Paul Schraub
A&E

Q&A: Photographer Legend Paul Schraub

Paul Schraub on portraits, feast and famine, digital shots and music

Photographer Paul Schraub has always drawn inspiration from the style of Richard Avedon. PHOTO: r.r. jones

Cool as a martini. He was the guy you wished had taken you to the prom. With one or two words he could encourage any group of clients to release all inhibitions while he and his camera waited, poised for the money shot. Though professional to the core, he showed up at his own Halloween costume party dressed as a well-known religious icon in loincloth and crown of thorns. That was in the ’80s, and movie-star-handsome Paul Schraub could get away with anything, though he rarely chose to do so. Instead, he took pictures that heightened the allure of his subjects. Using lighting, music and charm he tweaked his studio’s ambience until just the right amount of energy seemed to fill the room, and when composition magically gelled he released the strobe and tripped the shutter.

“In college I wanted to do art photography,” Schraub admits, with a slow, impish grin. “I wanted to be Richard Avedon.”

A Palo Alto native, he grew up in Southern California and came to UCSC in 1970. Why? “It was an alternative school, I wanted to be in the redwoods, and have long hair,” he says. “I shot rock bands at Winterland for fun while I was a student and had access to a decent darkroom.”

Notoriously shy, Schraub admits that photography helped him get over some of that. “I had contemplated being a bicycle mechanic until Franklin Avery hired me to be a processor and printer for his photography business,” Schraub says. “He was very encouraging.”

Then what happened?

PAUL SCHRAUB: I found the idea of photographing people terrifying. Slowly I acquired a style—a knock-off of Avedon. All I wanted to do was black and white. Then in 1982 Franklin moved to San Francisco and essentially handed me his business. I moved to the Michael Leeds building on what is now Squid Row. It was really funky, but it was a lively environment. I had access to his workshop and I lived upstairs for eight years.

Those fabled group shots of the fringe artists you were famous for, how did they happen?

There is that ‘put it together and shout some directions’ approach that does seem to work with people shots whether you really have a plan or not. You do run the risk of looking foolish, and it is a challenge to risk that. But I suppose that is faith.

Your current bread and butter ?

I don’t shoot fashion, but what I do is a mixed bag of food, architecture and business portraits. I’ve done hotels in Carmel and Monterey, and architectural shots, most of my business is in the Santa Cruz area.

What’s the most tedious?

Some product photography. One client wanted clear, clean shots of every single bottle in his product line. Architecture is engaging. Lighting it, problem solving, The work comes in waves, summers tend to be a little quiet, which is nice because I can get outside more.  Every Sunday is a bike ride, usually 50 miles with four to nine others, followed by beer and a burger somewhere.

How has the advent of digital affected your work?

At least half of my work time is on the computer. It can be very satisfying and fun, it can also be time-consuming. Photoshop can really do things we couldn’t do in the past. In the digital era I don’t have to carry around as much equipment, and I just need five lenses instead of 20. It’s cheaper to do my work today, but it’s harder to price it, to gauge what to charge.

Has the iPhone affected your business?

Well, it’s true that some of the lower market assignments may have gone away. But things that look astonishing on your phone might not when blown up to billboard size. The technology of the cellphone camera is easier than doing the work of lighting, composing, arranging. So you can shoot a good image, but you can’t necessarily construct one.  

Do you make your living with photography?

Yes, but I have to work all the time. It can be feast or famine. I keep doing photography because I still like it. Sometimes I love it. But I never hate it. 2008 was horrible. I almost lost my studio.  

What creates the most difficulty?

Communication problems can occur when people have high expectations but little time or money. They think it can all be done by magic.

Did you always want to be a photographer?

I was originally going to study botany at UCSC, but I couldn’t get any of the classes I wanted. I wasn’t interested in professional photography at the time. I got a degree in political philosophy. My classmates tended to go to law school, but I wasn’t interested in that. I did some travelling, went to Bali four times working on a book, Masks of Bali, with Judy Slattum. Then that whole art community in town—it was fun being tied into that. There was a Dadaist aura about many of those people, the Brezsnys, B. Modern.

Your current studio situation?

R.r Jones was my assistant back in the days of film photography. We share the studio space, but he dominates the music selection. I like the Stones, Dylan, Donovan. Donovan was a Paul Simon of his time, and besides, Jimmy Page played backup on his albums. No one knows that.

Your favorite music?

I like the ’80s new wave stuff, and I like ’60s stuff, old English blues bands, Rolling Stones. It has been played to death but “Gimme Shelter” is number one. Close on its heels are “The Supernatural”… Peter Green with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and “1983” by Hendrix. Don’t get me started. Happy to admit that I live in a musical past.

What are you good at?  

Problem solving. I have an understanding of images, of previous masters, and I can bring some ideas to each shoot. I no longer have the patience to do certain kinds of work like freezing my ass off waiting for a sunrise shot. I can muster the patience but I don’t really enjoy waiting for good light. Maybe that is why I light things. I do like working with natural light (when I don’t have to wait) but most of my work has involved lighting. The challenge is often how to create natural looking light that shows the subject well and isn’t a distraction.

Do you still enjoy it?

I never don’t want to go to work. I like being responsible for the jobs, and I can’t imagine not being busy. There’s some repetition of course, and there’s some experimentation—although that can take up time and if it doesn’t work then you have to make some quick solutions. (He rolls his eyes and grins.)

For more info and to see his work, visit paulschraubphoto.com.

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Her new book “Inside the Flame” is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and on Amazon.

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