By Sarah Smith
When asked to pitch a story for The New York Times Magazine, William Paterson University Associate Professor in Photography Robin Schwartz thought of swimming pigs on an island in the Bahamas.
Preparing for the trip to Big Major Cay Island was a lengthy process. Schwartz needed to get underwater equipment, make housing accommodations and reserve a boat to take her to the island. Once she returned, she had to edit the photographs and write the text that would accompany them.
“I don’t think I could have done what I did while teaching because I also have a family,” she said about the trip.
In the same week that her photographs were published, Schwartz became one of 178 recipients of the 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. The prestigious award was given to Schwartz for her distinguished accomplishments in photography. Schwartz gives credit to the university for helping make this opportunity possible.
“If I didn’t have a sabbatical I wouldn’t have been able to apply for this fellowship because it took me a really long time to put the application together,” said Schwartz. “I just shot for the New York Times, in the Bahamas. Those are things [that] would have been very difficult to pull off.”
The fellowships are part of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that was established by United States Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife as a memorial to their late son. The foundation website notes that they receive nearly 4,000 applications every year and only give out about 200 awards. The site also says that fellowships are only given to applicants that demonstrate “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts”.
As for her project, Schwartz has started it and said it doesn’t include her daughter, Amelia, as some of her other projects have. However, she won’t say what she is working on until she has finished it.
“The grant application is pretty involved and the fellowship supports a specific project,” said Schwartz. “I haven’t done it yet so I’m not talking about it. I talk about things I do, not things I haven’t done.”
One look at Schwartz’s bio shows why she was awarded a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.
A graduate of WPU, Schwartz earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1979 before getting her Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Pratt Institute in 1981. Her photographs have been shown in museums around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
One of Schwartz’s most striking works is the 13-year compilation of photographs of her daughter alongside animals. The Aperture Foundation published the photographs in two books, Amelia and The Animals in 2014 and Amelia’s World in 2008.
In addition to the monographs of her daughter with animals, Schwartz had two other books published, Primate Portraits – LIKE US in 1993 and Dog Watching in 1995, both featuring her love for animals. Her photographs have graced the pages of The New Yorker Magazines, Time Magazine, Slate Magazine and foreign publications like France’s Liberation, Italy’s Bang and Russian Esquire.
In one of her prouder moments, Schwartz spoke at The National Geographic Magazine’s Annual Photography Seminar in in Washington D.C. in 2012. She more recently worked as an editor for the magazine’s Your Shot assignments and a chapter on photographing animals in a future National Geographic Magazine Book.
Schwartz recalls her excitement of speaking at the seminar.
“That changed my life,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that the senior editor at National Geographic Magazine found me on the web and asked me to speak in front of curators and famous photographers. It made all the difference in the world having that kind of support and it also allowed me to network.”
WPU Art Department Chair Lauren Razzore says it is common for art professors to be actively working in their profession.
“We all do,” she said. “As artists it’s something we do no matter where we are in our careers and the department and the university really expects that of us.”
Razzore believes that Schwartz’s accomplishments raise recognition for the university.
“When Professor Schwartz is mentioned in any sort of article they say “from the Art Department of William Paterson University” so it reflects really positively on us as an active faculty in both our professional fields and an active faculty at the school,” said Razzore. “For the university it becomes something they can publicize and use for goodwill in the media.”
It also has become a benefit for her students.
“Robin’s life really is the goal, to be traveling and photographing, commissioned and stuff,” said Razzore. “I think as photography students and art students there is someone right there in the room with you who can not only inspire you but tell you the nuts and bolts of how she got there.”
Schwartz agrees that the more experience she has professionally, the more she improves as a professor.
“Every semester I teach differently and the more experience I have, it gives me more confidence,” she said.
Though professors take sabbaticals to further their professional work, not every academic travels like Schwartz has.
“A designer for instance or a painter might just stay in their studio but they might travel for inspiration or research,” said Razzore. “For Robin, because her photography is somewhat exotic in nature with animals and locations, it did free her up to travel.”
While she transitions to work that doesn’t include her daughter, Schwartz knows one subject that will remain constant.
“My thing is animals,” she said. “It makes me happy.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Schwartz’s monographs as novels.