Artist's Corner: Q&A with Natasha D’Schommer
Patch chats with local photographer Natasha D’Schommer about English castles, sniffing books and the allure of inanimate objects.
A 2005 recipient of the McKnight Photography Fellowship, Natasha D’Schommer has photographed everything from Beethoven’s sketchbook to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for chocolate pudding, along with the standard photographer’s fare of weddings and sporting events. She brings a startling amount of life to non-living objects. Southwest Minneapolis Patch had the opportunity to chat with this thoughtful artist about her process, her history and what’s next.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: When did you first start doing photography?
Natasha D’Schommer: I started freelancing in high school. I starting working for Twin City Sports when I was 16. I was really cheap and they were like, “Yeah, sure, we’ll call it an internship.” It was great—I went to sports events, got to interview people. I went to college in England and stayed there and finished my degree in West Sussex.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Did you grow up in the area?
Natasha D’Schommer: I grew up in Minneapolis. I went to Washburn.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: How did you decide to go to college in England?
Natasha D’Schommer: I was studying English Lit and I’m a sucker for scenery. It was an idyllic little town. It had a massive castle in it where Robin Hood was filmed - the old one - and it was just a beautiful place. I remember thinking at that point even that I wanted to be a photographer and have a studio - and thinking it would be really hard to have a studio in England and have a profitable business. I went to Vermont and got my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Is that when you came back to Minneapolis, after getting your MFA?
Natasha D’Schommer: Yes. I came back and started working for quite a few different photographers. And at that point I had already started my biggest project, which was photographing the Princeton University Library. I started in 1993 when I was a sophomore in college.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: How does a sophomore in college get involved with a project like that?
Natasha D’Schommer: It was a complete chance lucky moment. And I knew it in the moment - you feel it in the moment—it was a great opportunity. I had been in England studying Shakespeare and my fantastic professor had said, “If you ever get your hands on a Shakespeare portfolio, well, steal it and bring it back to me.” My aunt worked at Princeton University. They had an event, needed a photographer, and asked if I could come right over. So I went. And then I asked if I could come back and look at the Shakespeare portfolio. I came back and photographed it in 1993.
At that time, photography was viewed as not scholarship, something that didn’t belong in the rare book library. The owner [of the library] was an 80 year old man. He let me come back, showed me the book and walked way. I picked it up and smelled it. It smelled like cobblestone and rosemary. The owner screamed from across the library. I thought 'Oh well, he screamed, but I got to smell it.' Then he said, “She smells books; she can stay as long as she wants!”
I knew I was doing something naughty, and to be accepted for that was really good. I told him I wanted to photograph the aesthetic of the books and he thought that was great. I went back to the library for the next 10 years, twice a year, until I photographed quite a bit of the library. He sat down with me; everything had a lesson to it. He’s 97 now—his birthday was this week.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: What is your favorite thing to photograph?
Natasha D’Schommer: I guess it would be books, paper, things that are very tactile objects.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: It’s interesting for a photographer to be drawn toward non-living subjects.
Natasha D’Schommer: Usually the objects I’m drawn to tell a story. They seem really human to me. They seem like emotional objects—they somehow convey feeling. Sometimes they’re a little better than people. I also like the interaction when I am photographing objects; I can move things around, which you could do with people, but...
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: You spent time as a freelance photojournalist early in your career. How did your years as a freelance photojournalist inform your art?
Natasha D’Schommer: I look at that as sword sharpening time. I just had to have as many different experiences as possible, different lighting situations, different stress situations. I photographed sports for quite a while. It’s hard to photograph something more exciting. There’s a moment and you’re either going to get it or you’re nor not going to get it.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Can you describe your process?
Natasha D’Schommer: Right now, I’m very much interested in collections and collectors. Anything from extravagant collections for scholarship to more ordinary hoarders that are collecting something that’s almost compulsively interesting to them. I think people have very personal relationships with objects and I always find it interesting what kinds of objects people decide to keep in their life. With printing on tile, I’m noticing that I’m starting to create objects out of these objects - the study of objects has turned into that.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Who are some artists who inspire you?
Natasha D’Schommer: Anyone who has a regular practice—someone like a potter, a real meditative art skill. Now that I see I’m in the long run as a photographer, the daily practice of art inspires me.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Outside of other artists, where do you find inspiration?
Natasha D’Schommer: I find inspiration in collections. And I see houses as objects, just larger objects, so they’re interesting to me, especially when you’re outdoors. There are fantastic examples of that around this area.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: What has it been like to be a working artist in Southwest Minneapolis?
Natasha D’Schommer: I think just in the last four years, the area I knew - I live right across from Washburn - it’s finally coming back to feel more neighborhood-y with cafes, shops, galleries. To have all that within a two mile radius is pretty lucky. We’ve got Weinstein right here; it’s pretty incredible. My studio’s in my house now. I built on a small light room and that’s been great. Also, there’s the McKnight Foundation and different organizations that are completely unique to Minneapolis. You don’t find a lot of fellowships like that around the country. That creates a more critical environment—in a good way.
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: What’s next for Natasha D’Schommer?
Natasha D’Schommer: A new project I’m working on is photographing the manuscript collection at The Schubert Club at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. I’m thrilled there’s a local project that rivals [the Princeton University Library] project. There’s a massive collection of instruments, manuscripts, letters. It’s the oldest arts organization in Minnesota. We’re hopefully putting that together into a book this year. I should wrap up that shooting by the end of January. I’m excited to see where that goes. And I’m printing on tile, exploring that, the object-ness of photographs. I show my work in three places in town: Gallery 360, 3 Rooms in the Galleria, and Zachary (they sell to interior designers).
Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Any advice for aspiring photographers?
Natasha D’Schommer: Don’t be shy, you can’t be shy. Just practice shooting. If you haven’t found your subject, photograph what’s around you, wait until you find what your subject is. Then in the same vein, I would definitely say—a lot of people have Flickr accounts with every single thing on them. It’s much more interesting to edit your work down. Everybody’s bombarded with images. Think about what you want to put out. You want photographs to have voice - get the background noise down.