No photographer working today takes the notion that humans are animals as literally as Robin Schwartz. A photographer based in New Jersey, Schwartz aims to connect with animals both spiritually and emotionally. She explores “interspecies relationships” and the bonds between humans and animals. This can mean the bond between companion dog and owner, or between zoo animal and care taker.
Schwartz is now working on a photo book with her daughter and collaborator, Amelia, who has been a subject of Schwartz's photographs since she was a toddler. The book Amelia & the Animals shows portraits of Amelia with elephants, llamas, ponies, tigers, kangaroos, primates, and other creatures. The mother-daughter duo are also working on a children’s book about Amelia and animals.
What was your career like in photography? I imagine it's hard to be a working photographer with a baby — but your mother-daughter bond works for you in these photos. How did that develop into the project that became the book?
I am first and foremost a fine art photographer. I only began working as an editorial photographer after presenting the Amelia and the Animals series at a 2012 National Geographic seminar. When I had my daughter Amelia, I just could not leave her to go away and photograph like my male photographer friends did.
When Amelia was 3 years old, I took her with me on a shoot, my husband too. I was to photograph a 2-year-old chimp. Amelia and Ricky the chimp had a lovefest, falling off a chair, hugging. It led me to the whole series of photographing her with animals. My graduate teacher saw the early photos and told me to continue photographing Amelia with animals. Months later, I photographed Amelia with my first Chinese crested rescue dog, Nora, in our bathroom. The photos reminded me of a Velázquez painting.
For me, and I hope for Amelia, the photographs are about the experience first. It gives me an incredible amount of pleasure to watch my daughter navigate being with animals in such a natural way. Amelia always has an ease, a calmness, and a natural ability to relate to a variety of animals. The animal caretakers would comment on these qualities as well.
I found my purpose combining what I loved to photograph and still do: Amelia and animals and the experiences we have been privileged to have.
To say you are an animal lover seems like an understatement. How did you fall in love with animals? And how did you fall in love with photographing them?
I think I was born feeling an intense nonverbal attachment and longing to be with or watch animals. I’m an only child, and so growing up I was alone a lot. I watched stray cats in my neighborhood, and then eventually I had outside cats, but they continually got run over or disappeared. Then, when I was 10 years old, my father allowed me to have an inside cat when my mother went to work.
When I was home alone, I set him up and photographed him. He always accompanied me when I showered (that movie Psycho still has an effect). He comforted me. It was an intense household, and he hid with me in the house. That cat became my brother, my protector. When my father raged at me, my cat screamed at my father. I got married at the cat’s grave in my husband’s family’s backyard.
After my father died when I was 19, I was able to switch my major from biology to art. My graduate teacher at Pratt, Arthur Freed, told me to photograph what I cared about. I photographed stray animals in Brooklyn and New Jersey because I felt like a stray at that time. Some of these photos are in my second book, Dog Watching.
It's not just that you’re fascinated by animals; it's their relationship with people. How do you capture that in a photograph?
I see animals as equals, with a consciousness, their own desires, and relationships — so that is how I photograph them. I also scope out people who interact with their animals in what is sometimes judged as an eccentric way but what I view as similar to my way — the equal aspect. I feel that no matter how different they are from me, we are part of the same tribe in our hearts. This connection has allowed access to primate owners, to horses in Baltimore. Last weekend, I approached a guy on a bike on the Lower East Side in Manhattan with a Bedlington terrier in a backpack. After I approached him, he shared his Instagram. I sent him photographs of Amelia as an infant and her whippet sister. I will be photographing his beloved dog, whom he treats as a daughter, later this month.
I've heard you refer to animals as your therapy. Could you elaborate on that?
This is uncomfortable to write, to be upfront about it. I had cancer, and my animals kept me alive. Especially in the last two years, when I’ve been through cancer treatments. Indie, my Chinese crested dog, went to every appointment — 20 chemos and 17 infusions. She was there up until COVID restrictions didn’t allow her in.
I have spent a lot of the past two years in bed with my animals. My husband, who is also an artist, works in his studio a lot, as is our way. My cat Hannah became such a support, lying with me, following me everywhere. She died just after the Wired magazine assignment, “Shuttered at Home,” was published. That assignment got me out of bed those days, which was a very good thing.
Amelia is graduating from college virtually June 4; this semester, she has been away at school. She worked several jobs from home. Amelia took care of us and cooked a lot. I gained back all the weight I lost during radiation. We are a close pack, my husband, Robert Forman, Amelia, the animals, and me. Amelia is organized and responsible. The cancer treatments made me disabled and needy, so she had to deal with that.
You teach photography now. How do you encourage students to find their voice visually?
I have taught photography since 1985 — lots of adjunct work — but I’m now finally a full professor. I work as a photography professor for a living and health insurance at William Paterson University of New Jersey. I tell my students what my photography teacher at Pratt told me: Photograph what you care about. Don’t be ashamed, even if someone tells you not to. I tell my students to consider photographing their own lives. They are unique; what is personal is universal. This year, because of teaching via Zoom, I did not teach printing; instead, the final project was a keynote or PowerPoint. I have never been more proud to see and hear these student presentations.
Do you have a favorite image or experience?
I guess it is the Tower photograph of Amelia with Jacob, our gentle, loving pink sphynx cat. In the book, there is a photo taken in our bedroom just four days before Jacob died. He was so sick, yet he purred, lying there with Amelia. That is the trouble for me with all the photos. So many of the animals are no longer alive.