Sitting at the feet of : Big City Photos with Small Town Charm

Robb Neuenschwander provided for his family on an artist’s income carving wood. Celebrities like Richard Simmons and Demi Moore bought his art, but he never grew rich whittling. In that environment, Mark Neuenschwander grew up. “My dad did something I could never do. I’m incapable of hands-on art. [My wife] Autumn’s great with that stuff.” Mark never thought he’d make a living off of art, but looking back on his childhood, it doesn’t surprise him.

Mark took his first thought-out picture at sixteen. “I took a picture of my sister dressed up in old Victorian-era clothes and, like, my parents’ house was filled with antiques so I had her stand in front of an old vanity with a bunch of props thrown in. That’s the first picture I remember really thinking about.”

At seventeen in college, he took on theater. “I was always the one who ended up taking the production photos. Just for fun. There was no one else doing it and I thought, ‘Hey!'” Back then, he didn’t have an SLR, and had he, it wouldn’t have been digital. “I think I used whatever camera they had laying around. My first camera was my dad’s old Vivitar.” Mark had only dabbled in photography. Journalism moved him to edit the college paper. He wrote articles and reviews. Someone handed him a camera to snap photos for one of his articles. “I don’t want to do that–just let me write [the article].” I sympathize, but he took the pictures and photography grew on him.

A photography class weaseled its way onto his enrollment sheet, yet he didn’t learn much “because it was ninty-percent darkroom.”   Of course, that’s completely relevant in today’s photography climate. “I pretty much hated it cause I don’t have the patience for the darkroom. Plus it was a really crappy old lab that was filled with old dust. Ask anyone that knows–dust in a darkroom is the most maddening thing in the world.” I mentioned pinhole cameras. “The fun in that is not knowing what you’re gonna get, which is hard for me.”

The class never improved, but Mark did. He hated development, but he realized he loved photography and loved the creative aspect of catching a great shot. They never talked composition, theory, history of photography–only darkroom. He thought he was pretty good until he realized how much he needed to learn. “I think this is the most common mistake I’ve seen most in new photographers. I was way too excited by what I could do and I was too obsessed with, ‘I could make money off of this.’ I spent time putting up fliers instead of learning my craft. The more time when on, the more I realized that I still have a lot to learn. The most I’ve learned has been in the last two years.” Mark spends hours in Books A Million reading, digesting, dreaming up new ways to use his God-given craft. Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky changed the game for him. Unfortunately, autodidacticism’s not the common course for someone developing their craft:

You start out, take some photos, and someone says, ‘Hey, you should be a photographer.’ I’d never thought of that. Then one day I say, ‘Hey, I’m a photographer.’ There’s not a long enough transition there and you don’t realize it until later. You show it to family and friends and they’re all like, ‘IT’S AWESOME!’

College unearthed his love for photography and that was enough for the time. He dabbled in theater, psychology, education, journalism, photography and graduated with an associates in general studies, “the tiniest, vaguest degree you can get. College largely served to show me what I didn’t want to do. I was home schooled so I went to college a year early. College was my high school.” In some ways, that’s the problem with our education system–we learn everything backwards. Only in college can we learn how to… well… learn. The Medievalists did it the other way around. Once Mark had learned how to learn, photography grew easier.

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“The thing that took longest to learn was working with people. I favored working with people over working with landscapes and still lives. Those things bored me.” While he was in his second of the two photography courses he took in college, the teacher signed up to shoot a wedding but couldn’t make it. She gave the gig to Mark. That alone affirmed Mark’s eye, the notion that he could get paid for shooting someone’s wedding. He burned through several rolls of film:

You could shoot an entire shoot and never know how it’s going to turn out. I’m always grateful that I started out with film because it teaches you from the very beginning how to be conscious of what you’re shooting, to be very careful, to think things through. You know you can’t check it a second later. There’s still something about the look of film that a $30,000 digital camera can never quite capture. Film handles gradients of light better than digital. If there’s a grain, it’s a beautiful grain. If you shoot in 800 in film, it doesn’t look noisy. It has an intentional feel.

