“I have a very rich dream life. It started at a very early age,” he says. “Every night, I looked forward to going to sleep, because for me it was like going to the movies. I didn’t know what was going to happen. None of us can predict what we’re going to dream. I just feel lucky that I get to remember many of my dreams.”
Dreaming, in one way and another, has taken Schenck to places he might never have imagined when he was young — to Hollywood, where he became a noted portrait photographer, and to art galleries across the country. He grew up on an isolated 800-acre ranch in central Texas, near the town of Dripping Springs, where his view of the outside world came from the movies he watched on television. “I was addicted,” he says. “I think it had to do with my dreams. Movies were the closest things to the dreams I was having.”
He was also fond of art, an enthusiasm his parents encouraged. Schenck’s ancestors included two noted Texas painters, Hermann Lungkwitz and Richard Petri, who were held in high esteem in his home. “So I was sent to a painting school when I was a teenager. I was selling landscape paintings by the time I was 13,” Schenck says.
He went on to major in art at North Texas State University but was soon making films there as well, one of which was called Dream Sequence. It is what you might expect from a college student in 1975 — 10 minutes of grainy black-and-white suspense featuring a young woman pursued through darkened hallways, perhaps by her own memories, or her own madness. It is also hard to take your eyes away from.
Encouraged by a friend, Schenck left college early and headed to Los Angeles to become a filmmaker. Along the way he also began shooting still images and found a new profession. Schenck became known for portraits of film stars and other performers — Marisa Tomei and Nicole Kidman among them — that harkened back to Hollywood’s golden age and the studied glamour of photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull. He has shot for Vogue, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and other magazines, and, as his website notes, created “hundreds of album covers.”
“My career all developed by word of mouth. I never had an agent and I’m not a very pushy or particularly ambitious person,” Schenck says. “People started seeing my photos and liking them, and that led to commercial work.”
His career as a fine-art photographer developed the same way: “Friends have dictated the path of my life,” he says. “A woman I knew said, ‘You need to expand your horizons and you are going to start shooting nudes, and you’ll shoot nudes of me.’ So I did. And she took them to New York and showed them around, and that’s how I got my first exhibition.”
In 2003 Schenck brought out the book Rocky Schenck: Photographs, from the University of Texas Press. It featured personal work he’d created throughout his career — muted black-and-white images that might be stills from imaginary movies.
This year he will be bringing out his second book, The Recurring Dream — a collection of baleful landscapes and portentous scenes combining surrealism with a touch of satire. One moves through the images the way the young woman in Schenck’s college film moved through her haunted dreamscape, searching for explanations.
“I’ve had so many suppressed memories that have inspired my work,” Schenck says.
The new book took longer to complete than Schenck expected. “About five years ago I thought I had enough new work for a book, but it wasn’t to be. As I said, I’m not Mr. Salesman, and I’m not very good at reaching out to publishers. I don’t take rejection well. But now I’m glad it was delayed, because it took me those extra years to explore this new world I've been dabbling in.”
That uneasy world is rendered in hand-tinted images that are subdued to the point of murkiness, yet entirely vivid.
“If these pictures by Rocky Schenck are ‘about’ anything, it is mood, atmosphere, and the art of seeing,” writes the film director William Friedkin in the introduction of the new book. “They demonstrate that mystery is at the heart of existence. The mysteries of birth, death, love, and faith. Their meaning is less important than the pleasure we derive from discovering them.”
Schenck is reluctant to disclose in detail how he creates the images, other than to say they are made the old-fashioned way: “So much of the look and feel of the final image is created during the shooting,” he says. “With the new work, I shot 35mm black-and-white film, with different levels of diffusion over the lens. It’s all homemade diffusion — material I find and experiment with. And I vignette the image while I shoot, with my fingers or pieces of cardboard placed over the lens. It’s very old-school.”
The final step involves painting over prints in oils. “In the end I treat them like paintings,” he says. The results are reminiscent of expressionist films and paintings by Edward Hopper and Edvard Munch, who Schenck cites as important influences. “I love controlling the color,” he says. “I can manipulate it into what I want to see, rather than just documenting something.”
Schenck has dedicated the new book “To all the people who’ve been kind to me over the years … and to a few who haven’t.”
“I’m really thankful to the people who have encouraged me. But we’ve all had people who don’t do that, who don’t think highly you and try to hold you back,” he says. “And I’m really thankful to them, too, because they make me want to explore more and be stronger as an artist and as a person.”
It should be noted that though Schenck took up photography after moving to Los Angeles, he has continued making films, the medium of his dreams. He has also shot more than 150 music videos, for Alice In Chains, Nick Cave, Alison Krauss, Van Halen, and other performers. One of the best was his video for Adele’s “Homegrown Glory.”
In the video, Schenck takes viewers into his muted dreamworld. But, with the camera circling Adele, he reveals the artifice of that world, exploring the ways we construct the stories we want to hear, the dreams in which we want to live.
That, too, is what Schenck has done in his photographs, which he creates to explore his own dreams. “I’m a work in progress,” he says.
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