collection of more than 500 pictures of the creative, stunning, amusing, sublime and occasionally ridiculously stylish people who have appeared on his blog. Ernest Duarte, a 51-year-old design engineer from Orange County who purchased the $175 hardcover limited-edition and stood in line to meet Schuman at Barneys in Beverly Hills, summed up the revolutionary element of the photographer’s work: “The pictures aren’t just about what’s expensive. They celebrate what the individual brings to their look.”
A self-taught photographer, Schuman started the blog to address the gap between what was shown on the runways and in magazines and what people actually wore. “When there’s a new collection in the showroom, everything is that new, total look,” he said. But “nobody buys a whole new wardrobe every season, so on the street you don’t see people as perfectly put together as a mannequin. Yet they can be expressing great personal style.”
One day, the photograph with pride of place on the Sartorialist might be a middle-aged woman in a fairy tale of a dress; the next, the most arresting image is a sockless man wearing proper tweeds. A reader might pick up a small affectation to adopt -- such as Italian men rarely button their button-down collars -- or get the message that purple tights can make an outfit. The Sartorialist delights in details -- the turn of a cuff, an unexpected combination of colors and textures.
Schuman is drawn to originality, to clothes that fit beautifully, to people who exude self-confidence or hide behind an air of mystery. His choices don’t, for example, campaign for a particular flavor of good taste. Nevertheless, visitors to the site find it inspiring (“I could try that!”) and validating (“I’ve worn that!”)
Schuman, 41, is a compact man with ice blue eyes and close-cropped, Don Draper hair. Dressing with flair bolsters his credibility as a style arbiter; at Barneys, he was tieless in a three-piece Ralph Lauren Purple Label navy suit with a white shirt.
He grew up in Indiana and moved to New York, where he worked in clothing sales and marketing for 15 years, then opened a small showroom to represent young designers. After the 9/11 attacks devastated the American fashion industry, he closed his business. He was married with two young daughters, and when the children’s nanny left, Schuman began spending time caring for them and taking pictures around Manhattan.
“I was still totally ambitious and driven,” he said, “but I let myself become more of an artist. Blogs were mostly text-driven. Nobody was making money with photo blogs then. I knew I understood fashion. I knew about men’s and women’s style at a high level. I was beginning to become a good photographer and I had a point of view. I felt there was potential for a photo blog to build an audience.”
At first, all the pictures were of men, but the blog quickly became coed. “If I saw a cool girl, how could I not shoot her?” Schuman asked. There were some grumbles from male readers, but, Schuman said, “after a while they started to see how a guy can look at a girl’s outfit in a kind of abstract way, seeing color combinations, textures, things like that. That’s when I knew I was on to something. People were getting that you don’t have to be super-rich or gorgeous to look great.”
The site’s growth was viral. “A small group of guys were looking at it, and one guy would e-mail another guy with a link,” Schuman said.
The Sartorialist’s greatest payoff to Schuman has been as a steppingstone. The more attention it attracted, the more assignments he got from magazines. Those gigs took him to Berlin; Stockholm; Moscow; Florence, Italy; and London, whose chic citizens he featured on the blog. Schuman contributes a Sartorialist page to each issue of GQ and has shot street-style advertising campaigns for such clients as DKNY.
As its subjects became increasingly global, the philosophy of the Sartorialist continued to be exclusive and inclusive. “It’s exclusive because I’m shooting inspiring, well-dressed people,” Schuman said. But the subjects were of different ages, races, sizes and income levels.
In its long history, street style photography has been influenced by Robert Frank’s portraits of ordinary Americans and the work of the late German photographer August Sander, among others. Jacques-Henri Lartigue captured fashionable French women at the end of the 20th century and since the 1970s, Bill Cunningham of the New York Times has been the genre’s most visible practitioner, an acute observer of the charming near-miss. (Cunningham believes that, unlike in formal fashion photography, the power of street style photos derives from the beauty of imperfection.)
Many of Schuman’s subjects are fashion professionals, since his hunting ground is usually outside the major runway shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan, Italy. His first big break came in 2006, when the Conde Nast website Style.com hired him to contribute pictures shot during men’s fashion weeks in Milan and Paris. Next, they sent him to the women’s shows.
Photographing the professional fashion tribe isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many buyers and editors are too concentrated on their stores or magazines to dress well themselves, or they’re simply post-stylish in black on black. French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld is a Schuman favorite, but he doesn’t usually shoot well-known fashion personalities or go out of his way to capture celebrities or runway clones. He’s partial to young assistants with more dash than cash.
Inevitably, certain characters reappear on the site, and even develop a following. “Certain editors and the assistants are always my favorites,” said Jill Roberts, who owns eponymous boutiques in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and checks the blog daily. “I love seeing someone repeatedly, and seeing how they vary their style. Lately, I’m so much more inspired by photo blogs than by magazines.”
Is street style photography art? Yes, if art is defined as what is sold by a gallery. In January 2008, the Danziger Projects, the New York photography gallery that represents Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol and Edward Weston, mounted a show of his photographs. “At the opening, people were lined up around a city block,” said gallery owner James Danziger.
“Before the show, Scott had never made a print of any of his photographs,” Danziger continued. “He is the first true photographer of the Internet. He shoots digitally, posts on the Web and his work is appreciated there. The history of photography is one of innovation. While Scott is by nature a classicist, the concept and delivery of his work and the online community it has attracted are innovative.”
Indirectly, the Internet can take some credit for Schuman finding love. After his marriage broke up, he got to know French fashion illustrator and blogger Garance Dore at the shows. They became romantically involved a year and a half ago, and he bought her first camera, which enabled her to add photos to her blog.
The couple often work on projects together, and he sees their future as the principals of a creative studio that would produce video, photographs, editorial spreads, even products under the Sartorialist brand. And, of course, their respective blogs.