“We sit up and take notice.” Jason Landry, with a quick snapshot of Stephen Sheffield, photographer.
“Dada, let’s go play Island of the Titans.”
“One minute Finn. Come over here and help me for a second.”
Finn scurried over to his father who had set up his 4×5 Graflex on a tripod equipped with a Polaroid back on the stern of an old rowboat named Stuart Little. We took Stuart Little out for a cruise on our first night visiting photographer Stephen Sheffield and his family at their summer home on Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine. Let’s just say that we began taking on water before we even had a chance to set out. Stephen insisted that the old boards hadn’t had time to expand. Yeah, that must be it.
Stephen has been coming to this lake since he was a small boy. His family purchased approximately 23 acres of land many years prior, and over time, sold off a few lots and kept just a pie-shaped piece for themselves. Stephen’s father, an architect, developed the land, which includes a main house, a guesthouse and a boathouse. Kayaking, wind surfing, swimming, reading and photography has been a staple of many a trips.
On this day, Shef was positioning each of his boys inside the beached Stuart Little and photographing them from the back. First it was his oldest: Milo, then Finn, then Stephen jumped in for the final shot while Finn, waiting patiently in his little yellow life vest triggered the shutter release.
I was reminded of something about Stephen while we were visiting another well-known photographer William Wegman at his summer home in Rangeley, Maine, only a few minutes from The Sheffield’s place. Bill, as his friends call him, was looking through Stephen’s website and said, “It’s nice when you see someone working traditionally”, meaning, not digitally…”We sit up and take notice.”
When photographers like something, they tend to buy lots of it, especially when they learn that their special “something” may be discontinued. Sheffield’s favorite something has been Polaroid Type 55 film. Since Polaroid no longer produces it, he’s been hoarding it, making sure to keep his expired supply of film at the correct temperature so that the sheets don’t dry up. The sheet film, on the other hand, is nicely tucked away in the fridge with the Smart Balance, eggs and his wife’s stash of Rosé.
Shooting with film is much different than shooting digitally. It makes you slow down your process and you don’t get to see the end result until you develop the negatives. It’s kind of like being a father. As a father of two young boys, over time, they tend to ask a lot of questions. Stephen answers them slowly and articulately so that his boys learn something new and understand. His only hope is that his two boys grow up, become smarter than he is, develop a love of surfing and Frank Sinatra tunes and take care of him and his wife.
Stephen works slowly, and most of his iconic images were shot during the summer months when he is at the lake house with his family, five hours away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Boston. There are very little distractions at Pine Cone Cove on the banks of Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine. Since there is no cell service and the Internet reception is spotty at best, you have ample time to make work without interruptions. There may be an occasional splinter or stubbed toe to deal with, however those interruptions are mere hiccups for any father.
To get a sense of who Stephen is, all you have to do is look at his imagery and his family and you’ll see what’s most important. In one of his long-term photography projects, Stephen has made a career out of creating dynamic self-portraits, casting himself as the everyday man. They are photographs with a hint of performance. Some may see it as an ode to the businessman, dressed for success in a suit, tie and fedora––however, Stephen never went that route. For many who know him, “family man” would be the most accurate description.
At first glance, some might mistake the man in the photographs as Don Draper, the character from the television show MadMen. But Sheffield’s character has been around for over twenty years, long before the show hit the airwaves. His work plays out like conceptually based stories, and depict both everyday and unusual events. Each image is framed by his unique and dark sense of humor, occasionally casting himself as the protagonist.
The suit and tie baffles some: artists don’t usually don what I would refer to as the “business world uniform”––I stopped wearing them when I left corporate America more than 10 years ago. Artists in particular aren’t that stuffy, and many probably don’t want to feel restrained, rather, wear what’s comfortable and natural. Most days, I see Stephen in a t-shirt and jeans with some fun-looking belt buckle that his wife picked up for him on Etsy. Biking his kids to and from school and educating students at a photography school in Boston is what I see him doing most––I think the suit and tie costume is just that––an alter ego…yeah, but only for the photographs.
How long do you think it takes for an artist to find out and learn what is truly important in life? As he educates his young sons, he probably looks back to what his father taught him as a guide. I learned this weekend that Stephen and his dad were both fraternity brothers while attending Cornell University–– like father, like son––obviously not at the same time. I observe Stephen as he listens attentively as his father explains something to him, the exact same way his kids listen when Stephen talks. Although Stephen might be concerned with mans search for self as a reason for creating such photography projects and putting on the suit and tie and heading out into the world each day, I have a sense Stephen knew where he was heading almost from the very beginning.
He buckled his two kids into their car seats and we started off down the road to grab a bite to eat. He turned on a Beastie Boys CD, Finn ate some goldfish snacks, Milo was reading a book. A few minutes in, Milo blurted out a random question,
“Dad, if you were to die, what would you want to be reincarnated in to?”
“Oh, I don’t know Milo, maybe a bird, so I could fly. Wouldn’t that be cool?“
For more work by Stephen Sheffield visit panopticongallery.com
Photos by Stephen Sheffield. Used by permission.