Most of what he did applied to “the rules.” When he later learned “the rules,” he had principles to guide his gut. After the associate degree, he met his wife and they moved to Springfield, Missouri. He took art classes, which played more into his photography than the photography classes. Art-class concepts of composition, color, and balance all come to his mind during his shoots. At then end of that first semester, he decided to make a career out of photos. He enrolled in the second semester’s class, but he and his wife were working and going to school full time.

That worked poorly, so he opted to learn photography while he worked at Stake-n-Shake and she finished college. When they came back to Joplin, he worked at the Stake-n-Shake here, then Pizza by Stout (may it rest in peace), then Starbucks for two years. All the while, he took photos. However at Starbucks, he worked with several like-minded hipsters and met virtually everyone in Joplin. After all, every Joplinite eventually filters through 4th Street. He got “less-cheezy,” took more notes at Books-a-Million and then went out on his own.

I felt like I didn’t have time to pursue my business–I had more business than time. I had a kid. It was feeling like too much, something had to go. The biggest scare was financial–could we afford for me to make it on my own? If you look at the benchmarks from professional photographers for when to go out on your own, my benchmarks would have been totally off. It had to be faith-based. I had to be sure that this was what I wanted to do, what I was called to do. Autumn encouraged me to do what I loved.

I put in my two weeks, was a nervous wreck. The day after, I land two big jobs. That was the affirmation in my head. “This is what you’re supposed to do. This is what I’ve called you to do. You’re on the right track. Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” from God. It felt like a sign to me that I hadn’t gone and done something stupid.

He hadn’t. Over time, his business grew until he became the face of Downtown Joplin. He started a photo booth, setting a theme for each Third Thursday (Joplin’s version of First Friday). People show up in droves to get free shots of their friends and family looking ridiculous. Mustaches, fancy clothes, clovers and superhero costumes all hide inside Mark’s photo booth prop box. People respond. “You tell people you’re taking their picture, they clam up. You tell them you’re doing a photo booth and toss them a mustache, they loosen up and have fun.”

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That creativity, the creativity he inherited from a father who sold art to Demi Moore, trickles down into his shoots. He asks people to come to shoots with ideas, to give something to the art. Some bring their chickens or giant balloons. Others hang upside down or light sparklers. Still others go for loftier goals. The more he shoots, the more people collaborate. That creativity is infectious–it’s breathing life back into a dead downtown scene. He keeps hoping to bring big city photography to the smaller town–Joplin’s the biggest city he’d ever want to live in, and he continues to contribute to her culture. All from a man who lost his camera, computer and house in Joplin’s EF5–or as Mark calls it, “The ‘Nader.”

Before the interview, Mark helped me save two kittens and smoked his pipe. That sums up his personality–gentle, yet fascinated with the tropes of manful culture, the babies of masculine culture thrown out with the bath water of chauvinism. Whiskerino, for instance, served as creative inspiration. Most of those guys are big names from Nashville who started creating an online community based around art and beards. That intersection of grace and brawn trickled into Mark’s life. Beards, bacon, pipes, robots, vinyls, chess, and stout beer all contribute to his persona and his work, yet he’s the kind of guy that’ll hang upside down from the monkey bars just to get a shot of your daughter giggling. Come to think of it, it’s kind of like taking an rough old log and carving something gorgeous enough to catch Demi Moore’s attention, you know?


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PS> If you have spent a significant amount of time on something, you might be an expert worthy of an interview. Send an email to lanceschaubert [at] gmail.com — I will take on all kinds of people from celebrity to lone wolf, filthy rich to newly bankrupt, foreign or domestic. “But Lance, what if everyone that knows me has no clue that I’ve spent so much time on this?” Email me anyways.

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