Dave Schubert looks at things we don’t see. A self-taught artist, he uses the camera to take in the highs and the lows of daily life, recording the strange and the mundane with a passion that bespeaks his love for the photograph. He investigates scenarios unfolding along his path, capturing the people, the places, and the experiences that he encounters with the comfort of a natural.
Attracted to the underbelly, Schubert transforms the mundane into the strange, and then back again. He makes us look, really consider, a series of moments in time that are as disjointed as they are rhythmical. His latest exhibition, “Black Dream” at 886 Geary Gallery, San Francisco, was a deeply layered message of personal expression that silently conveyed a great deal of meaning to the artist. Schubert’s “Black Dream” is rugged and raw, but it is not without respite. It is a testament to a man committed to his work.
Of his early years, Schubert recalls, “My father was in the military, and every three years we would move to a different place. Change is traumatic as a child/ My dad gave me a camera as a took to cope with change. He gave me his Polaroid camera as a present and told me to take photographs of what I wanted to remember.
“When I was a kid, I loved Garfield, so I ran upstairs and organized the stuffed animals on my bed, and blew a pack of film on them. Then I ran downstairs and told my dad I was out of film. He asked, ‘What did you use it on?’ and I told him. He said, ‘I meant you should take photographs of your friends at school.’ I was six years old. I still have the photos.
“We moved to Spain when I was ten years old. Those were good years. You walk and check things out and you change a lot in that period. My mother was an English mod, so we used to go to England to visit. Punk was just coming out, and my mother warned me, ‘They will bloody thrash you if you try to take their picture,’ so I took photographs from the bus. It was a two-story bus, so there was extra protection!
“After Spain, we moved to Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. I got into the skateboard scene. I didn’t go to school much. I’d skip school and go to New York to skate at the banks right by City Hall. I was shooting photographs and videos for skateboard magazines. The first was Slap. The first picture I ever published was in the first ad for Element Skateboards. They’re pretty big now.
“At that time, I didn’t know about other photographers. I met Larry Clark at the banks. The editor at Slap told me, ‘He’s famous. Go talk to him.’ I secretly filmed it. I didn’t know anything about him. Larry was doing research for ‘Kids’ at that time.
“I started to learn about other photographers, and I was getting published, but I wasn’t that good. Skateboarding was a California thing, and I was someone on the East Coast who didn’t charge very much. It was like, ‘He’s the only one. He has a camera. He’ll use it.’
“I trapped myself and I caught myself. The more I got published and got t travel, the more I noticed I was only taking my camera on jobs. I started to lose my natural instincts, and why I got into photography in the same place. I had to get out of that rut, so I stopped that. I stopped trying.
“I went back to just being curious about the world around me, about the people and the places. It helps me to understand the world a lot better. I was just looking at anything, Anything can be amazing when you look at it. Like the photograph of the man sleeping inside a plastic bag. I took it after 2:00 a.m., when the bars close. It was a really windy night and I heard something that sounded like sails flapping. It was the harsh sound of plastic slapping in the wind, I had to check it out.
“I never photograph anything more than once or twice, but I kept shooting. The bag kept changing. The wind kept blowing it. I spent the whole roll shooting it. I never do that. The people outside the bar were like, ‘Look at that guy over there!’ I was laying down in the street just to get the photograph. When I saw the contact sheet, the one I liked was the third picture on the roll.
“When I began, I was just making photographs, trying to figure things out. I was taking portraits on the street. I was younger and I was braver. The world was different in the early ‘90s. Today, the power of the photograph frightens people. To make a street portrait, you have to carry yourself differently. Back then, it was more casual.
“For me, taking street photographs is an excuse to be out. I like watching people on the street. I like to take sequences of people. There was one sequence where I photographed these kids shoplifting while I was out getting graffiti supplies. I went up to them afterwards. I had to talk to them. They were scared until I told them, ‘No, I was doing the same thing.’
“I asked them if I could go with them and take photographs. They agreed. I have one photograph with one of the kids running out of the store with a smile on his face and his hands full of the same shirt. Their names were David and Miguel. I asked them why they were stealing the same shirt, and they told me it was so that they could all wear the same shirt on the first day of school. They were all in the same gang.”
“I moved out to San Francisco to go to school. I got a scholarship and quit skateboarding to learn about art, but I ended up smoking blunts on the roof with the painters instead. I think of school as the place where you go to learn about what you need to do, and then you go out into the world and do it.
“I used the library and the darkroom, and that’s all I needed. I did it for seven years, long after I lost my scholarship. I was no longer enrolled in school, but they didn’t check my ID. I always made sure my library books were returned before the rent was due, because if they wanted to send me a fee, they’d realize I wasn’t in the computer at all! Books are the best teacher of all.”