By Steve Sears
Robin Schwartz, Professor of Photography in the Art Department at William Paterson University in Wayne and sought after in her own right by many publications for her superb photography.
She’s come full circle, teaching where she one attended school.
“I was once one of them (a student) – a working class kid. I loved the (NPR) interview with the new Provost (Josh Powers) and he had talked about first generation, and I was first generation college. That’s me.”
And she also loves animals. Her latest assignment was in early June, filming elephants at three national zoos for New York Times Magazine. Some of the stills were shot June 24-25, the cover running on July 14. The ten-day original assignment was in May, but the publication waited until Schwartz finished her semester. “Time waited until I finished the New York Times Mag assignment. I photographed the elephants last May, and then they sent me back for the cover (shoot) a month ago. That’s been in the works for a year. My experience with animals is different, and everybody’s experience is different.”
Schwartz attended the then-William Paterson College (“I stayed on the ‘mountain,’” she says kiddingly) from 1975-1978, and also attended Pratt Institute after college. “I had a boyfriend, an aspiring photographer, and on weekends we went to galleries and museums, and without knowing it, soaked up photo history information,” she recalls fondly. “It’s good to learn when you’re sort of just hanging out.” She entered Pratt by taking a nine-credit summer program at WPC that offered she and other students across the country an opportunity to work on Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. “I photographed there and walked into Pratt with 300 prints, and (photographer and then Chair of the Master of Fine Arts photography program) Arthur Freed, he called my Chair (at WPC), Bill Finnerman, and between those two, got me out of William Paterson and into Pratt, and Arthur submitted me for a Ford Foundation Grant, which I was awarded and a graduate assistantship.” She then attended Pratt Institute for an MFA in Photography. “It’s about going places and how different people help you and make a difference in your life,” she affirms.
Schwartz is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in photography with photographs in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, and the Bibliothéque Nationale, France, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in England, and The Museum Folkwang in Germany, among others. She was also a short-listed finalist at the Hyeres Festival de Photographie 2010, France, is a two-time recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Grant, and a Ford Foundation Individual Artist Grant as a graduate student at Pratt Institute. Her monograph publications include Amelia and the Animals 2014, Amelia’s World, 2008, Primate Portraits, 1993, and Dog Watching, 1995. Schwartz’s photographs have been published in many publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine LIGHTBOX, The New Yorker, Oprah, Stern, Telegraph UK, Guardian UK, Hyperallergic and Musée Magazines. She has and does still give talks around the country.
In her own words, Schwartz was “born to be with animals.”
She painted and drew pictures up until her college days, and once at WPC met Professor Dave Raymond. “He was a little harsh, and I quit painting. But when I went to Pratt, I learned to photograph what you care about. That’s a gift, and that’s what I say to my students. But what I got at William Paterson was how to think in color. I had this teacher for a year, John Day, and he was a Yale-educated Joseph Albers color theorist, and his course – two semesters – taught me how to think, add and subtract in color.” Her first job, which she worked while at Pratt, was for Nabisco, where she printed color by using a Kreonite processor machine. “If it wasn’t for this teacher, John Day, who was quite strict – he taught me how to think, it was like a sport – I could add and subtract in color.” She continues, “In photography, there’s a subtractive and additive process, so I can add and subtract in color well. How you see color is individual.” Her second teaching gig was actually teaching color, but she had been a black and white photographer until daughter Amelia was born in 1999. “Learning color helped me get a job,” says Schwartz, who has also taught at Westchester County Center.
Schwartz is a full WPU professor, and David Horton, her former teacher who retired last year, brought her on board as an adjunct in the summer of 1990, that turned into a continuous role in 1992. She then became a half-time professor, three-quarter-time, temporary full-time twice, to currently full-time. It has been a road well-traveled.
“I teach photography much differently because of my assignments,” says Schwartz. “I think of photography as a tool. I don’t tell my working class kids that they’re going to make a living as photographers, but because photography is ubiquitous, it can help them like color theory helps me think. It can help them navigate and use photography in all aspects of their classes and eventually their career. I think photography now should be used as a resource, and it should also lead into video.”
Schwartz doesn’t go looking for photography work: it finds her, although it’s not the most important thing her life. She has a family. Her husband of 33 years, Robert Forman (www.robertforman.net), is an artist, and her daughter Amelia, 20, is an Economics and Spanish major at Wellesley College, and she currently has an internship for United Nations development in Costa Rica. For Schwartz, her work as a professional photographer takes her to many places, such as India and Australia in 2018. “Amelia has a lot of exposure to photographers,” she says of her daughter. “She goes with me to National Geographic every year, and my publishers have watched her grow up. She is filming in Costa Rica these women fisherman and the development piece is about sustainability and supporting women fisher-people. She knows all this stuff about longline fishing and tuna fishing, and it’s really interesting because she said, ‘I’m down there, and nothing I’ve learned about economics is being applied.’ And so, she’s just videoing!” Amelia has no desire to following in her artist-parents’ footsteps, although Schwartz believes she may change her mind, “because I don’t think economics and working in a cubby is her thing.”
Schwartz enjoys teaching, and she changes her method per semester. “Some of the students are challenging, some I truly enjoy. My most successful (former) student is Ab Sesay, who is currently Executive Producer/Creative Director at the MAC Group. He must be 38 now. I guess I had him when he was 19.” She changes how she teaches based on her assignment work. “I really feel assignment work is really tough – what is that: ‘Pedal to the metal”? – it’s boots on the ground, and it changes how I teach. You’re really teaching from experience and I think it has made me a better teacher and makes me very practical as a teacher.”
She elaborates on her teaching methods. “I teach them (students) the technical things, and they go where they want to go. The thing I learned at Pratt is to photograph what you care about. My goal for my students is for them to photograph what you care about, and I think what is most meaningful is not to be an artist, but to tell your own personal story. Photograph your family, your neighborhood. It’s not about being an artist – it’s about personal fulfillment.”
In September, Schwartz will take part in the Photoville Photography Festival Exhibition (www.photoville.com) in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s in DUMBO, between the two bridges. I will have a 40’ exhibition container of the Amelia & the Animal Series, with a monitor of video of behind the scene of the taking of the images over 17 years of my project with my daughter.” Her students also take part. “This is an event my students are assigned, and they love, as it is an outdoor event day and evening, the last two weekends in September (Thursday – Sunday) with events/projections with National Geographic, the New York Times, panels, workshops – free.” She continues. “My goal is to get those kids to New York. It changes them. It gives them exposure. Every art history teacher sends them to the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art), but that’s a little different. Just to wander on your own, and just be exposed and soak it up, like I did, and that’s good.”
Please visit www.robinschwartz.net for more information about her career.