German born, Stefanie Schneider studied film and photography at the Folkwang University of Arts in Essen and after graduating; targeted a life in LA working in film editing. It was here she came across a box of expired Polaroid film, and it is here we start our interview…
Seafront: The idea of working exclusively with Polaroid and instant images can seem quite daunting to some, what aspect of this medium made you want to persevere with it when you started, instead of using film or the incoming digital?
Stefanie Schneider: Expired Polaroid simply fit my vision. As an art student looking for a voice, I happened upon this instant film in California. I fell in love with the way it developed before my eyes but the colours were what really grabbed my attention. The chemical mutations and / or vacancies spoke to me in an unknown language. I knew that this was it. It enhanced my sense of wonder. Not only because I love the feeling that so called nostalgic photos give but their somehow, imperfect perfection reflected my own feeling of position in the world. I was the weirdo oddball that was easy for the bully to pick on so it felt like myself. I also thought Polaroid was taken for granted. It was there, so obvious and yet unnoticed like a wallflower.
How has the changing nature of photography affected your work since you picked up your first pack of Polaroid film, in what was the very early days of this thing called digital photography?
Change is a double edged sword. On one hand, would my work have had the recognition without the digital revolution? That intensely sharp and over focused digital look, gave me an edge, for my work might not have stood out as it does today in the world awash in the infinite amount of ‘cold’ reproduction. Anyway, I don’t compare my work to the digital innovation. I stand in my own world, blind to mainstream herd, dreaming of stories that reflect my innermost feelings and experiences.
“I want to get inside your head
or allow you to see the inside of mine.”
Can you remember how the collaboration with the Chili Peppers came about?
After my heart was broken, I started a project called Strange Love and I frequented a lot of online sex platforms for research. On one, I met an American doing business in Switzerland who eventually came to a gallery show I was doing there. He happened to be a good friend of Anthony Kiedis and recommended me to him. Anthony is a serious art collector and after seeing my work, bought 7 large pieces.
He hung them at his place in Malibu, California. (One hangs right beside a Richard Prince work). So there was no collaboration per se before the decision to use that image but to me, the ‘desecration’ reflects the disintegrating film, the girl in the truck symbolizes loneliness.
Can you tell us more about the image used on the cover of Desecration Smile?
The image is called Saigon, the model Narween is a friend of mine and happens to be Vietnamese. I shot it in Topanga Canyon at Carl Colpaert’s place. He’s the producer of the film Gas, food, lodging. It reminded me of a rainforest so I called it Saigon.
Do you believe the photograph and the track were befitting of each other?
In my opinion, the lyrics and the photograph have a connection.
I imagine you were aware of the band previously, were you a fan?
Yes, I was aware of the band but I’m not a ‘fan’ but I think Anthony is an amazing person and we have a lot in common. The love of the ocean, the earth and he’s vegan like me.
Your Polaroid images have featured on other releases since your collaboration with the Red Hot Chili Peppers; did you ever envision your work being used in such a manner?
My work mainly deals with my own internal stories or fantasies. I’ve only been a gun for hire twice; once for a film called Stay and the other for Cyndi Lauper’s Bring Ya To The Brink album. Otherwise, it’s simply a coincidence that there’s an overlap of ideas but that doesn’t come as a surprise, quite the opposite. Since any story will have ups and downs or more accurately feelings of happiness or misery. My photographs reflect the human condition, hence they’re applicable for anyone’s vision too. That’s why they’ve become quite popular in novel book covers or music albums. They encapsulate or condense the concept into a visual point.
With the staged nature of your photographs and also their links to the films you’ve created, is it safe to say that you’ve been inspired by past image makers? Do you have any favourite Polaroid practitioners or any other favourite image makers?
Initially, it was simply a voice that wasn’t occupied in the art world. My focus in using expired Polaroid film had not been done before in art. Some have dabbled in it, like Warhol but not with expired film and not exclusively.
In terms of respect, the film director Terrance Malik for his first two movies; Days of Heaven and Badlands, he remains my biggest influence.
As mentioned, your still images have also provided the basis and content for cinematic work, what led you to experiment and take it in this direction?
