A Photographer’s Adventures in the Great Southwest
AUSTIN SCHOFIELD CAPTURES THE RANGY LANDSCAPES OF A TREASURED AMERICAN REGION
The desert. It gets us every time. There are so many stunning places to see in America, and yet the vast expanses, vivid earth and wild horizons of the Southwest stand out. Traveling the Southwest is always a mind-expanding, vision-clearing experience. When we saw the photography of Austin Schofield, we thought: That’s it. This guy gets it. We caught up with the Massachusetts-raised ex-skateboarder to learn how the lower-left corner of the map remade his aesthetic outlook.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN PHOTOGRAPHY AND WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START?
Skateboarding was really my first creative passion, and also what introduced me to cameras. Throughout my teenage years, my friends and I would skate around town, bum rides to new skateparks and try new tricks. I was given two different cameras in my teen years, and I used those to make videos of my crew when we skated.
When injuries slowed down my skating at 19 or 20, I found myself searching for a new creative outlet. It was around this time that I saw an Instagram post showing the milky way, and in the caption, it was mentioned that the photo was taken with the Canon Rebel T3. I was baffled, as this was the little DSLR I owned myself. I had no idea a simple set up like that could capture something so incredible. And so, I tried to do it too. I went to a dark beach area near my hometown and took my first photos of the night sky… and they were awful. But I was absolutely hooked.
CAN YOU SHARE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE THAT SOLIDIFIED YOUR PASSION FOR CAPTURING CONTENT ACROSS THE SOUTHWEST?
I think it was the first time I drove from Salt Lake to LA. To do this drive, I was almost exclusively driving through desert landscapes in the Southwest, but what struck me during this trip was how much the views changed over the course of the trip. The type of desert landscape would change–color, elevation, texture, even the plants–it all continued to morph as I put in more miles. It was this trip that really imprinted in me how much this region has to offer, and how accessible the variety of landscapes are.
HOW DID YOU APPROACH CAPTURING THE ESSENCE OF PLACE THROUGH YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY?
To me, the essence of a place is subjective, and it comes from perspective. At this point, I try to photograph places the way I actually see them. Being a person who isn’t native to the Southwest, I do feel a bit like an outsider being there in some sense, but I actually embrace this and try to apply it to the places I shoot photos in. This results in me often sharing photos that resemble what I think were my first impressions of a place, and not necessarily the ones that capture the most epic conditions or amazing moments that I actually witnessed there.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE A SPECIAL MOMENT FROM THIS SERIES?
There were a lot–but a strong favorite would have to be the day I spent in Capitol Reef National Park. At the time, my buddy Michael was able to drive us out on some of the longer dirt roads in Cathedral Valley to check out some of the rock formations. I met Michael in college, and he was one of the first friends I made through photography back in Massachusetts. He’s since relocated out West, which is why he was able to meet up with me on a road trip. Michael is one of the only people I know from my area back home who made the leap to explore the west, and since we both are from that same area, we carry a similar perspective to these amazing landscapes. Very full circle moment for me.
OF THE MANY DIVERSE LANDSCAPES ACROSS THE SOUTHWESTERN UNITED STATES, WHICH IS YOUR FAVORITE AND WHY?
I’d say my favorite would be desert canyons, maybe because they are so alien to me. What I love about places like Canyonlands, for example, is just how quickly it puts you into perspective. When you’re standing on the edge of a plateau and overlooking miles of rock, it's pretty grounding. There’s nothing in Massachusetts that can make you feel that small.
CAN YOU SHARE WHY LIVING HERE WAS SO SPECIAL TO YOU?
In a superficial sense, it was the shock of new landscapes that made exploring the Southwest so special. Being from the South Shore of Mass, we just do not have the things that you can find out in the Southwest. High deserts, red rock, canyons, building-size rock formations, alpine heights… it's actually shocking.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL WHEN LOOKING BACK ON THESE PHOTOS?
These photos feel like memorabilia for me–which has become the main goal I’ve applied to my work. Instead of just focusing on creating the cleanest image at a spot, I instead just want to capture the way it felt to experience it myself. This body of work feels a lot like a memory book to me.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES THAT YOU REMEMBER ABOUT SHOOTING THIS WORK?
The main challenge I faced is just getting the conditions right. I quickly learned throughout my first few months in Utah that I strongly preferred photographing these landscapes in mid-day lighting. I loved the colors I could achieve with blue skies and high sunlight. My preference often led to me marking spots down and revisiting them multiple times, and this is where living here really mattered. On a trip to a place I know I’m only going to be for a week, I often settle for conditions that aren’t my favorite, but because I was regularly traveling throughout the Southwest, I could revisit a lot of spots more than once until getting exactly what I wanted.
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION AND SOURCE OF CREATIVITY?
More broadly, I don’t know if I “got my creativity” from a source per say - I feel like I’ve always had an innate need to make stuff. It's like an itch I need to scratch, and I feel myself losing it when I don’t. Broadly, I attribute a lot of inspiration to some of the greats. To me, those are people like Todd Hido, Gregory Girard, Hilla Becker, and Joel Meyerowitz, to name a few. I’ve also taken tons of inspiration from painters - the colors of Seurat or Morisot, the compositions of Edward Hopper, for example. Directly, most of my inspiration is coming from contemporary photographers I’ve been exposed to via the internet. A couple notable ones include David Lowcher (@davidlowcher), Christopher Soukup (@christopher_soukup), Jakob LR (@portra_papi), and some others.