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BEST OF 2011, Stephen Schafer
Ventura, CA
Project: Dream job to photograph The Ahwahnee, a National Landmark luxury hotel in Yosemite National Park, under very restrictive photo conditions.

© Stephen Schafer
© Stephen Schafer


Stephen Schafer’s assignment combines a documentarian’s dream with a logistical nightmare. The task: Shoot 5-inch by 7-inch black-and-white film of a national historic landmark. Drawbacks: Work around visitors at the height of the season in 100-degree temperatures, with an antiquated electrical system precluding the use of hot lights. Added bonus: Retrace the footsteps of Ansel Adams — no pressure there! Schafer’s images are now part of the Library of Congress, expected to be publicly available online in late 2013.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

SS: I started with portraits and weddings and got a business license in 1987 when I was 17, but it wasn’t really a business until I moved out of my parent’s house and started doing my own laundry about five years later.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

SS: Since about 1997, after I had established a commercial studio and began to have questions about business and copyright, and so on. I thought ASMP would help with that and it did. I soon changed to ASMP insurance, too.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SS: No kittens, no weddings, no people; I hate people, they move, like kittens. Which is not to say I haven’t done all those things at some time. Back in the late Eighties after high school I was a reluctant wedding specialist, and I grew to be a bitter wedding specialist. Right now, my passion and my photographic specialty match: Architecture and historic architecture and engineering, working with the Historic American Buildings Survey, the Historic American Engineering Record and the Historic American Landscape Survey (HABS/HAER/HALS).

After a couple years of weddings, I opened my brick-and mortar photography studio as a small-product/tabletop specialty, which soon evolved into advertising / commercial / corporate / studio, doing half studio and half location work, including annual reports, marketing, stock, transit, magazines and a shitload of brochures. A typical day involved a photo of a male pointing at a computer screen, some wearing lab coats. I eventually bought a lab coat to have on hand. I was flown to 30 states to take pictures of people looking at computer screens. (All those photos are now worthless because they are all looking into CRT tube-screens and not modern flat-panel monitors).

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

SS: Lots of lights and sharp lenses, etc. That sounds lame. How about something more unusual: I couldn’t live without Schneider Polarizing filters and neutral density attenuator filters. There is always a reflection or color somewhere that can be improved or saturated by a polarizer, and since the HABS negatives get delivered to the client I can’t hide problems in post. Attenuators and graduated filters give uniform negative density in some areas that I can’t light. I get all my filters in 4-inch by 5-inch size from motion picture catalogs.

ASMP: What is unique about your style, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

SS: First, a passion for my subject, so much so that I have become a historic preservationist and do workshops on preservation topics and advocacy all over California. Also I love to use complex light to make subjects seem simply lit. I still try to get it right in-camera. On HABS jobs I have no Photoshop, just minor dodging and burning on the prints so I try to make it as close to perfect as possible.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

SS: I just try to remember this mantra: “It’s documentation, stupid.” The Ahwahnee is a distinguished subject, but the process of doing HABS is all about documentation, not making it look more distinguished. After twenty years doing advertising photos — making things look better than reality — it’s fun to switch off the “glamour and style” and try to create an honest depiction of a building or a bridge. Of course truth is not a concrete subject; so a better description is to “eliminate as many lies as possible,” to convey the building in a documentary way that someone 500 years from now will understand. I still use super-wide lenses, and still use lights to fill the shadows, but there is a distinct understanding that the final product has to be more about reality than drama or art or style. Some of the most important photographs I make are of utilitarian and mechanical spaces that no one sees but are vital to the story of how a building or bridge works. The facades of famous buildings are well documented over decades by scores of photographers, but I’m the only one with a photo of the air conditioning compressors at the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, made famous by Julius Shulman’s pool photo at sunset.

ASMP: Please tell us about the scope of this project. How many days did you spend shooting at The Ahwahnee? How many locations and rooms did you photograph in, and how many total views did you make? Did this shoot include time factored in for scouting and or pre-production work?

SS: The scope called for three visits to The Ahwahnee; the first was a scout and meeting trip for a day (plus a travel day). All work was to be on 5-inch by 7-inch black-and-white large-format film. All views were noted on field notes and marked on sketch maps. Digital color views were taken with a Nikon SLR with a GPS unit from the same tripod positions as the large format photos. We spent a week in July 2010 and another week in August to complete the “fieldwork.” There were probably 20 rooms to document and also exterior facades and details. The large rooms were photographed from multiple angles. There was probably a week of pre-production. We did 60 views, and two were edited out. Two weeks ago, they called again, and I plan to be in the park in July 25 to 30, 2011 to do another 40 to 50 views of The Ahwahnee cabins and some specific detail views of construction impacts. The original 58-view fieldwork took 2 weeks and then the post-production, processing, writing captions, printing and intricate labeling of everything took at least 2 weeks. Then it took 9 months to get approval from the National Park Service. (I had been paid 90 percent.) I expect to see it online and accessible to the public on the HABS site in late 2013.

ASMP: Do you have assistants or other staff members working with you on the shoot and, if so, in what capacities? Were you accompanied by a client or resort personnel while you were shooting and, if so, were they a help or a hindrance?

SS: I worked with one assistant on this project. They help with the field notes, set and strike lighting, compass readings, fluff the pillows, gaffer-tape the cords, find a guy to light the fireplace, etc. They do whatever is needed except camera stuff — that’s all me. The client left me alone; he hung around for three hours the first day and then got bored; observing the production of 58 photos in 2 weeks is like watching the pine trees grow. I had the enviable position of knowing more about HABS and the process and the views needed than the client.

ASMP: This was a project for which you had to make a competitive bid. Do you have any information about the other bids received? If so, how many other people were you competing with? Was there a particular service or advantage you offered that was key to your selection, or was it just a matter of cost? If the latter, where did your bid fall on the economic scale?

SS: I don’t know where I came in against the other bidders. I sharpened my pencil knowing The Ahwahnee would have great marketing potential, so I’m sure that helped. I think my experience with HABS/HAER jobs had an influence on the decision, since there are very few photographers with a proven track record of these kind of jobs and a full 5-by-7-inch system ready to go. It was a very fast turnaround from bid to contract. I think I was bidding against a lot of photographers that only had 4-by-5 equipment and, for a National Historic Landmark like The Ahwahnee, 4-by-5 would be a little inadequate. (I’ll send you my project list.)

ASMP: Your documentation of architectural structures in large format black-and-white complies with government standards for historical preservation. Does this manner of photography allow your clients a tax break on fees? If so, does this have any residual impact on your business, especially in terms of your accounting or paperwork?

SS: Everyone seems to pay taxes. I used to do resale to ad agencies and saved the sales-tax accounting hassle, but nobody in the historic preservation business seems to markup or “resell” the photography. It could be because I’m the fifth guy in a line of consultants, the bottom rung so to speak.

ASMP: Historic American Building Survey (HABS) documentation obviously applies specifically to photographic documentation of American buildings. Are you aware of any similar requirements or programs for documenting buildings in Europe or other countries? Do you market your services for historical documentation outside the United States?

SS: English Heritage has “rectified photographic documentation standards” and Australia has documentation standards as well. The HABS/HAER/HALS program is considered the best in the world for its approach and scope. It began in 1933, and has never stopped documenting America’s built environment.

ASMP: How do the fees for Historic American Building Survey (HABS) documentation compare to “standard” architectural photography?

SS: It all depends. There have been projects that I have spent days on only to clear a $500 profit, and then there are projects where the rates are thousands — similar to corporate work. I do reduce my rates 50 percent for worthy non-profits. It’s hard to quantify, but up to two-thirds of my time is spent in the darkroom and doing captions and post-production. It’s easy to bid in a three-day job and forget the five days of post. This approach got me a lot less profit on some of my first projects.

ASMP: Do you consider historical documentation as a mainstay of your business, or is this more a significant sideline to current era projects?

SS: It’s 50-50. Frankly, “standard” architectural photography is commissioned by “standard” architects, who are all struggling to keep the lights on in this economy. If I wasn’t doing HABS/HAER work on a regular basis (one to two projects a month) I would not have the luxury to be an architectural specialist at the moment. I like to believe I can avoid opening a perky-pet-pix at the mall, but I’d rather photograph your ferret than flip burgers. I guess I could always go back to being a bitter wedding photographer; there’s a lot of call for that in a city with a hundred in-debt photo students with Costco-Canon EOS’s being disgorged out of our local photography college every month (the Brooks Institute of Photography is here in Ventura). I’m weathering the recession by lowering my overhead. I closed my brick-and-mortar studio and opened a Pixel-and-Toyota studio. Architecture doesn’t fit in a studio very well, so when I decided to give up studio work and re-imagine myself as an architectural specialist, I bought a 4x4 Toyota 4Runner, put a platform on the roof like Ansel Adams, and built an architecture-only Web site. As photo consultant Deanne Delbridge told me in the early 1990s, “Show what you want to do — not what you’re doing.”

