"It's a vulnerable thing being photographed," says the photographer sitting across from me, "It's not abnormal for me to sit and chat with people for 20 minutes before I photograph them. I'm timing myself; I am watching for a look in their eye... Once I see it, I know we are ready to start photographing." Sitting down in Michael Schacht's studio, nestled in the heart of Chicago's meatpacking district, I have come to realize he is all about human connection.
Primarily a headshot photographer, as well as a mentor in Peter Hurley's "Headshot Crew," Schacht has already been enjoying plenty of success. However, in the last year, he has been capturing a lot of attention for an entirely different type of photography. "Two years ago, I started the portraits. In the broadest of terms, every headshot is a portrait, but every portrait is not a headshot. My headshots have mostly been shot against a solid background; this is my rebellion against that." Schacht's newest photographs are becoming instantly recognizable for their cinematic feel, something he credits to the monochromatic color toning that tends to lean heavily toward the cooler tones.
"I want to put someone in their environment. The fact that I am working toward the goal of working with specific people in specific environments that is what I am practicing."
Schacht's portrait styling has brought him the attention of fellow photographers, many who are looking to learn from him. I was able to be a fly on the wall during his latest workshop. Keeping with his desire to drive human connection, Schacht did something I had not seen in a photography class to date: He asked the participants to become the models. "When we turned the tables, and we said, ‘Here you take the camera, and you go over there and get directed,’ I wasn't sure what was going to happen," said Schacht. "What I loved watching was people realizing the difference between good direction and bad direction... I wanted people to realize the need for direction. As a model when you are being directed well, it feels better. You build confidence. I can say that over and over again without it hitting home. So being able to step back and watch that happen and watch those connections made... it was pretty powerful stuff." I think he was right. Watching a photographer step in front of the camera and become models for each other seemed to have a profound impact on the group. People genuinely began to connect; The team started working together more, and cell phones started coming out to add each other on social media.
Each day at workshop's end, Schacht sat and talked with the participants. When asked why he started teaching now, he replied with, "I dig being able to share all of (this). There have been so many people who have been generous to me, be it instructors or the guy I share my studio with, there are lots of people I have to thank for the success I have had... It just seems like the right thing to do to pass that on."
Schacht spent plenty of time continually asking people about themselves and their goals. Pushing students toward understanding where they are heading and why. When asked what he hopes people take from this experience, he said, "I think that people get too caught up with f-stops and settings, things like that. They let it get in the way of their storytelling. Rather than teaching what I thought people would want to learn about, I just got the ideas in my head out of my head. I was talking out loud as we were going through these shoots. Once you start incorporating multiple layers to things, you have to maintain a certain technical level. There is no straight recipe to what I am doing; I am very fluid in what I am given to work with. I would have guessed that at this point I would have become more technical, but at this point, the less I have to think about things, the less technical I become."
Many of Schacht's images have a hand-painted canvas backdrop in them, which he purchases from Gravity Backdrops. "In general I have grown to love these backdrops. The backdrop allows me to create a focal point and frame the person. It allows me to work in cluttered environments. It allows me to take this show on the road. We have taken these out of the studio. We went and rented a warehouse; It was like a collectors storage, antiques and stuff everywhere. As you walk through, as a human, as a spectator, you are like this would be a cool way to photograph someone and then you start setting up lights and stuff when you realize there is crap everywhere and there is no way to bring that person back to the front. So what the backdrop does is allows you to separate the person from the scene a little bit and allows you to shoot in cooler spaces that are a little more cluttered. It grounds them. It is a cool parallel at this point. The more you can isolate the person or the face the more you can draw attention to the expression."
The future certainly looks bright for Schacht. I have continued to watch his numbers rise on each of his social media platforms since I first discovered his work a year ago. Profoto recently gave him a shoutout on their page. Schacht certainly has a concrete plan for his coming year. "I am going to start adding celebrities to my portfolio, and I am making moves to make that happen. What is great about Chicago as a home base is that now more than ever there are a lot of celebrities coming through town. There are a lot of films and television being produced here. Rather than talking about shooting celebrities and how cool that would be, this year is different because I am speaking to people who can make those connections happen."
Picking up a camera seven years ago, Schacht has come a long way. He hasn't forgotten the journey. "When you think back to things like that, you don't need all the gear. Switching from Einstien to Profoto did nothing for my pictures. It made my workflow a little bit easier because of the color consistency and the low recycle times. I think that is what these things do. You get enough of these little things, and now you are much more productive than you were. Thinking back to what I accomplished, starting a business with a $500 camera I bought off of Craigslist and a few hundred more dollars in lenses over the next six to nine months, to get from point A to point B... It was pretty cool." There is certainly no doubt that Schacht will continue to bring people's attention to his photography.
All images used with permission.