David Simchock: Authenticity Through Captured Images
I am pleased to introduce photographer David Simchock as this month’s featured artist!
David and I have been acquainted with each other for many years. I seem to remember that we met at former gallery owner, Martha Press’ gallery. I have admired David’s work, especially his eye for composition, so I was very happy to interview him.
ST: Hello David. Thanks for spending some time with us today.
DS: Hey, Thom. Thanks for this opportunity.
ST: So, David, what is the reason for art?
DS: Given that my “art” is multi-faceted, it is also multi-reasoned. For my “travel” work, I want to tell a story through my photos, evoking an emotion in the viewers of my work, giving them a sense of place and spirit of where the images were captured. Of course, when traveling, I’m also looking out for the opportunities that lean more toward “fine art” impressions than they do culture, so I’m also looking for subject matter that could end up on someone’s wall.
I also shoot a lot of live music events (concerts and festivals). For that aspect of my work, my objective is to provide my clients with colorful and authentic documentation of the event. I love music, and I want that to come through with the images that I capture.
ST: What meaning does art have in your life and how did that meaning develop?
DS: I love the creative outlet the photography brings me!!! I’m a true believer that being creatively-active keeps us youthful. Though I am primarily a photographer, over the years this has inspired me to also explore other mediums, like painting, woodworking, and writing. I do incorporate writing and woodworking into my business activities (I write concert reviews; and, I make my own picture frames for my fine art pieces). I also own a few musical instruments, but I’m much better at shooting rock stars than I am being one!
ST: Can you tell me a bit about your history? How did you come to be an artist & photographer? Were you formally trained?
DS: As a kid growing up in Ewing, NJ, I was always interested in the visual arts, including photography. I loved to draw and sketch, and mess around with an instamatic camera, but I also had an interest in all things “mechanical”. This, along with an affinity for math and science, I ended up going to engineering college (Rutgers University) instead of art school. And, that was the career I pursued post-college, working for a few years in New York City as a mechanical engineer before accepting a management job with a British company where I lived and worked for nearly six years.
It is my move to Europe that planted the travel bug in me, and when the time came for me to part ways with my employer, I also parted ways with my corporate career. Back in late 1999 I decided to take a sabbatical from “work” and went off traveling. In the end, I wandered around the globe for three years, camera in hand of course. By the time I was ready to hang up the backpack, I was already thinking about becoming a freelance photographer (even though I had little idea what that meant!). In March 2003, I launched my travel photography venture, Vagabond Vistas Photography.
This was truly a step into the unknown as I had never taken a photography class before, and I knew very little about the “professional” side of the vocation. So, I read a lot of books spanning the creative and business side of the art form, and put together a business plan.
It’s important to note that not long after I launched the business, a local artist/painter friend in North Trenton, Richard Druch, asked me to teach some of his art students about photography. Not only did this inspire me to expand my business into “workshops” and “photo tours”, but taking on the challenge of teaching something that I had never been taught myself made me a much, much more competent artist. It certainly raised my skill level, and it did wonders for my self-confidence.
ST: Some people say that photography is not art or that it cannot be considered the same as art because of its mechanical process. Do you feel that photography is art? Why? What would you say to those who don’t agree with you?
DS: They can kiss my ass. Ha! Just joking. Of course photography is an art!!! It requires skill, tools and creative vision, just like any other art form. I think that the fact that photos are “reproducible” is what causes some to believe that it’s not true “art”. With the digital age, photography has also become extremely accessible and highly computer-based, which I think has watered it down a bit in credibility. But, the same can be said for music, literature, etc. Heck, even painters have been greatly impacted by the digital age now that it’s very affordable and widely-accessible to produce reproductions of their work. We’re all dealing with the impact of digital technology. That’s not going to go away, but nor should it take away from the authenticity of “art”.
ST: You call yourself a vagabond. Where did you get your wanderlust? What was the point that caused you to pick up and change your life from the corporate world to traveling the world and moving to Ashville, NC to pursue your passion?
DS: My inspiration for leaving the corporate gig, and hitting the road. As for my move to Asheville, well, I can “blame” that on my lovely partner, Beth. She’s known about Asheville long before it started to make every “Top 10” travel destination list known to mankind. Back in early 2011 we were in a situation where the lease on the house we were renting in West Trenton wasn’t being renewed, and we had to move. We had been exploring the idea of moving south, but it was a bit complicated as Beth has two children (Will and Caroline). Lo and behold, we worked things out, and in July of 2011 we settled into southern living, first renting a house in West Asheville, and then purchasing a country home just north of the city in the town of Weaverville. We’re now happily settled there, and enjoy the company of our seven chickens, as well as the newest addition to the family, our five-month old puppy, Takoda.
