Interview: Jonathan Schoonover

August 24 2014

For being relatively young, NYC-based photographer Jonathan Schoonover has a signature style in hand. Currently pursuing his MFA in Photography at the School of Visual Arts, he also spends his time shooting still life, portraits, and dodging blood spray while shooting amateur wrestling matches for an ongoing project. The latter is actually a family affair–he has been shooting indie wrestling shows and the people behind the characters since this April.

With the same sense of humor that comes through in his work, Schoonover chatted with us about his earliest influences and the pleasures of Netflix.

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Did you have a creative family/parents as an influence when you were younger? What led you to your first camera?

I’ve always had a really supportive and creative family. I used to draw a lot as a kid, which I guess was a direct influence from my mother. I was really into music, too. My brothers and I started a band when I was about 13 and we kept that going for 9 or 10 years. It’s hard to break up a band of dudes who were raised to stick together. We still play and record occasionally. That was what really kept me going creatively through my high school and undergrad years.

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I started out with a little digital point and shoot camera when I was maybe 15. I shot anything I wanted to, really. Ceiling fans, bloody guitar strings, sequoia trees, grand canyons, abandoned places, etc. I was just having fun. I eventually picked up my mom’s ’84 Nikon FG-20, which I consider to be my first camera. I shot my first roll of 35mm since I was probably eight and I was instantly hooked. That was probably what started my actual fascination with making photographs.

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Which photographer(s) has influenced you and your photography the most, either currently or when you first started shooting?

When I first started photographing, I really enjoyed this music photographer Ryan Russell. I mean, I wanted to be that guy. He had such a great style and he was traveling with bands who I also wanted to be.

I eventually discovered incredible photojournalists like Elliott Erwitt, Susan Meiselas and Robert Capa. They were responsible for a phase in my life where I looked almost exclusively at Magnum photographers.

In the last year or two, I’ve been looking at the work of Collier Schorr and Philip-Lorca diCorcia along with a lot of contemporary fashion photographers. I find that as I grow, my tastes change a lot. I tend to just let it happen. It keeps me looking for new work, or at least work I haven’t yet discovered.

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Your still life is best described as bold/colorful with heavy contrast, while your recent portrait work has a certain misty, ethereal feel to it. Do you enjoy working in both styles, or has it been more of a transition in personal style?

I really like working in both styles simultaneously. I love obnoxious contrast and color. I also really enjoy deep shadows and ethereal environments. I try not to limit myself to one shooting style. Things could potentially get really dull for me if I did that.

I want to make work that I’m excited about. Sometimes that means making something completely different than what I made the day before.

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What motivates you as a photographer?

I tend to think about the composition and light first and foremost. I have to say that I’m a sucker for beautiful art. I really like making work that is some sort of visual experience. Even in more documentary projects, I really focus on the forms within the frame in relation to the lighting.

I’d love to say something as lofty as, “showing people something they’ve never seen before is what motivates me,” but really, there is so much work being produced all the time that all I can offer is my take on the world.

I think the world is really beautiful and I try to represent it in good faith.

And then sometimes I like to take obnoxious photographs of fruit.

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Tell us about your ongoing Wrestlers project.

Wrestlers is a photojournalistic look into amateur/indie pro wrestling groups. We’re interested in these wrestlers as a subculture. My brother and I have been photographing this project since April.  We figure the idea for the project blossomed from our fascination with pro-wrestling as kids.

We love the fact that these guys take time out of their lives to devote to wrestling. We’ve gotten to see some really cool things like the contrast between the wrestler’s character and his real life personality. Really evil wrestlers end up being incredibly kind and genuine human beings.

We’ve also been yelled at, kicked, and landed on. On one occasion, my brother Chris and I were dodging blood spray throughout a match. Needless to say, its been really fun.

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One thing that I wish I knew when I first started out was that no one was going to give me success. That most things wouldn’t fall into my lap. Call it optimism or naivety, but I thought that I would just be discovered or something. You really have to work hard and reach out to people to get noticed. I have to re-learn that every once in a while.

I can be a slacker. It’s my cross to bear.

It’s just that Netflix is so tempting.

I blame Netflix.

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Austin Bryant is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. Follow him on Instagram.