Thorns and roses
Into the box with Reidar Schopp
by Bondo Wyszpolski
What leads someone into taking up photography may be a course or two in high school and a few more in college, and then perhaps their portfolio lands them a job or an assignment for a local newspaper or magazine. For Reidar Schopp, however, it was a matter of forced child labor. Well, only in the sense that by the age of eight he was assisting his mother, a freelancer for publications like the San Pedro News-Pilot. She also covered weddings and other meet-and-greets.
It was Reidar’s task to haul around the battery pack for her strobe, “and it kept me tethered to her so I couldn’t run away or anything.” He dutifully trailed along behind her, later entrusted with loading her film holders with 4×5 film. “Eventually I became the second shooter,” he adds. “Near the end of her career I was the primary shooter and she was my secondary shooter.”
But when Reidar was in high school and wondering whether to pursue a career in the arts, his mother gave him some sound advice which many of us, to our detriment, would have ignored.
“And her advice was, if you want to live on rice and beans, and go out and catch your own fish for dinner, then go for it. Otherwise, go get a job that will support your art.”
Reidar attended and graduated from the California Maritime Academy in Northern California. “I worked for the Getty Oil Company as a third mate. And then Texaco bought Getty Oil. Texaco didn’t need the people, they just wanted the oil reserves.” At the time, Reidar says, the oil industry was in a slump and along with many others he was laid off. A career change was in the cards: “So I ended up going to USC to get a Masters in Finance.”
This led to employment at Edgewater Technology and, since 2017, NBCUniversal.
Reidar doesn’t seem to be living on rice and beans, and there are no fishing poles lined up on the front porch.
“I designed computer systems for companies around the world,” he says, matter-of-factly. And it’s these travels that enabled him to make contact with people in many other parts of the U.S. and abroad: people he’d arrange to meet and photograph in often unconventional settings.
If you’re looking for a wedding photographer, however, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Reidar retreated from that animal of diminishing income a long time ago. “I want to do different things,” he says, and in a moment I’ll tell you what those different things are.
Reidar Schopp was born and raised and still lives in San Pedro. His wife, Gigi Fadich, was born just one street away from where the couple lives today, which is pretty remarkable. The story of their house is pretty remarkable too; it’s a 19th century Victorian that might have emerged from the pages of a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry James.
In 1988, Reidar says, “we found two lots for sale next to each other, so we bought them specifically to move a house here.” A year later they found the one they wanted, and it was moved in three pieces from Pasadena to San Pedro in 1990.
The house originally stood 42 feet tall, and to move it 37 miles across the city would have been prohibitively expensive in that powerlines would have had to be disconnected and then reconnected, and for that half a million bucks would have gone out the window. So the second floor was removed and essentially discarded after saving the most important architectural ornaments. Only the tower from the upper story was kept. In other words, although one might not guess it, the second floor has been rebuilt.
“It’s brand new lumber,” Reidar says. “Termites love it.”
Behind the house there appears to be another dwelling, a slightly smaller sibling. This turns out to be Reidar’s photography studio, which he built in 2005.
Long before that, however, when he was in fifth or sixth grade, his mother gave him his first camera, ostensibly to take pictures while he was away in the mountains at Clear Creek camp in the Angeles National Forest. Furthermore, and apart from tethering him to her while she was on assignment, Reidar’s mother was an accomplished artist, having gone to USC for art, and Reidar points to a sculpture and two drawings in the back parlor where we are sitting (and, yes, parlor is the correct word when you’re inside a mansion this old). The drawings illustrate passages from Dante, and Reidar admits that he probably inherited his own vision of photography through works like these. “I love dark, gothic images,” he says. “Sometimes on the sinister or horror side.”
Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that he would discover a kindred spirit in William Mortensen, who lived from 1897 to 1965, ventured out to Hollywood with Fay Wray (the beauty who killed the beast), and whose often strange, haunting photography seems to recall, if not parallel, the Universal Pictures horror and monster film aesthetic of the 1930s.
Two of Mortensen’s prints, one signed, are also in the room where we’re sitting. Reidar points to one known as “Vanities.” It depicts a slim, nude brunette on her toes and touching a peacock on a high perch.
“I was in college at the time, and I saw it on a magazine cover,” Reidar says. “It was the first photo that ever stopped me in my tracks.” Naturally, he bought the magazine and now owns, with one exception, all of Mortensen’s original books.
“Ansel Adams hated this guy, but for me Mortensen had imagination. Ansel Adams would just go out and wait for the environment to be right and click the shutter.” Adams was quoted as calling Mortensen “the anti-Christ,” which in some circles might be a recommendation.
Within their comfort level
Perhaps it was an attraction towards Mortensen’s aesthetic coupled with an aversion to the wedding portrait industry that pushed Reidar into finding his own visual voice. He tags himself as a “Fine Art photographer with a preference toward Surrealism and Conceptualism with collaborative models.” For the objective viewer, that may translate into work that induces a slight apprehension, as if it’s on the cusp of sacrilege and maybe sexual transgression. For some people, it may set off alarm bells. Others will be riveted by what seems to be grazing in the pastures of the erotic.
Although Reidar has shown his pictures publicly, it’s usually been the milder fare. He’s currently in the PADA (Photographic and Digital Artists) exhibition that’s in The Loft in San Pedro, but most of the work is related to the sea and to ships, which he photographed years ago while attending the California Maritime Academy. Few local galleries will openly take on the, let’s say, edgier material.
“Through photography, or any art,” he says, “sometimes you play devil’s advocate with yourself. So I might create something that, it’s not my belief, but you want to put it out there.”
How does Reidar find his models and where do his concepts for the shoot come from?