ST: The subject matter in your work varies widely. You photograph people in situations to portraits, places from nature to architecture, musicians and many different things in between. In all of your travels is there something that you most like to photograph?
DS: I love the diversity of subject matter that travel photography presents. If I had to pick one aspect of travel photography that I like most, it would have to be my visits to the markets. There is also so much going on, so many colors, textures, and patterns. And, of course, there are the people, both vendors and shoppers.
What do you intend to communicate in your photographs?
DS: This varies depending on what I’m doing. Fundamentally, I want my viewers to feel like that are part of the photograph. That is the ultimate compliment for me when someone says, “I fell like I’m there!”
ST: Tell me about your creative process. What inspires you? What are you looking for that makes you snap the picture at just the right moment?
DS: Of course, some subject matter intrigues me more than others, but I get a bigger buzz out of creating an intriguing composition out of something mundane than I do out of something that most people would be drawn to. Lately, I’ve been working with some obscure “themes” to shoot to, for example, “parking”, which includes photographs of parking lots, parking decks, parked cars, etc. On their own, each photograph might not be all that exciting, but as a body of work, it’s quite fascinating (in my humble opinion!). I’ve also been working a lot with “minimalism”, which I’m finding to be fascinating.
Regarding my “music” photography, I’m very much a perfectionist. First and foremost, the image must be technically sound (e.g., sharp focus, properly exposed, etc.). But, there are also a lot of subtleties that go into a great music photo. I’m very conscious of things like microphones, mic stands, stage clutter (e.g., water bottles, towels, etc.), guitar positions, etc. Naturally, “the moment” is very important as well, so it helps to understand music, and the artists that I’m shooting. Those moments often last for only a split-second, so I have to be ready in the photo pit.
ST: Many people, sometimes even artists themselves have the view that the starving artist’s image is true – of the artist languishing away, starving for the sake of his art. Do you find that to be so? What bearing, if any, does that view have on your efforts in an artistic career?
DS: Well, it ain’t easy being an artist, and it does take passion and commitment to make it work as a career. I’m fortunate that I have three core activities in my business – commissioned shooting; fine art; and, teaching. Between the three, I have more opportunities than someone who has limited options. Having said that, with so much going on, I sometimes run the risk of spreading myself too thin. The problem is, I’m just as passionate about shooting on assignment as I am about selling my art, as I am about teaching others how to be better photographers. I love it all, and I struggle to let any of it go.
ST: Did you find it to be relatively easy to get to where you are now in your photographic career?
DS: No, it’s challenging. Having said that, back in 2003 I got off to an unbelievable start with the business. Within two weeks of launching Vagabond Vistas, I had one of my travel images from Thailand featured as the lead photo of the Star-Ledger Travel Section. Six months later I had a photo from Vietnam on the cover of a Washington Post travel section. And, a month after that one of my shots from Easter Island graced the cover of the NY Times Travel Section, above the fold! During that period I also had an image take Best in Show in a prestigious photo competition in New Jersey. It was a dream beginning, and provided the motivation that I needed to get through the first couple of years.
Now that the digital era is in full force, the profession has been suffering from over-supply of photographers / artists (particularly in an art-centric city like Asheville), which has depressed fees and prices, adding to what was already a difficult way to make a living. But, I continue to persevere and be the best that I can be. After five years of getting myself “out there” in Western North Carolina, things seem to be coming together quite nicely for me. This year alone I’ve had my work featured in a multitude of publications, including Rolling Stone, my work has been used on billboards to promote the city of Asheville, I’ve been on the cover of a popular travel guidebook, and have recently secured two album / CD cover deals. And, all that is only part of the good things that seem to be happening!
ST: How have you struggled? And what have been your greatest obstacles? How have your struggles affected your work?
DS: The economic crash of 2008 definitely took its toll on the momentum that I had built up over the previous four or five years. Fortunately, it didn’t affect my “teaching” activities so much, so my workshops and photo tours kept me going through the toughest times. Moving to Asheville was also not without its challenges. There are a gazillion photographers and artists here, all competing for the same disposable dollars for artwork, or for assignment gigs. This, of course, tends to depress prices. I knew that there would be a difference between what I could command in the Northeast with what I could get in the South, but I wasn’t expecting a 50% to 75% cut in many cases. Now that I’m more established here, things are looking up, but the last thing I can afford to be is complacent. I’m always looking to take my creative work and my marketing to another level.
ST: Money, fame, notoriety; Artists always have something they want. What do you want? Do you consider yourself to be succeeding in that and why?
