ENROUTE TO THE PINES
IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT SHERMAN
Robert Sherman, born in Chicago, but now based in New York City, is both a photographer and a musician and composer. He developed a pure passion for the art of photography and ended up becoming the staff photographer for the Fire Island newspaper. Of late he has also become a columnist for them and manages their social media account. To celebrate Pride month, as a double-feature with our friends at Spectaculum Magazine, we have asked Robert to share some photos from his documentary series about drag queens celebrating the "Invasion of the Pines" in Long Island, part of the annual Pride month events.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Talk to us about your work and life in New York city. When and how did you become interested in photography?
I was born on the south side of Chicago, but moved to Northern California when I was 12, so the west coast really does feel like my cultural roots and San Francisco my hometown. But I came to Boston for my bachelor’s degree in music and then to NYC to get my masters degree at The Manhattan School of Music. I then stayed in New York for 35 years now, so I definitely feel like a full-blown New Yorker. I freelanced as a pianist and composer for years in NYC and then landed a full time job teaching music at The Calhoun School on the upper west side. I let go of teaching after 10 years and found myself obsessively fascinated with photography, almost as if it were a new musical instrument speaking to a lifetime spent in that pursuit. My wife got tired of seeing me using my iPhone so much, so she bought me a birthday present of a beautiful Sony mirrorless, my first real camera. Three years studying the basics, as well as taking master classes in the philosophy and grammar of photography at the International School of Photography brought me to a place where I felt I could follow and realize my total immersion in this new passion, and, in short, found myself continuing incessantly to photograph everything in sight that engaged me. I now consider myself a full time freelance street photographer, portrait photographer, and photographer in general.
Four years ago I was offered a job as staff photographer for the Fire Island News, a newspaper based in Long Island, NY, and jumped at the opportunity to work as a photojournalist, as well. I am now also the editor of their Instafeed, and a regularly contributing columnist for the paper.
It is Pride Month, and we have scheduled your feature of the Invasion of the Pines drag event in celebration of this special month. How did you get involved in this event?
I was sent on assignment four years ago and fell in love with the event. The energy of the pre-party scene in Cherry Grove, having full access with press pass to the preparations and behind the scenes “Jamboree”, and being allowed on the Queen’s Boat enroute to The Pines for the red carpet pageant was exhilarating beyond my wildest photographic and emotional dreams. Below deck I could find quiet moments of introspection and tender friendships, isolation, restrained nervousness and excitement, raw enthusiasm for the explosive moments to come upon landing at the next town over, The Pines, the exiting down the ramp and onto the red carpet for the pageantry and the fashion gala in front of thousands of spectators, revelers, supporters and beautiful people of like minds.
I have covered two such events so far (Covid having blocked last year), the third coming up this July 4, and have never been able to shoot less than 1,500 photographs each time. I narrow them down to around 50, and from that, the paper chooses about 10 shots for publication. The rest are for me and my utter adoration of the process. It is my absolute favorite assignment of the year.
What do you find especially interesting about the event in particular, and about drag in general?
In spite of the historical and current social hardships the LGBTQ community faces, there is a level of 'celebration of self' that is unmatched in most other groups or circumstances I’ve witnessed. Not unlike the amazing beauty of the carnival and birthplace of the incredibly intoxicating Samba music in Brazil —a country rife with suffering and pain— somehow finding its way toward the purest forms of all-encompassing celebration, this Invasion event is a true and total immersion into ecstatic revelations of how beautiful each and every one of us are, as we are; unfiltered and true to ourselves. I find myself enthralled by how being so utterly convinced of one’s beauty within makes each and every participant the most exquisite presence on earth.
Are there any other events that celebrate Pride that you would recommend for photographers interested in the subject?
In spite of its challenges as a photographer and perhaps an outsider, with the crowds and crowd blockades, the NYC Pride March remains the most fantastic and enormous event of its kind. All of it, wherever you go to celebrate Pride Month, one will find a plethora of pure celebration that is impossible to not want to capture in image, narrative, and emotive content.
