Ideas Series: Aaron Schuman on Richard Schaeffer

Several months ago, whilst flipping through back issues of Creative Camera from the mid-1970s – when the British magazine was at the height of its influential and critically progressive powers – I stumbled upon a portfolio of eight images that were so current in their look and feel that I had to check, and then double-check, the date on the front cover; July 1976.

At first I was absolutely convinced that they were outtakes from The New Scent, by Jason Evans, or a curious amalgamation of works by the likes of Roger Ballen, Michael Schmidt, Mårten Lange, Eva Stenram, Asger Carlsen and Clare Strand.  Shot in black-and-white, often with an on-camera flash, their jarring angles, interrupted compositions, harshly artificial contrasts, and disarmingly absurd subject matter – a roaring lion tearing through Venetian blind in a breeze-block window; a scruffy rat caught between two elephant-foot stools; a mariachi guitarist, cropped from the waist down, playing beside two chickens; a fish kissing a light-switch; etc. – felt so fresh and relevant, as well as spookily prescient of ideas and approaches that are only just now (re?)surfacing within contemporary photographic practice.   Simply entitled ‘Photographs by Richard Schaeffer’, these mysteriously captivating images were the work of an American photographer whom I’d never come across, and his accompanying bio read: ‘Richard Schaeffer’s work first came to our notice through his book…Turquoise Pleasures.  He lives in Rochester, New York, but beyond that prefers not to offer any biographical information.’  I had to know more. I emailed Jason Evans within hours – ‘Have you heard of this guy?’ – and a few days later he replied:  ‘I have a copy of Turquoise Pleasures, given to me by [David] Campany while I was in the end stages of making The New Scent.”  Bizarrely, a week later, during what I expected to be a rather dry and uneventful university board meeting, I found myself in the company of the exact same Campany, who unbeknownst to me was serving as an external examiner for one of the university’s photography courses.  As soon as the meeting adjourned, I rushed over and dropped the name to see what I could glean from him.  ‘Schaeffer?’ he replied, slowly drawing the name out whilst thinking, “Yeah, I don’t know much about him.  But Turquoise Pleasures is an excellent book.”  For me that settled it; the hunt was on. At the front of the same July 1976 issue of Creative Camera, the magazine’s editor Peter Turner wrote, ‘[L]et us see the development of genuine photographic education where no pretence is made of eventually obtaining a high-powered job working for “Vogue” or “The Sunday Times”, and the emphasis is placed on helping students to lead a richer, more fulfilling life through photography – even if it means that they earn their living driving a bus.’  My initial online research into Schaeffer turned up very little relevant information, apart from a couple of compelling mentions in a 1969 issue the Rochester Institute of Technology’s student newspaper, REPORTER.  One ran under the headline ‘G.I. Joe Goes to Jail’:

‘Richard Schaeffer, the male counterpart of Wonder Woman…was arrested and held in jail for nine hours on Tuesday.  Schaeffer posed with Wonder Woman as G.I. Joe.…He was taken to the Monroe County Jail, where he was held in lieu of $500 bail.  He was also charged with desecrating the flag.  Fellow photo illustration students, when they learned of the arrest, organized a drive for the funds for the bail.  Four faculty members and eleven students contributed the money…G.I. Joe was liberated at 10:50PM.’

 And the other listed Schaeffer as one of the five co-authors of a letter to the editor, which read:

‘A student committee has been formed for the express purpose of improving communications between photographic illustration students and faculty…[A]n atmosphere of confusion and mistrust has developed…In order to clarify this situation and in order to improve faculty-student relations within the photographic illustration department, we ask all second year photographic illustration students, faculty, and interested persons to attend an informal meeting…at twelve o’clock noon, May 6, in the photographic illustration workroom.’

I was liking Schaeffer more and more already.  But what had happened to him – since graduating from R.I.T., since publishing Turquoise Pleasures in 1974, presumably at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five, and then having his work included in Creative Camera two years later?  Was he leading a rich and fulfilling life thanks to photography (as Turner had hoped)?  Had he help to establish clarity and trust between his teachers and his peers?  Was he still with Wonder Woman? Was he driving a bus?  The hunt continued. I sent more emails – to prominent photographers, critics and curators of the time, to R.I.T. graduates, to current professors and to the ‘official old-timers’ that they suggested to me.  Finally, several weeks later, a short message from Nathan Lyons arrived in my inbox: ‘Contact Bill Edwards at Lumiere Photo.  He is a friend, and distributed Turquoise Pleasures.’  And then Bill Edwards himself – an R.I.T. alum who, thirty years ago, started his business by selling Schaeffer’s book, amongst many others, from the back of his Volkswagen Squareback – got in touch.  ‘Yes I do know Richard Schaeffer.  He is one of my closest friends.  Your interest in Turquoise Pleasures is very intriguing.  I’ve always felt that the book was far ahead of its time…He and his wife live in Rochester.  I’ve taken the liberty to call Rick and check with him before releasing his details.  He does not do e-mail but his wife does.  Her email is ____@____.’  Jackpot. Just today, as I sat at my desk writing this essay, Richard Schaeffer sent me a message via his wife’s email.  ‘I must say that I was very surprised to hear from you,’ he writes, ‘I had consigned myself to the lower footnotes in the history of photography.’  Regarding his time at R.I.T.: ‘I don’t remember having any specific aspirations at the time, except to put being a student – with all the constraints that went with it – behind me, and to see what I could do on my own.’  And his work: ‘My “photographic approach” developed easily, quickly and naturally.  When I went to Las Vegas after college to photograph, my first impressions were that it was a world of juxtapositions, and shooting Turquoise Pleasures there taught me the art of juxtaposition; that became the core of my photographs.  The book was self-published and distributed by Bill Edwards through Light Impressions. It was very well received, and for the next five years I was in a number of shows.’ And last but not least – thanks to photography – is he rich, fulfilled, happily driving that bus?  ‘I retired from photography in 1978, and I’m now retired from my second career as an interior painter and decorative plaster worker and restorer.  I build stone walls.  And since 1979, I have also been working on old tombstones – foundations and restorations – in a large, early-Victorian-to-present cemetery in Rochester.  In regards to photography today, I know nothing about photographic culture.  I see quite a bit of contemporary photography, and I find that I have mixed feelings about it.  These are subjects that I haven’t thought about in a number of years, but again, your email to me was a wonderful surprise.  It’s a very rewarding feeling to know that there are people out there who still look at my work, and it has helped to ward off the effects of the horrible heat wave that we’ve had here since the end of June. Warm regards, Richard.’

Published on 5 August 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks