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Robin Schwartz ‘79: Building A Legacy Through Photography

By Theresa E. Ross ‘80

W hen you teach photography, it’s a lot like teaching people how to drive,” says Robin Schwartz, associate professor of art at William Paterson. “You don’t tell students where to go, but you give them the technique to do the best they can. Most of all, I tell my students to photograph what they care about. Photography can be hard work. It requires persistence and a strong work ethic. Choosing a subject you love is the only way to ensure that you’ll stay with it.”

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An award-winning photographer, Schwartz found her deepest joy photographing animals and depicting their relationships with people and other species. Animals have been the dominant theme in her work for the last 30 years. Her book project, Amelia and the Animals, a series of photographs featuring her daughter, Amelia, from ages three through 14 with a variety of animals, has garnered international acclaim. Schwartz’s work can be found in the collections of the world’s top museums and has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and TIME, among other major publications.

This year Schwartz achieved another milestone: she was honored with a 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for her distinguished achievements as a photographer. She was one of 178 prominent scholars selected from nearly 3,000 applicants in the United States and Canada for the fellowship. “These artists and writers, scholars and scientists, represent the best of the best,” says Edward Hirsch, the foundation’s president.

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Swan, a photo featuring Amelia

“Robin Schwartz is one of the finest examples of an artist and a teacher,” says Daryl Moore, dean of the University’s College of the Arts and Communication. “We are enormously proud of her, both as a professor and a graduate of William Paterson, for being selected as one of the few Guggenheim Fellows this year. It is a testament to her exceptional work as a visual artist of merit and relevance.”

Schwartz grew up in Linden, New Jersey, and animals and art were always a constant interest. “As a child, I was enamored with the painters Henri Rousseau and Marc Chagall and the stories I saw in their paintings,” she says. “These painters inspired me to connect to animals through art. I always drew monkeys, girls, and cats and learned to paint them in oils at the city’s free Saturday art classes for children.

“I was an only child, ten years old, when my mother went to work full time,” Schwartz adds. “With both parents now working, I was alone and by myself after school and during the summer with no organized activities. Because of these circumstances, I finally won the argument to be allowed to have a cat in the house for company.” To entertain herself, Schwartz photographed her cat in constructed set-ups with a Kodak instamatic with flashcubes.

After high school, Schwartz enrolled at William Paterson and moved on campus as a resident student. She majored in biology, mostly to please her father. “I came from a working class family,” she says. “My father worked as a tool and die machinist and would never have let me be an art major. He would not have viewed it as a promising career path.” Tragedy struck when she was 19 years old and a first-semester sophomore—her father died unexpectedly. “Suddenly I was on my own and responsible for my life,” says Schwartz. Although she had an interest in science, she changed her major to art and acquired an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. One of her most valuable experiences at William Paterson, she says, was taking two semesters of color theory with John Day, who studied under the painter Josef Albers at Yale. “He taught me how to add and subtract color and how to think in color,” she explains. This knowledge would later enable her to earn a living printing color photographs while attending graduate school at Pratt Institute in New York City.

Financially, she struggled. Her mother lost their home soon after her father died and Schwartz lived year-round at college, attending summer school. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, Schwartz was eligible for financial aid that made it possible to continue her education if she maintained her full-time student status through age 23.

During her sophomore year, Schwartz had the remarkable opportunity to be among 20 students selected from New Jersey state colleges to work on the Native American pueblos in New Mexico. She was the only art student in the group, while the rest were special education majors. Schwartz taught photography to teens and adults and helped build a darkroom. In lieu of a textbook, she wrote an instructional pamphlet. Most importantly, it gave her the rare permission as an Anglo to photograph people living in the pueblo. “While on the Zuni Pueblo, I had to carry with me, at all times, an official document issued by the Zuni Authority, giving me permission to photograph,” she says. “It was an amazing experience.”

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Daisy's Bottle Weaning

In college, Schwartz bolstered her academic lessons with weekly trips to New York City to visit museums and photo galleries and attend lectures at the International Center for Photography. “The images of Eugene Smith and August Sanders were the basis for finding my connection to documentary photography,” she says. Schwartz credits the 300 prints she took at Zuni Pueblo as the main reason for her acceptance to the MFA program at Pratt Institute, were she won a Ford Foundation Individual Artist Grant.

Arthur Freed, chair of the MFA photography program at Pratt, gave her the life-altering advice she now gives her students: Photograph what you care about most. “That advice gave me permission to return to photographing from my heart,” says Schwartz. Her MFA thesis exhibition was titled "Pets and Strays." Schwartz identified with stray dogs and hung out with dog packs on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City. Hoping her documentation could make a social difference for the strays, she donated her photos to animal welfare organization fundraisers. The photographs were collected by the Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.

