When Joe Schmelzer, an acclaimed editorial and commercial photographer, talks about his artistic approach, you immediately sense his eye for detail. “I set out to capture what it feels like to actually be in any given space,” he reveals. His images have a natural window-light quality to them, giving the viewer a picture into a still life. It’s why Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Sunset and Travel + Leisure have frequently featured his work. Homes & Estates recently partnered with Schmelzer to capture iconic estate images for our national ad campaign to inspire a new view of luxury living. We caught up with him on a recent photo shoot to ask him about digital media, passion and the art of framing a perfect home picture.
Previews Inside Out What compelled you to become a photographer?
Joe Schmelzer My interest in images and photography began when I was very young. My father owned an advertising agency in Cleveland, so I grew up in that environment, surrounded by all kinds of photographs, graphic designs and layouts for ads—and I loved it. For my 10th birthday, my present was a Kodak Instamatic camera; I was hooked. By the time I was 13, instead of going off to summer camp, I stayed home and took a summer photo class instead. That really inspired me. At age 15, I opened my first image and photography studio called Vantage Photography. After I earned my BFA at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), I moved to New York City and undertook an apprenticeship with the iconic photographer Mary Ellen Mark before working with many other noted photographers in the New York image-making scene of the 1990s to gain real world experience as a photographer. In order to take my career to the next level, I relocated to Los Angeles to attend California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where I obtained my MFA. All these experiences compelled me to become a photographer and to learn how to tell stories with images.
Previews Inside Out How did you come to specialize/work in capturing great homes on camera?
Joe Schmelzer I started out as a people and portrait photographer, but I was never what you might call a studio photographer; I have always been interested in environments. While working in Los Angeles as a professional photographer after earning my MFA, I met interior designers through my work in portraits, and one of them asked me to photograph an interior design project he was working on in the Hollywood Hills. That experience opened up a fascinating new world for me to explore as an artist and a visual storyteller. It was a natural fit because of my longtime appreciation for art, architecture and design. And it also provided the perfect outlet to exercise my perfectionist tendencies because shooting a home or space is so detail oriented.
Previews Inside Out What do you look for?
Joe Schmelzer One of a kind details, caliber of design, art and craftsmanship and the absolutely essential element of light.
Previews Inside Out Has technology changed the way you take photos?
Joe Schmelzer After studying photography as a traditionalist and being trained in all the pre-digital skills of photography and development, I was in a great place to apply those skills I honed to new methodologies and technologies. Although the tools used by photographers have changed radically since I began my career, the rendering and study of light, composition and storytelling components are classic and unchanging. Regardless of technology, I always strive to perfect the image of the scene within the camera as the cornerstone of my work. I approach the use of the latest technologies as additional tools to be utilized, but they do not determine the end result.
Previews Inside Out How do you infuse your photos with passion?
Joe Schmelzer Photography is my passion and means of creative expression. I love what I do so I think passion is a natural emotion expressed in my photographs. It has been said many times that every person should find out what they love to do and pursue it. That’s how I feel about photography. I love it and have found my calling and career.
Previews Inside Out How do you capture the spirit of a home in an entirely still-life shot?
Joe Schmelzer The things I always keep in mind at the beginning of every shoot are: appreciation of an environment, conveying integrity and respect, and light. I set out to capture what it feels like to actually be in any given space. This is the core of what really matters, not documenting every square foot of a space like a blueprint. Every space is unique so I try to take a unique approach for each one. Some spaces are built to showcase extraordinary architecture, so in that case the actual design of the building would become the focus. For other spaces that are less distinct and perhaps more traditional, utilizing vignettes that feel alive and inviting, as I would for an editorial layout in a home design magazine, can be very effective in piquing the viewer’s interest.
Previews Inside Out Do you have a method for approaching and framing a space?
Joe Schmelzer Each individual space has its own story to tell. So I evaluate every room to find what makes that particular space unique. After sharing ideas with my team, we discuss different options and make creative choices that will work best for that particular space, taking into consideration an agency, client or owner’s needs.
Previews Inside Out What is your most memorable (or favorite) photoshoot?
Joe Schmelzer One of the things I like most about my work is I have the privilege of assessing and shooting so many incredible spaces while working with talented people. Every assignment brings a new set of challenges and opportunities to do and try something different. I love that. And I really enjoy visiting the amazing locations and settings that my work takes me to. If I had to pick one among many, it would be fair to say being on assignment in Anguilla was one of my favorite shoots. I have a soft spot for beautiful white sand beaches and unspoiled tropical islands.
Previews Inside Out What do you think is often missed in home photography?
Joe Schmelzer Intimacy, comfort and ease, enjoyment and livability. When approaching photographing a home, we should remember that these are places, spaces and environments where people choose to live and enrich their lives. To always try to convey what it would be like to actually be there, to make it their own and share it with their family and friends, is the most import thing we should keep in mind.
More information on Joe Schmelzer can be found at joeschmelzer.com.