I studied film & photography and within film, I concentrated in editing and that’s always fascinated me. So naturally, after finding and adopting expired Polaroid instant film, I thought of constructing narratives in photo stills, since a motion picture is just a bunch of photo stills anyways. It developed naturally. I’ve always told little narratives. With some of my photo sequences, one can exchange the photos and change the story, others you can’t. The structure gets bigger and they sometimes intertwine, so the narrative just kept growing.
Relating back to the still image, Polaroid by their nature are difficult to exhibit, meaning your work is of course printed to much larger scales, do you feel there are any obstacles in being able to maintain the visual draw of the physical Polaroid at this bigger size?
That’s a really good and valid point. Enlarging a Polaroid is a big step from just taking a great photograph. That’s why I took that step. Without showing your work in a final enlarged hanging phase, it’s just a Polaroid photograph which because they’re relatively small means they have to be inspected rather than seen from anywhere in a room. I’ve invested in and built an analogue laboratory in Berlin to develop my own prints. I did this in analogue because that was the only way possible 20 years ago. Today, there’s digital printing which, while easier, doesn’t bring out the ‘feeling’ of a Polaroid image. Digital printing is colder than analogue and thus why I continue to print in analogue.
Polaroid images offer a completely unique view of the world. Walker Evans reignited his interest in photography towards the end of his life thanks to the instant image and recognising its aesthetically mysterious qualities, often photographed scenes of equal mystery, (lone trees in graveyards, clothing on a chair, discarded tailor mannequins, skulls, etc.)
Does your choice to sometimes include additional (often surreal) props in your images help you to further comment on this aspect of the medium you’re working with?
Exactly, after over 20 years of working with expired Polaroid film exclusively, I have learned what it likes and how it works. I’ve adapted to it rather that the other way around. I shoot in the perfect environment at the perfect time. I use props that enhance its unique abilities in colour and use the right film at the right age that’s been stored in the correct way.
Manipulating the physical photograph also reminds us of the surrealist filmmakers who would paint on or practically destroy the film itself on which they were working to form part of the narrative, is this an area of art that has ever inspired you? Would you call yourself a surrealist?
Sure, some of my work could definitely be described as ‘surrealism’. In fact, my company is called Instant Dreams and dreams are well connected to our unconscious or subconscious mind, even the foundation of our emotions. The so called ‘imperfections’ of my work which is working with chemical mutations that expired Polaroid film has, express my acceptance of the ‘imperfect’. They relate to our own life blemishes and somehow make them ok, or even remarkable. If it’s the weirdness of the Polaroid deterioration or the weirdness of the project scene, character or action, connecting to the subconscious is the aim of my work. I want to get inside your head or allow you to see the inside of mine.
You are also heralded as being the inspiration for the beginning of the Impossible Project, by the company’s co-founder Florian Kapps. Did the end of Polaroid film production affect your work in any way and how have you found adapting since?
I’m honoured to have had my work affect and help in the saving of Polaroid film. Not just the film but the millions of Polaroid cameras that would have been obsolete the day there was no more film for them. The creation of Impossible film to their purchasing of the actual Polaroid brand only a few months ago, show how things come full circle.
I didn’t anticipate the day Polaroid died but I had been buying expired film for years before that from all over the world so I had a large stock pile already. When I heard that there was an ‘end’, I simply bought more until the prices became ridiculous and still have a large supply.
You are to be featured in an upcoming feature documentary by Willem Baptist, called Instant Dreams. Can you tell us a little bit about this project, and personally what you have planned for the future?
Yes! I’m so excited. Instant Dreams the documentary will be premiering in Amsterdam this December. Willem approached me with the concept last year and together we worked at my production ranch in California showing how I work and then again in Berlin where I do my post production or in layman’s terms the enlarging in my analogue lab. He felt the name of my company fit so well, he asked if he could use it as the title of the film. That collaboration birthed my Jane Bond project which you’ll be seeing more of in the near future. Other plans involve a collaboration with the Helmut Newton Foundation here in Berlin. I’m working to bring together a core group of my art collectors to bring that to life.
Seafront would like to take this opportunity to send a big thank you to Stefanie Schneider for her time and to Lance Waterman for assisting with the interview.