During graduate school and on and off for 15 years, Schwartz earned a living as a photography assistant. She then began working as an adjunct professor, first at Rutgers and later at William Paterson, where she was subsequently hired as a full-time professor.

In the late 1980s, Schwartz was photographing pit bulls in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the Arabbers—men who sold fruits and vegetables on carts drawn by their beloved horses. She developed connections with curators and her work was increasingly welcomed into many of the major museums. The Arabber photographs were added to the Smithsonian American Museum of Art’s permanent collection and became part of a traveling year-long exhibition at Johnson & Johnson Corporate Collections, New Jersey.

“In order to photograph animals, you need to know about their behavior and have an understanding of their species,” says Schwartz. With hard work and patience, she honed her expertise, made connections, and gained access to the world of exotic animals. For her first book project, Schwartz worked with private primate owners and published LIKE US: Primate Portraits.

“It is important for me to portray animals as thinking individuals with distinct personalities, equal to humans and never used as props in the photos,” says Schwartz. “I usually photographed within three feet of each primate, with a 35mm lens, never through bars or plexiglass cages. Developing a relationship was essential to capture the intensity of eye contact.” Her second monograph, Dog Watching, was a combination of dogs and other species.

As Schwartz’s life changed, her photography projects evolved. Schwartz and her husband, Robert Forman, an artist, live in Hoboken. In 1999, their daughter Amelia was born. When Amelia was three, Schwartz brought her along on a photo shoot of Ricky, a two-year-old chimpanzee. Amelia was drawn to the chimp and the two embraced. “This was the photo that started it all,” says Schwartz. It is the first image in her 2008 book, Amelia’s World.

“Photographing my daughter Amelia with animals for the last 15 years represents the most significant era of my life,” says Schwartz. The turning point came in 2002 when Schwartz’s mother and mother-in-law were both diagnosed with terminal cancer and died within a six-month period. “We were in a tailspin,” she recalls. “That’s when I began photographing Amelia in earnest. It was really an attempt to balance motherhood with work and cope with my grief.” The project gave her a chance to spend time with her daughter, have a career as a professor, and be a working artist.

Amelia demonstrated a natural affinity for the animals and became a strong collaborator. Over the years, Amelia is shown growing up over a 15-year period, from bottle-feeding a baby tiger and hugging an elephant’s trunk to cuddling a flamingo. All of the images incorporate the fantasy and storytelling that Schwartz is known for in her animal portraits. “I wanted to show Amelia that I have this connection with her and in a way, the portraits of Amelia are portraits of myself because I’m the animal person in the house,” says Schwartz. “It’s my legacy to her…to show her my commitment.”

In 2012, photographs from the Amelia's World project were published in the New York Times Magazine and online. Amelia and the Animals, 2014, published by Aperture Foundation, was cited by Time LIGHTBOX as one of the Best Fall Books of 2014. Her career as a photographer reached new heights after she was invited to present her Amelia series at prestigious photographic events, such as the Eddie Adams Workshop. Whether in person, in print, or on the web, the project was seen worldwide and the digital images went viral.

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Actress Lena Dunham and her dog, Lamby

Early this year, Schwartz created another media stir when she photographed and wrote the text for a three-page feature in the New York Times Magazine about Big Major Cay, a tiny island in the Bahamas inhabited by a dozen semi-feral pigs who accept food and even beer from the tourists. Schwartz worked from dawn to dusk with an assistant to capture the images. “On Big Major Cay, I felt transported into a Henri Rousseau painting, or possibly a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation, when the tourists arrived,” Schwartz wrote in the piece. “I’ve never seen people so happy to run around with pigs,” she says.

Following her Amelia series, Schwartz was the subject of a flurry of interviews by a variety of print and online media, including O, the Oprah Magazine, Telegraph Magazine, and Italia Vogue. When not working on her own projects, she has been called to do other animal assignments. She created and edited a National Geographic Magazine “Your Shot” assignment, “The Animals We Love,” and wrote a chapter in the National Geographic book, Getting Your Shot. She also photographed filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham and her rescue dog Lamby for Dunham’s short piece in The New Yorker magazine.

“There’s a mythology that you cannot make a living as an artist,” says Michael Rees, associate professor of art at William Paterson. “The truth is that you can if you’re willing to engage in the complexity of it—teaching, working, connecting, and exhibiting. There are disappointments and failure and then there are amazing successes and breakthroughs. Robin is committed to the creative life. She knows her craft, she knows her subject, she knows her audience, and she’s got a great eye.”

Schwartz is busy preparing to send her daughter to college next fall. The Amelia series has ended but the photographs will always remain a reminder of the time they spent together. “I am frequently asked what I will do after this project,” says Schwartz. “I will continue to photograph from the heart, doing what I love. This is the beginning of a new chapter.”

To see more of Robin Schwartz's images, visit www.robinschwartz.net

For a video of Robin Schwartz discussing her work, click here

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