They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. These colloquialisms may be commonly used, but are rarely put to the test. Indeed, the observant eye can not only see beauty in the unexpected, but capture and communicate that beauty to a wider audience with a universality that transforms the underappreciated into the sublime.
Prolific fine art photographer Todd Shaak has spent his career doing just that. He has a unique ability to find ways to view the commonplace as distinctive and vibrant. His images range from well known landmarks and public places to hidden and dilapidated treasures off the beaten path. With everything he photographs, he brings a dedicated eye, a new perspective and dynamic passion that permits him to see the world in a new way—and to share his vision with everyone.
Though he discovered his true passion later in life, Shaak has created an enormous body of work. His portfolio consists of thousands of images that have hung in galleries, won art competitions and been purchased by huge corporations, solidly launching his photographic career as he transitioned from the corporate world to that of the full-time artist.
Though he only started pursuing his fine art career seven years ago, Shaak has always loved photography. He has studied the masters and sought out arenas to see and be around photography. His first venture into exhibiting came when he approached an old mentor of his, well known wedding and portrait photographer John Locus. Shaak asked Locus to review some of his images for feedback. “When he saw my photographs, he said, ‘You know what? You’ve got some really good stuff here, but I would do a little bit different here…’ and he would critique my photographs and tell me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong,” Shaak explains. “At that point, I started studying the rules of photography, and through his excitement of my photography, it induced me to do a little research on what I was doing as a photographer.”
For Shaak, “a little research” meant learning everything that he could about photography. He advanced his technical skills quickly, moved from the point and shoot that he had started with to his first fully manual DSLR, and began to learn everything that he could about controlling the outcome of his images. He started to take RAW images and force himself to use only manual settings to be in charge of every aspect of his work. “By shooting manual, it taught me how to control my own depth of field when I’m taking a photograph,” he explains. “When I’m taking a photograph of an object, I’m controlling the depth of field and moving the person’s eye into the picture with what I want them to see.”
By creating images in which he directed the viewer’s attention, Shaak could share his natural talent for seeing the unusual. He started bringing images to the art world that spoke to his viewers, even though in many cases an average citizen would overlook the objects of his focus. “Coming up with the views that not everyone else sees was a staple to my photography early on,” says Shaak, and it is exactly that personal style which set him apart from other local fine art photographers.
His up-and-coming status was solidified when a representative of Fox Sports Midwest (FS Midwest) saw one of his images in a gallery and decided that Shaak was the photographer they needed to furnish the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis with images for their press box. Shaak had always been taking pictures of the old stadium and had captured the details that spoke to the heart of the location rather than merely its grandiose presence. It was exactly the type of imagery that FS Midwest wanted to show the transition from the old to the new, so Shaak was commissioned to provide them with his art. “I was really puzzled why they asked me to do that. I mean, heck, they’re Fox Sports in Busch Stadium with world-class photographers at their disposal—why did they ask me?”
Despite his humility, Shaak soon found that his images were getting attention from the fine art world and casual viewers alike. His views of St. Louis and the surrounding areas were communicating to a vast audience, and in no time he was supporting himself solely through selling his photographs at galleries, art shows and to high-end clients. The confidence that he received from the big sale to FS Midwest allowed him to unabashedly continue with his style.
When traveling around and area searching for images Shaak will stop for anything that catches his eye. If something speaks to him, Shaak has found, it also tends to speak to a larger audience.
He has been driven to find unusual perspectives on the familiar and more recently has started photographing the intricacies of the dilapidated. In his series Beautifully Decayed, Shaak has found thousands of subjects, from antique automobiles to abandoned buildings, falling apart in the most elegant and entrancing ways. When he speaks about his individual images, he is clearly still enamored with the potency of the subjects that he first saw through the lens.
With one image in particular that he calls “The Aspen Door,” Shaak was intrigued not only by the elaborately crumbling surface of the door and the beauty of the old doorknob, but also the clear story present in the details. “If you look at the juxtaposition and you see the peeling paint and the old doorknob with two skeleton keys, and then it has a newly installed Yale lock with it. Why?” he questions thoughtfully. “With the color, you can see the browns lightly and you need to see that brown. You need to see the color in the doorknob.”
Though much of Shaak’s work is done in color—rich combinations of lush natural tones combining with fading man-made relics—he also works in black and white for images in a different sentimental spectrum. “The black and white, I feel, gives you a different emotion versus color. It gives you an aura. It makes you think a little more.” That thought process leads to different reactions from critics and viewers alike, often evoking a strong reaction from individuals seeing his work for the first time. “I consistently get people who look at my photographs and start crying because it brought back so many memories. If a photograph could actually do that, I think that’s where you succeed as a photographer.” His work of everyday subjects is so affecting, in fact, that he won an award for Most Evocative Work at the 2009 Schlafly Art Outside art show.
Shaak dedicates his time to seeking out the next vision and might spend the whole day, from dawn to dusk, out on the road looking for that new location or elusive detail that others walk right past without a second glance. And when he finds the details, he takes the time to capture them precisely, as he wishes them to be seen, and minimizing his postproduction work. “I get people all the time that say ‘Oh, I could do that in Photoshop,’—well, of course you can! But do it in the camera right. I average probably no more than three to five minutes on postproduction in my work. Rarely do I have to do much because I try not to take the photograph with the telephone tower in there only to remove it later.”
When seen in person, his images have an effect all their own, taking the obscure elements of his world and creating larger than life images of exquisitely rendered crisp detail. “I don’t print anything smaller than a 13 x 19. I do 13 x 19 and bigger, I don’t do 8 x 10s or anything like that because my style is very detail oriented,” he explains. “When you look at my photographs, even though the subject matter is clearly defined, you can look in and still find more things to look at. And you can still see the details.”
Shaak’s work draws viewers in and reminds them of some universal truth, impossibly wrapped up in flaking paint or crumbling artifice. Similarly, Shaak’s open personality invites other photographers to ask his advice and brave his critiques, much as his mentor did. “I always tell them ‘Keep your passion.’ If you have a passion for photography, keep that and develop that passion,” he says. “I think that’s a staple to who I am—being able to help people and guide them.” Indeed, keeping his passion has proven to be a valuable path for Shaak. He continues to grow and evolve as a fine art photographer and keeps faith that what intrigues him about the world, though overlooked by many, speak volumes when seen through his eyes.
To see more of Todd Shaak’s work visit his Web sites: www.shaakphotography.com, www.beautifullydecayed.com and www.SaintLouisLandmarks.com
Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography degree from Brooks Institute in 2009. She continues to create fine art images, teach photography, and write regular contributions to publications such as Digital Photo Pro, Rangefinder and Photographers Forum. Her photographic work can be viewed at www.amandaquintenz.com.