Erik Schubert (b. 1980, Omaha, NE) received his MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and his BFA from Columbia College, Chicago. Schubert has taught photography at MassArt, Greenfield Community College, and currently teaches at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Schubert has been in several exhibitions throughout the United States including Boston Young Contemporaries, SPECTRA: National Photography Triennialand the Photographic Resource Center NEO Emerging Artist. Schubert was included in On the Road: A Legacy of Walker Evans exhibition at the Robert Lehman Art Center and the Flash Forward Festival. Schubert is represented by Panopticon Gallery in Boston, MA. How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013) is Schubert’s first artist book.

How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

Carl Gunhouse: What are your first memories of photography?

Erik Schubert: My first memory of photography was through books. My immediate family didn’t photograph much. I don’t think my mother even had a camera, at least one that I can remember, and my dad didn’t make the time to use one. Most of the pictures from my childhood came from my extended family – my grandfather with his clunky point and shoot, and my uncles with their SLRs. Because of this, books were an early entrance for me into photography.

Three in particular stood out. One was my grandparents’ complete collection of cream, green, and gold colored Encyclopedia Britannica books that I would pick up at random and travel through the pictures. The second was a book my mother bought me called 20th Century Baseball Chronicles that I would look at religiously, as I was a baseball nut. And the third was the most elusive in terms of memory, but most impactful in terms of feeling, a biography on Harry Houdini.

I would sneak away to the library at the Catholic grade school that I was going to and look at this book during free time. It never seemed to have been checked out. It was a picture-heavy book that, looking back on it, seemed almost fetish-like and other-worldly. It was one of those books that made me feel like I had stumbled upon a secret. I think a part of me wanted to be an escape artist like Houdini. I tried finding it and went back to look for it when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t there anymore. So the memories really stay with me, and the feelings that those photographs left still linger with me today.

CG: How has your work been shaped by growing up in Nebraska?

ES: I don’t think I’m necessarily conscious of how Nebraska has shaped my work, apart from the experiences I’ve had growing up there. I guess there is a sense of quietness that runs through most of my work that is also prevalent in the geography of Nebraska and somewhat in the people who live there as well.

More than Nebraska itself, it was my experiences in my family that really shaped my ability to observe the dichotomies and extremes that were present in my life, and, as such, my need to observe through poking at my environment. I think this injected a dry humor into my work as well. So, I guess, looking at my work, there is a mix of quietness and dry humor that comes from my family and the land.

Basement Rental, Omaha, NE, 2008
© Erik Schubert

Exercise #4, 2010
© Erik Schubert

Untitled (How to Create Original Material), 2008
© Erik Schubert

CG: You did your graduate studies at MassArt in Boston. How did you find your time there? How was studying with Frank Gohlke?

ES: It was challenging, and it shook me up a bit, which was needed for me to change and grow. At the time, it was a mix of frustration and excitement. I really felt part of a community where I was doing something important with this thing called “art.” It was amazing working with all these great photographers in such a dynamic city. I feel lucky to have had those experiences and feel the better for them. When it was all over, I really didn’t want to leave school. I wish it could have been one of those super long grad programs I’ve heard they have in Germany.

Studying with Frank was great! I loved hearing him talk about our work and respected his opinions that were always smart and tender. He took us out photographing one semester, and it was great to see him work. We drove in search of a good location, and ended up at one of the oldest working gas stations in the US. He put on his ball cap that said “Vote for Kinky,” started charting his location with his GPS unit, and then started photographing. It was great to see that.

Frank, Kinky, Lynnfield, MA, 2006
© Erik Schubert

CG: Your Dad was a traveling pharmaceutical salesman, and you traveled with him on sales trips? How much of your father and his profession is in How To Win Friends And Influence People? Can you talk about how this project began?

ES: I traveled on a few sales trips with him in my later teens, which shaped my understanding of him, how he operated as a salesman and how people reacted to him. There’s certainly a theater and ritual to the whole process that I got to see firsthand.

I can remember how his car was always filled with brochures and pharmaceutical drugs and the constant aroma of coffee and bananas, from the peels and empty cups on the car floor. In the back seat, he would always carry a full bottle of Listerine mouthwash, and his suit jacket would always be hanging from the back window. Before each call, he would prepare his materials in the trunk or backseat, put on his suit jacket, take a big swig of mouthwash, spit it out, and go in and make the call.

It’s hard to know how much he’s in the work. He’s in parts of the foundation along with my own experiences in retail sales. He introduced me to this type of landscape and gave me a behind the scenes look at being a salesman for a multinational corporation, so he’s definitely in there.

This project began in the periphery of another project that ultimately failed. I was photographing the television news media on location reporting local news, and I had followed them to an auto expo they were covering. It didn’t turn out so well. Having photographed the media in different situations, I found that in some ways they are a kind of closed-off society. I think I became a kind of threat and pest to them, and it was a real challenge.

Instead of leaving the expo, I ended up staying longer and photographing the expo itself. I found the environment to be both familiar and bizarre and became really interested in these locations. I had gone to expos in my youth – either with my dad, who worked at them, or with my mother for cheap entertainment. There was a comfort there, but it’s extremely bizarre at the same time. Having not gone to one in a while, I could now see the spectacle of it, and because of this, I just kept going to them and this series developed.

Offices, Riverside, CA, 2007
© Erik Schubert

A. Santoni Boxed Shirt, 2007
© Erik Schubert

Variety Still-Life, 2007
© Erik Schubert

CG: You’ve said that your work tries “to explore and communicate metaphorically the success, failure, and complexity of corporate mythologies in society.” Can you elaborate? Where have corporate mythologies worked their way into society?