“When I used to travel,” he explains, “I would put out casting calls for whatever town I was traveling in and then meet different people and go through my concepts.” He doesn’t describe the particulars of those casting calls, but clearly they weren’t geared towards photographing children’s birthday parties. “Sometimes it scared them away, sometimes they liked the concepts and we did the shots. Sometimes the people responding to the casting call would have places that they would let me use as a studio. If I did that scenario then we could come up with very creative stuff; otherwise we’re doing outdoor shots and you get limited.”
His concepts for a photo session? Reidar has nearly 300 pages of them.
“The concepts are easy,” he says, “it’s finding the people to create the concepts with, that’s what’s hard.”
In his home studio, a model will often be hired for a four-hour session. “But sometimes you click with a model and you’re done in half an hour. And you go, ‘I’ve got some other concepts…’ and you just go braindead.” That’s why they’re written down.
If he and his model have established a rapport then he can call up the file with his hundreds, maybe thousands of ideas, and then shart sharing the ones he thinks are relevant: “All right, what do you think of this, this, or this concept? And then we just keep it going from there.”
Before he undertakes a session with a model that involves full, partial, or implied nudity, Reidar prefers to do an in-person interview. “Because if they don’t show up for the interview then I don’t have to worry about spending days building a set. So I use it (the interview) to weed out the people who might flake on me.” And, if it’s a female model (80 percent of them are), you try to find out what their limit (or comfort level) is, and then make sure that you don’t try to push them beyond the limit—because you definitely don’t want to get a reputation. They’ll talk and nobody will want to work with you anymore.”
Do the women ever bring anyone else with them, so that they feel more at ease?
“You know, it’s funny,” Reidar says. “Normally it’s just the model and myself. Occasionally they’ll bring a boyfriend, but the boyfriends are usually so paranoid or whatever that the shoot just gets really tense. It’s better when they bring, let’s say, a chaperone who’s female.” He pauses. “I’ve never had a male model who’s needed a chaperone.”
Sometimes he’ll use an assistant, for makeup or wardrobe, but he’ll never use a male assistant. Occasionally a male friend may volunteer to come over and handle the lights, and it’s like, sorry, I don’t think so.
Blame it on Barbie
“If I find somebody that I work well with then I’ll continue to use them,” Reidar says, “usually in different series, though, because I tend to shoot in series. You get an idea, and you just have to beat the heck out of it until you think you’ve got everything out that you want to say.”
This brings us to the box series, the idea of which occurred to Reidar while he was in college, late ‘70s, early ‘80s. He then floated it around for 20 years. He’d read an interview with a man who collected Barbie dolls, all of which were kept in their original boxes. Apparently his rooms were full of them, and Reidar thought of putting real people inside of boxes, but in somewhat darker, more meaningful poses.
Eventually he made a photograph based on this concept. And then one of his models, who was featured in an artwork being shown at Flazh!Alley in San Pedro, said to the co-owner, Joe Flazh!, that he needed to see Reidar’s work. Reidar brought in a dozen images, and regarding the one inspired by the Barbie doll collection Joe said, “No, this isn’t one photo, this is an entire series.”
And so, in 2007 or 2008, Flazh!Alley gave Reidar his first large solo exhibition. “He showed my box series, which was people in different types of boxes. Basically it represented that you own your life, you made your life. Whether you’re happy or sad, it’s usually because of your own doing. So this whole series is based on that.”
Many of the sessions for the box series were done in different cities. “When I was consulting, building financial systems, and was on the road, I would set up shoots for the end of the day, St. Louis or Washington, D.C., or what have you. Because as a consultant they only want to pay you for the eight hours. So, that’s great. Eight hours, I’m out. I’m always good with skipping dinner. If you’ve got a temporary studio that you’re borrowing, every night you can have a shoot.”
That’s how the series grew to over 200 images. Reidar is in fact steps away from completing it, and the actress Bouvier (“Surgikill,” “Club Lingerie,” etc) was supposed to model for the second to last image. She passed away before they could do it. And the final shot? In order to depict one generation from beginning to end, “I need an infant to show that the cycle starts over.”
Apart from the now-defunct Flazh!Alley Studio, there aren’t many places where Reidar can show this or other bodies of work (a more recent and ongoing series explores the Japanese art of shibari, or binding, which consists of tying someone up using intricate patterns). The box series was also displayed in St. Louis, but that’s been it so far. He’s sent various images to magazines, “but they won’t touch it, whereas they’ll publish my landscapes.” His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “Landscapes are boring to me.”
Reidar recalls sharing the box series images with a woman he used to work with, and then some outtakes unrelated to the project. “And she goes, Why do you take pictures of nude people? I kind of gave her an offhand comment like, Well, I don’t have to buy a wardrobe if they’re all nude.”
She told him that was a cop-out answer, after which Reidar asked her if she wanted a serious answer. She replied that, yes, she did.
“Most of my models have tattoos,” he told her; “they’re beautiful tattoos, and the people are comfortable standing in front of the camera.” Some sit, lie down, or dangle from ropes. Many of them were burlesque dancers as well, and most, in their way, are elegantly portrayed.
“But it’s funny to me,” Reidar says, “in that you can go to the Getty Museum and see nudes and nobody says anything about it. My wife, when we first started dating, was kind of ‘If it’s a photo it’s pornography; if it’s a painting it’s art.’ And it does seem like that belief is still there.”
As mentioned, a few images by Reidar Schopp are included in the PADA show (“Summer’s Edge”) on view at The Loft, 401 Mesa St, San Pedro. Open during the First Thursday Art Walk, July 7, from 5 to 8 p.m., and Saturday, July 9, from 3 to 6 p.m. His website is RLSFoto.com. He can be reached by phone, (310) 345-3764, or by email, [email protected]. PEN