ASMP: How big of a field is architectural documentation for historic preservation? Is there any special certification involved to work in this area? When and how did you first become involved with this and how much competition do you have as a HABS, HAER and HALS specialist?

SS: The field is not big at all. The jobs are scarce, but there are fewer photographers in the field, so competition exists. For my first project, I got an RFP from the City of Ventura to document an old farm complex that was being demolished across town. I had just finished restoring our 1881 folk-Victorian farmhouse with my wife, and I totally fell in love with the concept of preserving old houses. I was the only photographer to answer the RFP because I had a darkroom and could do the prints in-house. Then I did a few more HABS projects before I started doing marketing to that world: Historic Preservation Professionals.

No special certification is needed, but the municipalities and consultants who commission HABS/HAER work have too much at stake to test new talent. Most of my clients are repeat business, and I emphasize years of experience and number of successful projects completed. I brag about having an in-house darkroom for full control, and a 4x4 and generators for remote locations. Having the same 5-inch x 7-inch format as the HABS photographers at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. gives me bragging rights too. Being able to turn around digital draft photos a few days after the fieldwork is a boon to my clients who were used to two to three week turn-arounds from the previous (pre-digital-savvy) generation of HABS photographers. The challenge is that my clients generally have no clue about photography, so every aspect involves education and communication to avoid unrealistic expectations and issues becoming lost in translation between historian and photographer or planner and photographer.

ASMP: You mention that the last person to photograph The Ahwahnee was Ansel Adams, in 1927. Were his images available to study in advance of your submitting a bid or commencing photography? If so, what kind of insights did they offer? Can you briefly compare/contrast the look or visual impact of Adams’s pictures in relation to the look you created?

SS: I saw a few of Adams’s photos before the fieldwork; he did basic photos before the furniture was brought into the newly constructed hotel because he lived in Yosemite. Let’s say it was before he matured as a master; Moonrise it was not. The bigger issue was that while many photos had been done over the years, there had never been a comprehensive documentation of this very important landmark. Maynard Parker had taken some images in the 60s, and the navy had taken many photos while the hotel was a hospital during WWII, but most were of public areas or people with rooms in the background. The approach here was to generate a set of photographs that would tell a story and make it possible to understand the landmark at a point in time in 2010, even if you were looking at the photos in 2510.

ASMP: Since The Ahwahnee’s antiquated electrical system barred the use of hot lights, what was your approach to lighting rooms when needed? How did you light the lobby for the shots made at midnight and/or dawn?

SS: I left my Profoto monolights and hotlights worth thousands of dollars each at home and purchased some discount JLT florescent lights, which are made for beginner studio photographers and cost about $60 each. These are cheaply made, Chinese, spiral-fluorescent-bulb-in-a-light-socket style lights with a lightweight aluminum reflector attached. Durable they are not, but the spiral fluorescent bulbs are only 85 watts and put out over 300 watts of lumens. So I could set up four lights and only draw three amps. Of course, when I went to Home Depot to buy a couple extra bulbs in case of breakage, they probably assumed I was building a grow-light for my indoor pot plantation. I guess now that I have the equipment, I can fall back on that if photography doesn’t work out.

ASMP: The photography was done amidst hotel visitors at the height of the tourist season. Did this result in any problematic or interesting encounters with guests (or anyone else)?

SS: Not unlike any project for a hotel that is open, we had to avoid public spaces during the crowded parts of the day, from 9 AM to 10 PM, and certain rooms like the kitchen had only a half-hour window between shifts for photos. The dining room required no guests, but fully set tables and minimal outside light; so, since dinner happens at dusk, that left dawn to get a dining room view without blown-out windows. That required a 5:00 AM set. The lobby and reception crowds made logistics impossible except at midnight to 3:00 AM when the lobby is deserted. I realized that it took too long to explain to people what the HABS acronym stands for, and why American historic sites need to be documented for future generations of scholars and the interested public. I started to tell people that we were “Photographing The Ahwahnee National Landmark for the Library of Congress” because this sounded official, important, and was mostly true. It streamlined the explanation, because almost everyone understood what the Library of Congress was (or they didn’t want to admit that they had never heard of a Library at Congress). Everything will, in fact, be in the Library of Congress HABS collection. I also often wear a neon-orange safety vest because it makes people believe I must be “official.”

