INTERVIEW: Edward Schmunes, Photographer by Mary Catherine Ballou


Local artist Edward Shmunes incorporates photography and mixed media to create two-dimensional art.  Shmunes has been photographing for twenty-six years and counting, with pieces in shows, collections, and galleries across the country.  In the following interview, Shmunes kindly discusses his artistic background, inspirations, and process, revealing the importance of passion and instinct in his artwork.


Jasper: How did your interest in photography develop?

Shmunes: “I’ve been coloring since I was three, so I’ve always done that, I colored instead of [making] model airplanes.  I had limited interest in most things like Erector sets, similar to Legos, the Legos of my years – I really didn’t like that stuff.  I always wanted to color, color, color.  I never had an expensive camera until I became a dermatologist.  My partner and I decided to buy one for our practice…a 35 mm camera for the first time in my life.


I went to Charleston in the 70s and took some pictures.  I was a good friend with the Chair of the Department of Photography at USC, he saw them and said they were good and that I ought to do something with that.  I put something in the State Fair and won top prize in the amateur section, then I started putting stuff in galleries because it seemed to work.  At that time they had some art fairs downtown [in Columbia] before Vista Lights [existed] – things in the spring like a May festival. I remember I had a booth set up on the museum grounds, and the director came and bought a piece for the museum – that made me feel really good. I started entering shows…I’ve entered hundreds of national art shows [and] I got these affirmations that the stuff was good.”


Jasper: Have your artistic interests always been confined to photography, or have you explored other mediums?

Shmunes: “I’ve never had any training, just a natural eye for what’s good and what’s bad.  I painted a little bit in medical school…[but] photography is instantaneously satisfying.  I do better with a jumpstart, so even if I may take a picture and run with it and change it, that jumpstart is helpful for me, as opposed to a blank canvas.  [I] use photography as a quick springboard to start with an image…because my work is described as somewhat surreal, it does involve manipulation.  Early on [in the pre-digital age], I used to add dyes to glossy photographs (when glossy photos are printed they are in a water system…these are water soluble dyes, you can put them on a shiny surface and [they] dissolve into the surface so it doesn’t leave a mark but you can add colors).  Part of my approach to art in general is to have something that is engaging and fresh, hooks the viewer…[it] might not be on a conscious level at first.”


Jasper: What role does digital photography now play in your artistic process?

Shmunes: “I have a friend named Dixie Allen, [she] used to teach computer graphics at USC, layout the Riverbanks Zoo Magazine, [and currently] makes Clipart on a national level.  She helped me learn Photoshop, for which I’m immensely grateful.  She gave me the basics…I’m no Photoshop whiz, but I have enough knowledge.  It’s just another paintbrush…as with all tools you can manipulate things differently.  I’m careful not to have something look [too manipulated]…if it screams manipulation before you can even see it, that’s a blockade to the viewer’s enjoyment.  You have to know what works.


I go on lots of trips, I look at every picture [I take] in Photoshop because it can be blurry as can be, and I might say, ‘Wow look at this blur!’  Or I wasn’t even aware that [something] wasn’t even over there...[so I] crop it and store it to be used for another photograph – it’s very time consuming.”


Jasper: Where does your artistic inspiration come from?

Shmunes: “It comes from the things that shout ‘take me!’  I like to be in a fresh, new area because your mind is open to new [things]…there are so many things that shout ‘take me!’ and so I listen to it and take it, because to me, they’re yelling! Sometimes you get it. [Other times] you’ll see the picture and wonder why it said ‘take me!’ and sometimes you’ll see in the middle is where something was screaming…you usually can find it when you look at the picture. It’s pretty true, follow your instincts…I do get rid of a lot of stuff, there’s so much that’s distracting in a picture, whether it’s a line leading you out or a chandelier that looks like it’s growing out of a person’s head.”


Jasper: Are there any parallels between your artistic and professional career?

Shmunes: “Dermatology is visual.  I went into something that I could see – you recognize clinical presentations by the nuances of their color, also feel – but visuals are hugely important.  That’s why they have Teledermatology - that whole field of having rural access to specialists via television cameras is very important for rural [practices].”


Jasper: If you could give some advice to aspiring photographers, what would it be?

Shmunes: “My advice would be to not let people tell you what to do, because they’re going to tell you the conventional things to do.  When work stands out, it’s usually not conventional, so if you want to be a conventional artist, go take a lot of courses.  I’ve never had any courses, I resist it…


I love looking at other people’s stuff, taking it in, I get very vitalized and enervated by looking at other people’s work and listening to them – [but] that’s different from going to a photography course.  I’m not a nature photographer.  If I was, then I’d see why I’d want to take courses from a master nature photographer.  Or if you’re doing darkroom work then you need to learn technique like that…I’m not doing stuff like that.


Just when you look at other people’s works and go to museums and shows, that is a lesson, or you hear somebody talk about their work - those are what I love doing, as opposed to taking a workshop.  Now, I might benefit from a technical, Photoshop workshop…


Photography has been a stepchild of art for a long time.  Particularly in the South…photography is new on the scene.  A lot of big cities have art shows and they are multimedia [as opposed to just photography shows]. In terms of advice to people, the materials you use really do matter.  Starting out, you are limited in your budget…it can really detract from a piece to have a [cheap] frame.  If you really love your piece, then use good materials to show off your piece.”

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Shmunes is fortunate to have exhibits at galleries such as City Art in Columbia.  He states, “I’m very proud of City Art – the caliber of the people, they have not turned it into a gift shop.  They have the building space to rent out and the art supply store downstairs.  It’s a very hard business, selling art…but they’re going to keep it mainly a gallery, they have high standards.  And the gallery I’m in in Charleston is an interior design place (Mitchell Hill Interiors) that’s very high-end.”


Shmunes is currently working on photos he took in Australia of various subjects, ranging from animals to Aborigines.  However, Shmunes explains: “I’m not a nature photographer, I don’t normally photograph animals…[also] I love to write and have tangential commentary that hopefully compliments the piece, [and] adds to the humor or mystery.  I gravitate basically to things that are surreal…they are going to be edgy and sometimes quirky.  That’s normally what I like because it’s fresh and different, so I try to put that into a landscape if I can do something that makes it special.”


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