When a friend loaned Sean Stuchen his digital camera, it was the start of not only a photography business, but the healing of a soul and a marriage. By Gillian Drummond. Photos by Sean Stuchen.
Enduring. Unwinding. Uninterrupted. These are the names of a few of Sean Stuchen’s flower portraits.
But they could easily be describing Sean and his renewed love affair with the camera – and what happens to him when he shoots in the deserts and state parks around Tucson.
He can spend an hour photographing just one agave or fairy duster, and during that time all sorts of things can happen. There can be changes in light and wind. He might see a ladybug land on there, then a fly, and then the two of them doing a dance with each other.
Sean falls into their world, he says. “I would go out on a Saturday and shoot an image of a flower and go back on Sunday to that same spot and they were all dead. I started realizing how fragile they were, that sometimes these pictures are a moment in time.” He laughingly compares himself to Horton the Elephant, who discovers a miniature world on a clover leaf in Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. “To me it’s a reminder that life is short.”
But then he already knew that. Back in 2008, when Sean started taking photography seriously, he was separated from his wife Rebecca. “I was a workaholic, on four or five non-profit boards in Tucson, very involved with the community, and I had no hobbies.” He and Rebecca had decided to spend a year apart and he wasn’t sure they would get back together. “It shook me in a good way,” he says of the split.
Naturally, Sean spent more time with friends, and one of them loaned Sean his Nikon camera. It was his first time with a digital camera, and the first time he had picked up a camera in 18 years – since taking a photography class in his junior year of high school in his native Nogales, Arizona. His dad was an amateur photographer and for a time Sean caught the bug. He even won a prize at a State Fair competition. The photo, of Lake Powell, hung on his bedroom wall for years.
That weekend with his friend’s camera he photographed his dogs, cacti, still lifes, anything that caught his eye in his backyard. There followed a two-day course on the basics of digital photography, and he was hooked.
“I started hiking again. I got reacquainted with nature,” he says. He also eventually got back with Rebecca, who admits: “Photography changed everything for us. It shifted everything for our relationship. It was no longer about him working. He found his own passion.”
The two of them went on a trip to Peru where the tour guide took Sean aside and complimented him on the photos he was amassing. The guide talked him into creating CD’s of the photos and selling them to other members of the tour. “That was really the start of my thinking about doing this professionally,” says Sean.
That and meeting Jack Dykinga, the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who lives in Tucson. Sean has taken many of his workshops, and the two have become good friends.
Today, Sean Stuchen Photography is still a sideline for him (he continues his career as a certified financial planner), although his photography business and his reputation are growing. This month his flower collection, Bloom, will be part of a flower-inspired art exhibition at the Tucson Botanical Gardens along with painters Diane Howard and Elizabeth Von Isser. All except one of the plants he shot was taken in the field using his Nikon D810 and, often, a tilt shift lens. Tilt shift lenses – commonly used in architecture photography – allow a photographer to change the plane of focus on an image, making part of it appear sharper than the rest.
Sean’s subjects aren’t restricted to plants. They range from jaw-dropping landscapes (he has been back to Peru several times, and visited Iceland) to stark people profiles, to a series of firefighter shots for the Tucson Fire Foundation, to those where he likes to “play” and encourage his models to move around. “I’m not big on events or someone needing a headshot. For me it needs to be much more creative,” he says.
Tucson-based photographer Jade Beall, known around the world for her un-Photoshopped images of women’s bodies, is a good friend and sometime subject. She also frequently borrows his gear, and he borrows her studio. Jade credits Sean with a lot of what she knows, and his lighting equipment for helping her get established in portrait photography. “I consider him my mentor. He’s much more techie than me and invests time in helping me understand the gear that would be best for me.” She loves his landscapes “deeply”, and his dance photos – including ones of her – are among her favorite dance photos, she says. “It’s hard to get a good dance photo and not have a weird look on [the subject’s] face.
When Sean is doing people shots, he doesn’t like too much talking. “I’m going to give directions and encouragement, but sometimes an uncomfortable silence is when I’m going to capture the true essence of that person. I tend to be attracted to a more serious photograph. If someone is more stoic that’s really when I’m drawn in,” he says.
His wife Rebecca, owner of adventure retreat company Destination Bliss, remembers how Sean would talk about his interest in photography and that award he got in the 10th grade, since the day they met. “Then when he bought a camera again I couldn’t have been more thrilled. One of my philosophies of life is to find your modality of creativity. I think it makes life so rich to have a craft and a passion you can get lost in.”
Today, the two are able to combine their respective passions – she travel, he photography – at the same time. Says Rebecca: “Photography adds a dimension to our relationship that we were missing before.”