At the intersection of science and art stands photographer Gary Schneider.
Like a scientist testing a hypothesis, he describes his particular field of work as “an attempt to problem-solve.” And sometimes he’s his own lab experiment.
Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait series, which he began in the late 1990s as a response to the Human Genome Project – a 13-year endeavor to unlock the secrets of human DNA – includes images of his hair, retinas and even his chromosomes. Working with scientists and doctors, Schneider created a catalog of forensic images using all manner of microscope technology. The resulting photographs, deeply personal and yet universal, are an exploration of Schneider’s identity.
“A scientist must always solve the problem,” says Schneider, an assistant professor of photography in the Visual Arts Department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. “But an artist need never arrive at a solution.”
His photographs have been exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others, and the classroom is where Schneider also finds real focus.
“Teaching gives me the opportunity to get out of my own head,” Schneider says. “It grounds me.”
Schneider is a relative newcomer to Mason Gross, teaching both undergraduate and graduate photography classes since 2011. Although part of his curriculum includes the technicalities of photography, Schneider considers nurturing students to develop their own points of view as his most important job.
“I’m not interested in telling an artist what to make,” says Schneider. “If I see the desire, it makes me want to encourage it.”
That guidance was a boost to recent graduate Skyla Pojednic, who says Schneider “is the best cheerleader. He seems to know what to say to artists almost instinctively.”After she graduated from Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences with a BA in anthropology and visual art in 2012, Schneider encouraged Pojednic to enroll in Mason Gross’ BFA program. His support, she says, has enabled her to experiment with themes of intimacy, voyeurism, sexual fetishes and self-documentation while earning a degree in visual arts with a concentration in photography.
“He pushed us to not be satisfied with our work until we had fully realized it,” says Pojednic, who was awarded the Brovero Photography Prize for Excellence in photography at this year’s convocation.
Born into apartheid South Africa, Schneider stayed long enough to earn a BFA at the University of Cape Town before leaving for New York City in the 1970s, where he received an MFA from the Pratt Institute. His early work in painting, performance and film, as well as the issues of identity raised by his childhood experiences, continue to influence and inspire his work, which Schneider says is not “overtly political, but more about psychology.”
In July, Schneider shifted gears to embark on two very different bodies of work. He is spending much of the fall semester in South Africa as a Guggenheim fellow to continue making handprint portraits of South African artists, a project he began in 2011. Instead of using a camera, Schneider has his subjects press their hands directly into a film emulsion, which captures their heat and sweat. The resulting images make a sociopolitical statement, Schneider says, that extends beyond color, race, gender and age.
“They’re democratic,” he continues. “And the audience can make their own reading. That’s the best kind of portrait I could make.”
Schneider compares his most abstract work with cave paintings and delights in the combination of science and the emotional subtleties of the subject.
“People expose their feelings to me,” Schneider says. “A darkroom is like a confessional.”
Next spring, Schneider will spend six weeks as an affiliate fellow at the American Academy in Rome, where he will continue exploring self-portraiture of the external surfaces of his body, work that he says will be “poetic, not scientific like the handprints.”
Both trips, he says, will give him “the gift of time” to focus on his own work, in which he strives to gently push viewers, as he pushes his students, to make their own connections.
“Art is about learning how the world works,” Schneider says. “The possibilities are what make art important.”