Photographer Chris Schoonover’s Retro Sensibilities

April 17, 2017

By Libby Peterson

All Photos © Chris Schoonover

Schoonover placed model Anastasiia Chorna in a spot of golden rays, making her apparel pop and her swinging hair shine. He contrasted the warm hues with the cool Brooklyn building.

Why You Should Know Him

Brands like W, New Balance, NYLON and GAP love Chris Schoonover’s on-trend approach to reinvigorating 1960s and ‘70s aesthetics in his photography, and his burgeoning indie filmmaking career is following suit. | @cschoonover

Album cover for musician Dave Monks.

Every morning, Chris Schoonover pulls on a pair of black pants and a navy blue or black shirt, or a light-blue button-up. He calls it his uniform. It’s comfortably predictable and perfectly monotonous—but his work is its antithesis. His photos are imbibed in William Eggleston color; bubble-gum pinks, golden yellows, tawny browns and powdery blues embolden his offbeat frames. In a way, the New York-based photographer lives in two different worlds: the kind he lives minimally, and the one inspired by the past that he captures for clients like Fast Company, Refinery29 and J.Crew; the same could be said for the films he’s directed. And that polarity suits him just fine.

Shot for VSCO with two Profoto strobes, one with a white umbrella and the other pointed into the ceiling to fill the shadows.


“I keep up with a lot of style, I’m very interested in it, but for myself, I’m really particular in that I don’t want to go shopping every five minutes,” the New Jersey native quips. Walk into the New York Topshop in SoHo, though, and you might find him at the register buying dresses, or pulling out the receipt he kept explicitly for their return. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought and returned women’s clothing,” says Schoonover, who also can’t tell you why he gravitates toward 1960s and ‘70s aesthetics to begin with. “It was just such a bizarre time,” when fashion was loud and cars were candy-colored. “Now cars are beige, I don’t know what the heck happened. It just seems like style died in the early 2000s.”

Maybe it’s his graphic design background, but Schoonover’s tastes are resolute. Flipping through Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s book Hustlers, taking notes from Mad Men and listening to the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds on repeat was his M.O. in the beginning. Now he has his go-to pieces: A wall with a funky pattern? He’s marking down the location. “Vertical blinds? I love vertical blinds,” he says, “I don’t know why.” This editorial photographer has honed a look that feels very “now,” and it’s kept him busy. “I like working with people who like my stuff, it makes everything a whole lot easier,” says Schoonover, who hopped a plane a few days later to shoot a music video for the indie band From Indian Lakes. They came to him. As a dutiful Instagrammer, that’s how he’s been able to do business.

But life hasn’t always been this smooth. Growing up, photography was nowhere on Schoonover’s radar. He fudged his way into art school, and the decision to go full-time as a photographer four years ago was not exactly one he made for himself.

A still from Dave Monks’ “The Rules” music video.


Growing up in southern New Jersey, a teenage Schoonover played music and made videos with his brother Jonathan, a photographer. He knew he wanted to do something creative, but not photography. At Rowan University, he took a black-and-white photography course on a whim­—aware of his love for color now, his disinterest retrospectively makes sense.

After a stint in advertising, he chose graphic design, but he had to get into Rowan’s art school first. “I sort of faked my way,” Schoonover says. Without a portfolio to show, he hurriedly drew ten objects the night before his interview. “The recruiter was like, ‘Man, these are rough. If you really want to get into this school you can… It’s going to be really tough for you,’” Schoonover recalls with a laugh.

He came out the other side with two feet on the ground and landed an interactive design job at Philadelphia Magazine where he worked for a year before moving to a small design agency in Princeton, New Jersey. He also got married and divorced within a year and a half. “I was looking for anything to keep my mind off of things,” Schoonover says, so he took snapshots with his phone and posted them to a very nascent Instagram and VSCO grid.

He challenged himself to get better and better, and by trial and error he came to realize he was more interested in shooting people. He remembers trying street portraits around New York. “I’d be thinking, Well, these people are interesting-looking, but I’d really like them to be wearing this other thing and standing in this other place.” Pursuing test shoots with models and other personal work, Schoonover continually refined his direction based on what he liked and what he didn’t like.

Hallie Hutchinson for “Run 21 Superstars.” He likes subjects centered.


With a solid social media presence, a pop of extra exposure came from an interview with the people at VSCO in 2013. “I was one of their first users, I used VSCO heavily,” says Schoonover, who was hired to shoot a holiday collaboration between VSCO and GAP. More gigs followed, and he began taking regular weekend trips to New York for editorial and test shoots. “I was just doing what I wanted,” he says, “and I think the divorce mixed with this new career as a photographer made me lazy at work.”

One day, his boss sat him down. “You know, years ago my boss told me I needed to go off on my own,” he told Schoonover, “and I want to do that for you.” Terrified, he walked out gulping down the early welcome of his full-time photography career.