DS: I’m not driven by money, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to be hugely successful doing what I love, and not having the financial pressures that many artists deal with. I don’t want to be starving. I don’t even want to be hungry. I want to have a secure future for myself and for my family, while enjoying what I do.
As for “fame”, the only part of that that may drive me are the benefits fame creates when it comes to marketing. So, I don’t want it for my ego, but it sure comes in handy when it comes to getting hired, or to selling my art.
Am I succeeding? Yes, I am. Can I raise my game even more? Of course. And, that will always be the case. That’s one of the beauties of being an artist. You never really “master” what it is you do, since there is always room for improvement, or for expanding your creative comfort zone into different avenues of your craft (or into a different art form altogether).
ST: What was your biggest setback or failure? Where did it take you?
DS: My biggest set-back was probably the move to Asheville. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we made the decision, but it turned out to be far more challenging than anticipated. And, we moved at a time where I had things really clicking in the Northeast, particularly with my workshops and photo tours. Down here, I haven’t been as active with the teaching activities since there isn’t as much of a market for those things (not for paid work, anyway). So, I’m in the midst of re-designing my business plan for my workshops and tours. I should have everything figured out this winter. It’s likely I’ll utilize some sort of global “membership” and/or “subscription” model. I also plan on writing a book or two, which should do wonders for my credability and exposure. Watch this space!
ST: To what other activities have your creative abilities taken you?
DS: I'm definitely more interested in music now. Living in Appalachia, we’re surrounded by bluegrass and Americana music everywhere. So, I just had to acquire a banjo. I still don’t know how to play the damn thing, but I will some day!
ST: In your company, Vagabond Vistas you teach photography on trips around the world. How important is it for young people to have an arts education? Do you think all photographers are born with an “eye” for photography or is it developed?
DS: I believe that “the arts” are important for everybody, young and old. As noted above, I’m a firm believer that being an artist keeps us youthful, and we never lose that desire to learn and to create. My advice for those who want to pursue a career in the arts is to make sure you get some business classes under your belt (e.g., in art school). I was lucky in that I have a degree in business (on top of my MechE degree), and I also had a few invaluable years of hands-on business experience in my corporate career. To this day, that is all paying off for me – literally.
Are some folks “born with an eye” for composition? Yes, I believe that some are (including me), just as some are born with a knack to play guitar or piano, or to dance. Having said that, as an instructor, I also believe that we all have the ability to learn how to “see”. It’s a matter of learning the fundamentals first, including the “elements of design”, and then training your eyes and brain to see the world in a different way. That can be taught and learned. In fact, I offer a three-day composition workshop on “How to See”!
ST: As you said, your work can be seen in many different magazines and publications; even more recently, Rolling Stone. Looking back on everything you’ve done, is there anything you’re most proud of?
DS: I would say the NY Times Travel Section cover is one of my proudest moments, since that happened in less than a year after I set off to be a professional photographer. Everyone the world over knows the NY Times. To this day, when people see the tear sheet of the paper posted outside my door or at an art show, some of them mention that they remember that particular issue (and, it’s from 200#!).
ST: On occasion, people who are not artists may ask questions which artists sometimes feel are not appropriate, like “Do you make a living from your art?” or questions not easily answered, like “How long did that take you to make”. How do you feel about those types of questions? How do you answer them?
DS: I don’t mind those questions. But, the one that really gets under the skin of any pro photographer is when someone looks at our work and says, “You must have a good camera!” I don’t think they mean to be so insulting, but it does drive us crazy. It’s like me telling a top chef, “You must have good cooking utensils!”
ST: What do you want people to know about artists?
DS: Not all of us are eccentric introverts. Some of us still want to use both sides of our brain. Some of us take our profession very seriously, and want to make an honest living.
ST: Who is “David Simchock”? What is the one thing you want people to know about you?
DS: I like to think of myself as a well-rounded, fun-loving guy who just wants to get the most out of life, while leaving a trail of inspiration for others. I do have a serious side to me, and I do have my concerns about what is happening in the world today, but at the end of the day, like anyone else on the planet, I just want to live in peace and harmony, and be happy. And, I hope that in some way, my photography, art, and teaching helps others to do the same.
ST: Where can people find you and your work?
DS: I have multiple websites covering my different activities.
My Photography: www.DavidSimchock.com
My Fine Art: www.DavidSimchockFineArt.com
My Teaching: www.VagabondVistas.com (new site on its way soon!)
My Music Blog: www.FrontRowFocus.com
ST: Thank you David, for taking the time to interview with us at Studio Tour Magazine!