For fashion photographer Kristian Schuller, art imitates life. He embraces each with a high-energy approach: Everything epic, all the time. Based in Berlin, he has worked in Paris the last four years, and at this very moment, he’s settling into a new SoHo apartment. He has relocated to New York City in an effort to take his career to even greater heights, though he has never let the caliber of the client impact his vision.
“I think that’s extremely important,” says Schuller. “In advertising, you have a very strict plan of what you’re shooting, but even still we find moments to take five or 10 minutes to do some experimental things. I always say keep your eyes open, look to your right, look to your left, because maybe by accident you’ll see something or you’ll get an idea. The other day we were shooting a big advertising campaign, and in the middle of the shoot, we escaped into the garden for a few minutes to shoot an image that was strictly for me. Sometimes I’ll do it for a client because it can be more interesting and more fun. It depends on what I find. The other day, I found something and thought, ‘The client shouldn’t know, but for me it’s fantastic. So let’s do it quickly.’
“Have your eyes open,” Schuller continues, “and always find a way to use every spare second. If you find something, do it. You have a strong team with you, good models, you have everybody on set, and you have eight or 10 hours. Use the time and play; don’t just stand around and drink coffee. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. You take your camera, you work on your ideas, and you never think for who you’re doing it, and you never have in mind how big it is or how important it is, just that you might do something good. It’s something like giving 150% of your energy, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you shoot in Bombay or New York or Berlin, Paris or Romania.”
Schuller was born in Romania. His early childhood in Eastern Europe had a profound impact on both his life and work. “It must have something to do with being born in the Communist world,” he says. “You’re surrounded by gray, you’re surrounded by a little bit of depression, and then you come to Western Europe, to Germany, and suddenly everything is so colorful and so bold. I got this flash. I saw all these colors, and I loved the colors, and I loved the energy and the optimism. It was like, grab life and take it. Say yes to life! Suddenly you’re in the middle of it and everything is possible, and you start playing.”
His other great influence was his father. “My father was a theater man,” says Schuller. “He was already in theater when I was born, and later on he was doing movies. So I was growing up on stage. It wasn’t a big stage, it was a small stage, but the thing is, a stage is a stage is a stage. And if you like the stage, if you like theater, if you like actors, if you like this whole storytelling thing and if you’re influenced by that, then you’re never afraid to tell a story in an epic way. I love to see the girl and the garment in the whole surrounding, a bit like if you were sitting in the audience in the theater or the opera and you see the whole stage, and sometimes if you open your eyes, you can see the stage and the left and the right of the theater, and somehow everything is part of the story.
“My father was always saying to me when I was a young boy,” he continues, “you have to take care that you aren’t boring because you have to entertain the people. That’s their right to be entertained a little bit. And I think of a photographer as an entertainer. We have to entertain our audience a little bit because, if not, people get bored. You can do it in a nice, intelligent way, not in a stupid, banal way—a good, high level. You can entertain people with good taste and by hopefully telling strong stories.”
Theatricality overflows from Schuller’s work, but it’s nowhere more evident than in his personal projects, like the productions he mounted in the Southern California desert for his 2010 book, 90 Days One Dream. A veritable visual ode to theater, the images incorporate everything from the rigging that literally supports the production to a circus-inspired image of a model and an elephant. Go big or go home, indeed.
“It’s fantastic,” he says of staging elaborate productions. “I love it if you can feel what you’re shooting. If you create everything in reality, the model has a much easier time because they live it in the moment, and you consume it, and it’s all there. It’s much more fun, and a much bigger show, than shooting in front of a green box and creating it in Photoshop. Oh, my God, it’s dead! It’s not life!”
Schuller shoots wide, allowing space for the garment to move, adding context to a scene and otherwise encouraging any bit of theatricality to find its way into the frame.
“I love to explain the woman not just by the outfit,” Schuller says. “The outfit is very important to explain the character of the woman, but the surroundings where she is, that’s also part of her life, it’s also part of the scenario of the interpretation of her. So, in the end, it’s cherchez la femme by using a bit more wide angle, a bit more showing on the right and left sides.”
Even in the studio, the simple proposition of a girl in a gown becomes something more. Schuller relies on movement and motion to add energy and texture, whether it comes from twirling fabric or swirling smoke, splashing water or exploding powder.
“It’s not that you start and say, ‘Now, I want powder and I automatically want something crazy,’” he says. “Creativity is always a process. You start at a point, and it can happen that there’s just no way out, and you don’t find a solution to make the image work, so then you try to break it and you use the powder and suddenly you create something new. It can happen by accident. Other times, you can really plan something and your ideas are running away like wild horses and you end up somewhere.
“Sometimes you create these flowers,” Schuller says, “and everything is beautiful and elegant and poetic. But sometimes it’s just a wonderful mess. It’s just like if you put your fingers in the dirt and you play.”
Schuller possesses more than just a flair for the dramatic. He’s a total pro, dedicated to precision in camera, composition and lighting.
“When I was a student,” Schuller says, “my professor was Vivienne Westwood, a fashion designer from London. She was always saying, ‘Creativity comes from technique.’ And I learned from the very beginning that creativity in our work—it doesn’t matter if you’re a designer or a photographer or something else—it’s always based on perfect technique. Whatever we’re creating, we create it by light. Light is never something that’s used by accident. It’s very precise, and you know exactly before you start shooting what light you’re using and why you use it and how you use it. Because with light you create an atmosphere. You decide, is it bright and fresh and positive, is it dark and dangerous? All these attitudes—the basis of all of that is the light. And then you put the character, the model, the actor into this light, and then they have the perfect base to play the role.”
Adds Schuller, “The funny thing is, at the end of the day, you break all of your knowledge of the technique, and you take a little snapshot camera and you shoot everything with that, and there’s no technique anymore. But that’s something you do of your own will. You decide what technique you use.”