Refinery29 lingerie shoot.

One day, a big gig dropped in his lap by an unexpected source. “Somebody reached out to me at some point and said, ‘Hey, I love your work, I’d really like to assist you at some point,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be awesome!’” Schoonover recalls. “And then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I work for Google. Could you do this job for us?’” Call it luck, or Schoonover’s good nature and friendly attitude—as he says, “The important thing is just to be nice to people. You never know who they are.”

“Run 21 Superstars,” an editorial Schoonover shot with Hallie Hutchinson. “The clouds added an ominous feeling,” he says, and “getting an exaggerated angle was an easy way to add interest.”


Schoonover hasn’t gotten around to as much personal work lately—he shoots a couple big jobs a month and attempts to keep up with the weekly requests for interviews and the countless coffee- and-questions appeals from emerging photographers—but another medium that’s been perking him up is filmmaking.

In fact, Schoonover would classify the From Indian Lakes video as more of a passion project. He met the group last summer when they went on tour with a band he had been photographing for a few days called Tokyo Police Club. “I’m friends with Dave Monks [Tokyo Police Club’s frontman], who I randomly met at a bar,” Schoonover says. “Dave was coming out with a solo record at the time.” He passed Monks his Instagram account; the following week, they were shooting photos for his solo record, All Signs Point to Yes (2016).

Loving the resulting photos, Monks tapped Schoonover for music videos. At this point he’d never made one before, but he gave it a try anyway. A quick one-off video for Monks’ single “Gasoline” was filmed in a day, and a video for “The Rules” took another few days. Watching the latter is sort of like experiencing what Schoonover’s photos would look like in motion.

“For video, my brain doesn’t really work in that way,” he says. “I knew where I wanted Dave to stand for a seven-second clip, but I didn’t know what to do with all the extra time.” Rather than forcing something that didn’t come naturally to him, Schoonover realized he could use his mind as a still photographer to his advantage. “A still scene with one thing moving, sort of like a cinemagraph,” he says, had interesting impact.

“People on set were like, ‘You can’t do this! This is going to be so boring!’ and I was like, ‘Well, that’s what I want to do.’ We ended up adding some motion and I kind of agreed at that point, so I embraced it a little bit in the end.” The takeaway, ultimately: Listen to advice, but still do you, because “you’re not going to be somebody else,” Schoonover says.

“This shot is all about contrast,” says Schoonover, who shot this in collaboration with his brother, Jonathan. “Styling played a huge part in making this photo great.” They used two Profoto strobes with two umbrellas.


Besides his From Indian Lakes video, he’s been keeping busy with a Refinery29 editorial, a NYLON/Nordstrom collaboration and an assignment shooting HYPEBEAST’s founder Kevin Ma, but he’s also making another push to shoot more personal work. There are artists, musicians and actors who Schoonover finds visually interesting, like Steve Buscemi or Willem Dafoe, that he would love to add to his portfolio. When it does come time for him to reach out, a healthy level of moxie is key, but so is patience; sometimes the editorial gods swoop in and answer his prayers. He contacted the musician Dev Hynes a year ago, who never wrote back—he’s a busy guy, Schoonover acknowledges. “But then I shot him on assignment for Spex, a German music magazine. It’s kind of a funny revenge, like, ‘Oh, you didn’t answer, and now here we are.’ It won’t always happen that way, but when it does, it’s really nice.”

On assignment for Spex, Schoonover finally photographed Dev Hynes.

Fate is matched with go-out-and-get-it discovery as well, which in Schoonover’s case has been thrift shopping. He once found “these interesting-looking ‘80s lamps, the kind you’d see in American Psycho.” Holding them in his hands, he daydreamt how he’d incorporate them into a set he could build and shoot—just as a couple of girls at the register told the attendant they were buying them. “My heart dropped,” Schoonover says, adding hopefully, “but now I kind of know that I want to build sets.”

He’s in the midst of putting the wheels in motion for a short film, too. “I sort of have a loose idea, so I’m going to meet up with writers and talk about dialogue,” he says. “It should only be a couple minutes long, maybe all shot on film, and I’ll have just one actor.”

Schoonover’s never done anything like this before. That level of mystery has never stopped him.

Portrait of Helene Bergsholm in Schoonover’s signature palette. He shot it using two Profoto strobes, with the key light from the left and pointing down at a 45-degree angle. “The second strobe is aimed at a white ceiling wall, which reflects and fills in the shadows,” Schoonover says. “You can see by the sharp shadows that no modifiers were used on either light.”


Cameras: Canon 5D Mark III, Mamiya RZ67, Canon AE-1, Yashica T4, Pentax 67
Video: Blackmagic Cinema 2.5K, Canon 518 SV Super 8
Lenses: Canon 24-105mm f/1.4L, Canon 50mm
Lighting: Profoto Acute 1200 strobe kit, Arri 1K Fresnel, Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite

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