A Fine Eye for Detail

Confetti Magazine, December, 1991
by Nancy Bartels

Wendi Schneider uses photography and paint to capture the beauty of simple things and simpler times...

"The details in objects fascinate me," says photographer Wendi Schneider. "The interplay of the various elements - composition and balance, light and shadow, the beauty of the line. When you get up close and focus on the details, the picture becomes abstract. It becomes simple and essential, reduced to the elemental beauty of the object."

This fascination with the details is reflected in every aspect of Schneider's varied professional life. The Memphis-born photographer began her training as a painter at Tulane University and came to photography only when she began making reference shots of her models for figurative paintings. "I just fell in love with photography," she says. But the training of that eye for detail and Schneider's artistic drive both came much earlier. Born to a family of artists, early on she accompanied her mother, a needlepoint artist, on antiquing expeditions around Memphis, beginning a lifetime love affair with beautiful old things. Spending her college years and the remainder of her 20s in the lush, historic city of New Orleans further developed her romantic, rich, and evocative style. Her first creative job after college as a designer and a copywriter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, sharpened her eye for detail even more.

This happy confluence of history, talent, and environment has sent Schneider's work in a variety of directions. She has done some advertising work, but more of her commercial photos have an editorial focus. She has shot cover photos for numerous books for Random House, Berkley Publishing, Little Brown, Warner Books, and others. Her project for Simon and Schuster, Mary Higgins Clark's Loves Music, Loves to Dance was number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Her work has also appeared in Victoria, New Orleans, and Literary Guild Magazine. In addition, her fine art photography has been shown in New Orleans, New York, Munich and Basel, Switzerland.

From the beginning of her love affair with the camera, Schneider missed the smell and feel of oil paint, so she began painting her photographs. Rather than use the traditional method of applying color and then wiping it off again to leave a "tint," Schneider builds up layers of paint to achieve a rich and subtle color. Her media includes a variety of oils. She intimates that "my brushes and my fingers" are my most useful tools. She also uses various kinds of filters and grainy films to achieve the distinctive misty appearance of many of her photos.

When asked about any messages in her photos, Schneider says, "If there is any specific message in my work, it is not intentional. I'm looking for a balance of composition, but it's more an intuitive than a cognitive thing. I see something and my heart starts to flutter. There's something about a particular image or moment that just gets to me, and I think, 'That's it.' I just feel it. "Of course, everyone's work is somewhat autobiographical. I don't think you can do anything that doesn't reflect something inside of you."

In Schneider's case, her life in the Old South and her early immersion in antiques is evident in her work. In an evocation of things past shot for Victoria magazine last summer, she photographically recreated elements of paintings by Dutch -American painter Gari Melchers (1860-1932). These close-ups are loving studies of Schneider's favorite components, light, line, and texture, as they are reflected in scenes of late-Victorian life.

Schneider's work on book covers gives her another opportunity to focus on the details and communicate on an intuitive level. A book cover is a kind of visual shorthand. A high-heeled shoe, a string of pearls, or a gardenia carry the freight of the whole book. The idea is to intrigue and tempt the potential reader to pull this particular book instead of one of a hundred others off the shelf. The photographer does not have to necessarily tell the story of the book, but should be "spiritually in tune" with it.

While she has done a dozen or more book covers, Schneider's dream project was a complete redesign and reissue of the 1901 edition of The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, produced in honor of the newspaper's sesquicentennial. Schneider designed, art directed, copy edited, produced and shot the photography for the book.

Over the course of years, the original book had been "updated" and "improved," and Schneider's goal was to restore the sense of the original. "We went back to the original text. We had this wonderful chef (Marcelle Bienvenu) who tested the original 2000 recipes and cut the number to 800. Then we researched turn-of-the-century books to get an authentic type face, and we kept the French language expressions from the original." The new version uses Schneider's photos as chapter headings and as cover art.

When left to her own devices, taking pictures without input from art directors or editors, Schneider continues her close-up exploration of light, line and texture. Her meticulously painted and arranged photos begin to take on the quality of paintings. Her flower paintings are reminiscent of Georgia O'Keeffe. As with O'Keeffe, her eye for detail does not equate with "miniature". Some of her most popular works are 16x20s and 20x24s. She recently began working in the 30"x40" size.

The other challenge Schneider has set for herself is working with the new Polaroid transfer process. In this technique, 35mm pictures are converted into Polaroids and then printed on watercolor paper. At that point, Schneider begins to paint on them.

Still very much in the experimental stage with this process, Schneider says "You have to do these over and over until you get something you really like. Every piece is different. Sometimes the result is pleasing. Sometimes it's not. I like the effects when I can draw and paint on the photos. They're a much more personal artform for me than, say, Cibachromes."

And where to now for Schneider, beyond exploring bigger size photos and a new photographic process? For one thing, she is getting ready for a show in New Orleans in October at A Gallery for Fine Photography. She is also hoping to get her portfolio around to more ad and design agencies. "I see a lot of ads that I think my work would be perfect for; but I get so busy sometimes that I don't get my portfolio out

Over the long term, Schneider wants to go back to doing books. "I like to do whole design projects. I'd like to a book of my own work. And what I would really love to do is illustrate a book of Colette' writing...her work is so beautiful and so sensual.

"of course, I love what I am doing right now. I get a kick out of seeing my work published. But I'm still dying to go to IItaly.I want to shoot the landscape and the architecture and the people, and, of course, be able to capture the sense of the past that pervades everything. And there's Paris and London, too..."

Whatever direction Schneider's work goes in next, that fascination remains. As long as the world remains full of details articulated by light, line, and shadow she will not lack for sources of inspiration.