In general regarding your photography, where do you find your inspiration to create?
I am not finding myself able to put my work in any particular "record bin". I can’t categorize nor “brand” myself. I simply must photograph what’s in front of me, that which engages me. I feel like I literally fall in love for that fraction of a second in which this endeavor eventuates.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
Miles Davis, Elliot Erwitt, Irving Penn, Bill Evans, William Eggleston, Thelonious Monk, Diane Arbus, Betty Carter, Dorothea Lange, João Gilberto, Helmut Newton, John Coltrane, Chehalis Hegner, Hyuna Park... don’t get me started. The list is too long.
What do you want people to remember about your photography?
The images themselves. I don’t wish to be seen in the photograph. If anything, perhaps there’s a common thread of continuity in the part of me that sees and captures what’s in the image. But I strive to have the pieces speak for themselves.
Where has been your most favourite place to photograph?
New York City is by far the most amazing place to simply walk around with camera in hand. So many colors, walks of life, people who are in their own world, and all the many who wish to be seen, who want to be photographed. That reminds me, one more quick one for the previous list: Bill Cunningham, the great fashion photographer on the streets of New York with his bike and camera simply riding around and capturing all the best of the best moments.
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both? Please describe your process.
I think it’s neither, unless I’m in a more formal portrait project setting in which I am looking for very specific ideas. I think I try to “go to the images” and not wait to let them “come to me”. I move a lot.
As in jazz improvisation, where there is a requirement of super-focus, studied instinct, and practiced intuition that asks you to anticipate the next 'inevitable' note, the same applies in photography: to see the shot ahead of time and move toward it with a sense of composition, decisive moment, expression, interaction, narrative, or simply the 'stealing of beauty'. Because I feel that stories and beauty are everywhere and in everyone. You just have to look for, and reach out toward them.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)
I’ve stuck with Sony, and it has done everything I need and want with complete satisfaction. I’ve upgraded two times since my first camera, following my evolving needs. And now sit happily with the mark IV.
I have nine lenses for various settings: 200-600mm for surf photography, wildlife, and nature, I prefer the 135mm f1.8 for portrait work, as a little compression always helps to further beautify faces, or my zeiss batis 85mm if I want more of the environment around the subject. For street I go in all directions, mostly 50mm, but I also play with compression and discretion on my 70-300mm, or the circus act warping of my 12-24mm, I have a 90mm and a 32mm macro. And my 24-70mm, although burdensome and at times off-putting for the people around me, is a beautiful street photography solution, as it sometimes forces the issue of real engagement with the subject in the moment.
What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I have a solo show offered to me by the Ocean Beach Historical Society, during its centennial celebration of the city, opening on July 16 on Fire Island, NY. My aspirations are to keep shooting what I find fascinating, and presenting both in series, as well as the seemingly fresh focus on the stand alone 'individual photograph'.
Of course I want to sell and make museum level works and show in important galleries everywhere. But most of all, at this point in my life I just want to tell stories, write “songs” with my camera, no, with my eye and heart, and continue to see all that surrounds me and find the moments I wish to capture and share with anyone who wants to join me in it all. I just want to keep falling in love.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
Again, the July 16 opening of my solo show entitled, Here, There, and Back Again. It will be a collection of individual photographs, triptychs, portraits, from “home” on Fire Island, and New York City, and abroad in Italy and Southern Spain, from street photography to character studies to the aforementioned Pride Invasion in brief series from below deck of the Queen’s Boat to the red carpet, a few nature shots, as well as honoring my lifetime passion for surfing in some local gems off the shores of life on Fire Island. Beyond that, the next project will certainly be realized one way or another, I have no doubt.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
Edit photographs and print them for true indulgence of their actual value in my life, play my 1924 Steinway Grand and my 1965 Hammond B3 organ for myself at home, surf, spend time with my grown children and my beautiful wife, and eat ice cream.