Tim Schutsky’s studio is sequestered away along a freighting route, flanked by warehouses and gruff factory men. His space, in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, is mostly unadorned, save for examples of his work, a workbench of tools, and stacks of books. Inside, the 30-year-old artist gave The FADER a preview of his current project: a series of still lifes of spark plugs, worn tires, and other relics of car culture. Much like his photos featured in places like Wired and Men's Health, this work finds Schutsky depicting these "masculine" objects with a fresh perspective; he grew up around greasy cars, but it took him years to recognize these objects' artistic value. This project is a personal one, and it underscores a major theme in Schutsky's work: the never-ending act of trying to reckon with what's traditionally expected of you, in terms of things like gender, success, and lifestyle.
After, Schutsky spoke with The FADER about his slow-burning process, 1990s album art, and his evolving definition of manhood.
What made you want to be a photographer?
When I was 11 or 12, I was a model for a minute. I lived in Philadelphia, and I came to New York City to get my headshots. I still have them, they're really funny. It seems like I was in front of or behind the lens at some point all the time during my life. Skateboarding [videography] was an influence, and the more I did film and photo, the more and more I fell in love with it.
What do you shoot with?
A couple digital cameras. I have a Phase One camera and a Canon 5D. And I use strobes too, mostly, for photo stuff. I almost always use some kind of flash or strobe to make the light.
How would you describe your process?
It takes me a while to make one picture. It's usually a lot of fragmented thoughts. It's almost like I don't get the full puzzle at one time, I get little pieces everyday. When I piece it together, it becomes a finished picture. I'm learning to trust my ideas, but it used to take me a longer time. It could take me a month or two months or six months, but now it's a lot quicker because I trust myself more. Pretty much anything that pops into my head is worth doing. Sometimes if you wait too long, the idea will dissolve. If you don't jump on it right away, you might not ever do it.
What do you look for in an image?
I think the most important thing is that I [feel] surprised when I'm making something; I need to surprise myself. When I'm looking at other images, I also want to be surprised. When I look at a picture or hear a song or [watch] a movie, I just want to feel something. I think any reaction's good, even if it makes you upset or happy or uncomfortable or mad.
Which photographers do you admire and why?
I think the people I admire most are my friends. They're the people who actually inspire me. There are many big artists I admire, but I don't see them or talk to them everyday. My friends and peers and artists that I am working with have the biggest impact on me because they push me, or I get their advice.
What do you think smartphone photography has done to the practice?
I think it's only advanced it. People can report what they're seeing immediately, especially if it's a major event or catastrophe. People can immediately see what's happening, for better or worse. Even though there are many, many more images now, it's only a good thing. [In art], there's no rules.
What was the best bit of advice that you were ever given?
Maybe "make work that you care about," or "make work that's about you." There are so many things, but directly related to art, I think that it's important to be making stuff that is about you or reveals something about you.
What do you listen to when you're editing?
I really like '90s alt music. I've really been into Nine Inch Nails recently. Stuff like Hole. I like The Cure a lot, I like the Replacements – I'm probably going to miss like 1,000 others. I like Echo and the Bunnymen a lot. I also listen to country, some rap. It depends on the season, but for the fall it's post-punk, grungy alt-rock, some electronic stuff, and some New Wave.
Some of your work is reminiscent of rock album photographer Storm Thorgerson. Was cover art ever an influence on your work?
I think music had a huge impact on anyone growing up when we did, even the album art. Album art is the big influence on my life in general, not directly relating to my work. It doesn't exist as much now; it's still there, you can see it on your phone and on iTunes.
Is there an album cover that stands out as particularly inspiring to you?
There's too much of a range for me to identify one thing. There are really stupid album covers – for some reason I'm always thinking about Butthole Surfers' Electric Larryland. It's a really '90s cover. It's got a pencil jammed in an ear. Something about that one is funny to me.
Several of your photographs feature either people with bruises and scratches, or are stills of trash. What draws you to these traditionally unpleasant subjects?
I basically photograph things now – objects, especially – that, for some reason, I'm drawn to. I'll just start thinking about an object: it could be a watermelon, spark plugs, a tire. For some reason, it relates to me or my life. It means something to me that is important or that I want to deal with, so I look for objects and things that would reveal something about myself. It's almost transformed when you photograph it. It has a new meaning.
Filmmakers like David Lynch were an inspiration for your collection “The Odds of Being Born,” and your photos definitely share a visual depth and surreal quality with his work. Are you thinking narratively when you’re working on a project like that?
At the beginning, no, but I am thinking about the potential for narrative. For that project in particular, it was a year-long process of shooting, so while we're working we start thinking about what the story could be. We still don't know until pretty much the end, through editing. In the beginning, we have almost no clue – we just have an interest in a particular place or people or thing. You start building on that, and then, eventually, you piece things together.
Masculinity is a common theme in your work. How has photography changed the way you think about that?
It's helped me understand there's no singular definition of masculinity – it's really fluid and isn't one thing. There's no 'right' definition. What we thought it 50, 60, or 100 years ago is wrong. What I've inherited from my father, as far as expectations of being a man, is something that I'm interested in. It's almost like an artist's statement in my head. I think it's helped me gain a better understanding of what masculinity is and how I've been expected to perform.
I don't exactly know what masculinity means to me, it feels like I'm discovering it [for the first time]. It's not what I thought it was, so I feel like I'm searching for a new definition. I have conflicted views about masculinity, because, in a way, I've rejected the way my father is and the way his father was. I've rejected it for a long time, and now I'm starting to open up to certain ideas, or at least be okay with them.