ASMP: Please describe your large-format gear. What cameras do you work with and what are their different purposes or applications? Do you have a favorite camera or camera/lens combination among the materials you work with?

SS: I use a highly customized CAMBO SC 5”x7” monorail camera on the heaviest Slik Pro tripod, with a geared Manfrotto head. I look ridiculous because I use a neon-green dark cloth that I had made because I’m always standing in the street. The rear standard of my camera is fixed and includes two huge bubble-levels, and the front standard has been modified to allow super-wide lenses without recessed boards. It can be used as a 4-by-5-inch with a 55mm Rodenstock Grandagon or as a 5-by-7-inch with a Schneider 72mm XL (the widest lens to cover this format) I love Nikon lenses and have a 90, 120, and 180 Nikkor. I also use a 300 and 450 Fujinon C. Each lens was chosen for characteristics, such as size and covering power, that are specific to making the best HABS/HAER kit. I’m currently building a custom 5”x7”/4”x5” technical camera from scratch. The body is permanently fitted inside a bright-yellow plastic Pelican 1450 case (I call it the Pelicam); with that I will look supremely ridiculous.

ASMP: Do you work exclusively with large-format film cameras or do you also shoot with large-format digital (or 35mm digital for that matter)? Please share your thoughts on the relative value of each different capture type you work with.

SS: My standard architecture and commercial clients have been satisfied with the output of my 12-megapixel Nikon SLR digital. Generally half of my work is on Nikon digital and half is large-format film. The 5x7 is slow and uncompromising, but the final product is a permanent artifact that will last 500 years (the HABS/HAER requirement) and the images are phenomenal. The dead architects that designed the historic buildings seem very satisfied with the 5x7 film images. The Nikon is fast and versatile and, after 20 years of gelling lights and using color-meters, it feels like cheating to put the Nikon on a tripod, push the button, and look at a reasonably acceptable frame with the camera set on auto-everything. Sure, the photo looks better after another hour of lighting and moving furniture, but in 1997 it would have taken two hours to get to “auto-everything.” If my clients whined about low resolution, I’d invest in the next level of technology and get a medium-format back for my hibernating Hasselblad system, but I get the feeling they never open the TIFF files on the CDs I give them now. They open the little 2-MB JPEGs and send them to their Web guy, and they’re happy. I don’t think I need an 80-megapixel Phase One back for 72-dpi Web site photos and letter-size ads.

ASMP: As explained on your Web site, the requirement for historic preservation using large format black & white film is a holdover from the 1930s. Do you sense that the government will revise these requirements to qualify any types of digital capture for these purposes any time soon?

SS: Everyone asks me that. It is counter-intuitive for it to stay analogue unless you examine the foundation of HABS. Let me illustrate this with a parable. I have a great 8-track tape of ABBA, can I come over to your house and listen to it? No 8-track? How-bout a reel-to-reel tape player? 8¼ or 5¼ or 3½ inch floppy disc drive? Jazz, Zip, Bernouli, or optical media player? My belabored point is this: If I bring one of my 5”x7” negatives over to your house and hold it up to a window, we can see it. No technology needed, except eyeballs and sunlight. The cutting edge in 1933 was 5”x7” film with silver particles; since then, technology recently developed a digital sensor that can match the resolution and sharpness of a 5”x7” silver negative. But a digital camera produces a digital file of zeros and ones, and digital files must be read by a device, and stored in a readable format. If the device becomes obsolete, or the format becomes obsolete, you have no more image.

The supreme mandate of HABS is “LE-500”: A 500 year life expectancy before significant signs of fading if left alone in a proverbial cool and dry place. The digital file theoretically will require “media migration” every ten years to insure that the media and format are still readable and devices exist to decode the data. So, in 500 years’ time a digital photo would theoretically need to be migrated fifty times — from vinyl record to 8-track, to cassette, to CD, to DVD, to MP-3, to MP-4, to iPod and so on — miss one migration date and you have no more photo. Meanwhile, back in the dusty government file cabinet, the 5”x7” negative is just fine. Can you imagine if we needed a cast-iron, steam-powered media machine to see photos from 1930? That’s how it will seem with our JPEGs in 80 years.