ES: Through photographing the business ephemera used in the process of advertising and sales or making photographs at expos, the images start to re-contextualize how we read that particular object or place, taking them out of context and examining the aftereffects of their use. In that process, we begin to either understand or become confused about how that object functions in our society, often in ways that are humorously troubling.

We have certain needs in our society. And certainly companies who provide products to meet those needs have to pay for employees, operating expenses, etc. It’s not about this underlying structure; it’s about how far corporations are willing to go to make a profit. It’s about how easily they veer off the path of reality in the conquest of making more profits.

And because of this, corporate mythologies are everywhere. We see these mythologies in advertising on a daily basis. It’s pervasive. In particular, we Americans see so much advertising that it’s eerily similar to the amount of propaganda seen by Koreans about the Kim family in North Korea. I find this correlation eerily fascinating.

One of the biggest mythologies is that they’re operating in the best interest of the consumer, the people making their products, and the environment. I think consumers easily swallow this mythology as an excuse to buy the cheapest products without thinking about the working conditions of the people who made the product, the motives of the corporation and other important ethical questions. We’re not stupid, but questioning becomes harder and harder when more companies aren’t being questioned about this mythology and when there’s a demand for producing cheaper and cheaper products at whatever the cost.

Rejected Public Art, Castle Rock, CO, 2010
© Erik Schubert

Untitled, 2008
Graphite on graph paper
© Erik Schubert

Vacation Expo, 2006
© Erik Schubert

CG: Have you found Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People to be helpful in your own success? What is success to you?

ES: In some ways yes, but on the other hand one has to keep those techniques fresh, I think, in order for them not to come off as disingenuous. So, in that case, no, I haven’t found it aligning with me. But also, some of his philosophies/techniques on communicating are just common sense, and we often can use them without thinking.

As for success, I try not to think about life in those terms since making this work, but I often do so anyway. The barometer of success has been ingrained in me since my youth. It can be dangerous to the psyche to judge one’s worth based on success, and yet, it seems to be a very prevalent and stereotypical way men are judged in our society.

CG: How To Win Friends And Influence People started pre-2008 with the expo work, right? How did the collapse in 2008 affect the direction of the work?

ES: Yes, it started near the end of 2005. The crash didn’t really affect the direction of the work per se. But it did affect my thinking about the work, reconfirming for me that what I had done and was doing had an important connection to our society and the pervasive greed that’s present.

CG: The book looks like a business convention from the early 1980s that was never cleaned up, leaving all the aspirations and hopes behind on drab carpeting. How critical is your work of conventions and selling?

ES: It is critical, and expos also look like these photos in the book. That’s how these places look when you slow down and notice where you are and what’s going on around you, looking between the products, the sale, or you could say in between the “magic.”

It’s also a complex and competitive thing we’ve built to base a living off of. So in some ways, I feel I’m taking an endearing look at these places, focusing on the leftover hopes and aspirations. These people have put their time, money and energy into this structure. In the scheme of things, it seems very fruitless and yet in our society it’s very prevalent.

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

CG: How To Win Friends And Influence People encompasses lots of disparate ways of making photographs with a variety of pictures like still lifes, interiors, landscapes, as well as a single portrait. In editing, do you ever worry that they won’t all come together? How was the process of working with Lavalette on the editing of the book?

ES: No, I wasn’t worried. I didn’t know of another way that would better uncover and communicate the complexities of the subject. I feel it allows for many different narratives or readings of the work.

Working with Shane was great. It felt good to have fresh eyes looking at the work. I had a basic edit that we started with, and I had these drawings that I had worked on in relation to the photographs that I sent to Shane to see what he thought. He liked them and came up with this great structure where the drawings become the chapter breaks so to speak. And then from there we just threw edits back n’ forth until we refined the edit down to what it is now.

CG: How does it feel to have your first artist book out in the world?

ES: Feels great, and a bit of a relief!

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

CG: What is one of your favorite photobooks? What was the last photobook you purchased?

ES: That’s a tough one because my favorites seem to be always changing at different stages of my work or periods of my life. Probably the book that sticks with me though, always being on that list of favorites, was the first photo book I picked up, William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest.

Through the sequencing of pictures, Eggleston’s certainly communicating his democratic way of seeing that we all know is tied to his way of working and thinking about his work. I’m interested in how all these disparate images of different geographies, from Memphis to Berlin, come together. They almost feel like a personal quest, maybe without purpose other than to make a journey. You feel his momentary gaze through the pictures and the edit. In some ways it feels very diaristic too.

The last photobook I picked up was Mark Steinmetz’s Greater Atlanta. I think that might have been about two years ago. But there are so many good ones coming out, I’m sure my dry spell won’t last much longer.

CG: What are you working on now? Is there anything we should look out for?

ES: I’ve been working on a few different projects. Photographing at local speedways, looking at the race cars themselves and the spectatorship of it all. Another project, currently titled Vivarium, explores such places as botanical conservatories and other types of man-made environments that are trying to replicate various flora ecosystems. I’m also constantly making pictures around the town that I live in in Colorado and hopefully that will turn into something fruitful.

I’m also in two group shows right now. One in Boston at Panopticon Gallery, called On First Contact, in which two of my portraits are on display. The other is at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Colorado Springs, Colorado, called Gods & Monsters. I have an installation of work from the How To Win Friends And Influence People series with my first ever and finally completed How To Win Friends And Influence People quilt.

A limited number of signed copies of How To Win Friends And Influence People are available to purchase online in the Lavalette Shop.

How to Win Friends and Influence People Quilt, 2008/2013
Textile of various fabrics, quilted by Stacy Lundberg
© Erik Schubert

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