ASMP: Please describe your facilities and equipment for scanning negatives and printing in a chemical darkroom. What kind of output equipment and paper do you use?

SS: I had a mid-life crisis a few years ago and decided I wanted to be an artist. (I also bought an old Porsche.) The after-effects are that I rented this huge darkroom in an artists’ collective here in town. I never gave it up, even when I sold the Porsche, and it is now a major part of my architectural business. I have four enlargers, three 4-inch x 5-inch and one 10-inch x 10-inch, and I could not want a better space or better equipment. It is all state-of-the-art circa 1987, and that’s as good as the technology ever got. I use Ilford black-and-white HP5 film, and Fujifilm instant proofing film. I use only Ilford paper and chemicals. I have tried others, but Ilford has the widest black-and-white analogue product breadth and batch-to-batch consistency.

ASMP: What issues have you encountered with sourcing materials required for large format black-and-white photography, especially in the midst of a project or when traveling? Have you had any experiences when ordering supplies or during a shoot that made you feel like a stranger from another century?

SS: Freestyle Sales in Hollywood is one of my favorite sources. They carry a crazy array of analogue products and chemicals in stock. My choices have slimmed down since Kodak is barely in the black-and-white game and Fuji is out. Polaroid is gone and Fuji’s instant black-and-white pack film in 4”x5” is recently discontinued, so there are constant work-arounds and I have to test new products and workflows. I never leave for a location without twice as much product as I need since it is pointless to go into a local photo store and expect large format film in stock. Oddly, my friends at Freestyle say that ultra-large format film photography is on the rise with 8”x10”, 11”x14”, 16”x20”-inch film cameras and film. It’s the antithesis of digital machine-gun shooting and it may be keeping Ilford in business, and Ilford’s competition is dwindling as well.

ASMP: Do you travel by air with sheet film? Do you have any recommendations for troubleshooting the transport of these items through airport security and any other locations where x-ray machines might be present?

SS: I have done a lot of air travel but not with large format. The stuff is just too big, bulky, heavy and fragile. I commonly have 500 pounds of equipment on a job like The Ahwahnee, and that includes a modified little red wagon with fat tires for moving from room to room and building to building. Luckily I like to drive and so my range for car travel would be over 1,000 miles before I would contemplate figuring how to get everything on a plane. I’d probably ship most of it disassembled, and add two days to set and strike the kit and ship it back.

ASMP: Your photos of The Ahwahnee were sent to the Library of Congress and placed in the public domain. Does this mean that you are not the copyright holder? Do you have rights to exhibit or license any of the images or sell prints?

SS: Everyone has the rights to exhibit or license any of their images or sell prints: President Obama, Peewee Herman, Jimmy Hoffa, everyone. Theoretically, when they are formally entered into the LOC collections they will be in the public domain, which means anyone can download them and legally make Ahwahnee key chains and coffee mugs with the photos without worrying about rights. Technically, the LOC will put 58 black-and-white 5”x7” photographs into the public domain.

I have the exclusive rights to the digital color images because they were not part of the project, and I plan to publish a collection of my color photos along with some of my other HABS jobs in the future. It does take away the sometimes uncomfortable “usage negotiation” with the client. But in order to accept the concept of giving up your copyrights — an ASMP cardinal sin — I had to realize that The Ahwahnee was being photographed for the American public as a public benefit, and that the images are historic artifacts for future generations to treasure instead of my personal property. I look at it as a counterbalance to the thousands of transparencies of now-obsolete products I photographed in my studio that will get thrown into a dumpster when I die, but I have the rights to those.

ASMP: Is there a significant after-market for black-and-white prints of historical buildings? If so, do you market any of your images within this arena? Through what channels and in what manner?

SS: Potentially there are resale opportunities in architectural stock, and I have sold some fine-art prints of The Ahwahnee. When I buy another old Porsche I may make the time to seriously try to sell fine art architectural photos. But the one thing I’ve learned since 1987 is that, if you want to succeed in something, you have to focus and have passion, and you can’t do it all. I don’t have the time to focus on fine art. My passion is currently historic architecture, and that means I’m happy and busy. And I have an 8-track of ABBA; what could be better?