Ernst-Ulrich Schafer shows a photograph to one of his clients while working in his Port Angeles studio.  -- Photo by Chris Tucker/Peninsula Profile

Ernst-Ulrich Schafer shows a photograph to one of his clients while working in his Port Angeles studio. -- Photo by Chris Tucker/Peninsula Profile

PENINSULA PROFILE: Photographer tells subjects’ stories with light, lenses

PORT ANGELES — On the eve of his departure for Vietnam, Ernst-Ulrich Schafer went to a movie: “Alice’s Restaurant,” the 1969 classic starring a young Arlo Guthrie.

He’s been a fan ever since. And like Guthrie, Schafer has traveled a winding road, a road lined with true stories.

Schafer joined the Army in ’69 the day after he turned 17. From Fort Bragg, N.C., he went off to war in Southeast Asia and served as a combat engineer, giving four years of his life to the military.

And one day, when Schafer was 19, somebody gave him a camera. Over the next 40 years, that piece of gear would become pen, paintbrush and listening device. Wielding lenses, lights and tripod, Schafer celebrates the communities around him, with a thriving portrait photography business and through personal projects — both of which he continues to find exhilarating, even after all these years.

Now, Schafer is enjoying a fresh set of honors: At the Professional Photographers of Washington conference in Olympia this spring, he was named Portrait Photographer of the Year for the state. He also brought home an armload of trophies and ribbons for his portraits of people from divergent walks of life.

Then, on the night of April 15, Schafer closed a kind of circle, a good three decades after that night at the movies. He went to see Arlo Guthrie, who had brought his son Abe and grandson Krishna to town to give a concert at the Port Angeles High School auditorium.

Arlo closed the show with his father’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” which to Schafer’s mind ought to be our national anthem.

Schafer was right up front for the Guthrie concert, with his camera of course, and a bit more experience. So he captured Arlo, his contemporary, and then posted the portrait on his Facebook page for everybody to enjoy.

The two men are storytellers, storytellers in their prime.

To Schafer, illuminating one person’s life, in one image, is the essence of photography.

When he makes a portrait, he does it through the conversation he has with his subject.

“The excitement comes from getting to know their story, and how can we tell that story in one photograph,” Schafer says.

And while his bread and butter comes from graduation pictures, weddings, mother-and-child portraits, images for CD covers and coverage of events such as the Sequim Irrigation Festival, he’s also driven to develop his art in between jobs.

“I’m always working on projects. That keeps the fire going,” Schafer says. He goes out with his camera on New Year’s Day, to photograph the morning. And on Memorial Day, he attends community ceremonies, to use his camera to pay tribute to his fellow veterans.

Schafer, who’s had his studio on Laurel Street in downtown Port Angeles for nearly 12 years now, is also energized by an ongoing project he calls, with a smile, “Yank ’em off the Sidewalk.”

He spends a lot of time on those sidewalks, due to his cigarette habit. So he has a good view of the varied population downtown. And “if I see somebody walking by who looks interesting, I say, ‘My name’s Ernst. Would you mind coming in to the studio?’”

Simple as that. Except it isn’t, of course. Schafer proceeds to put his portrait subject as ease by joking around a little, asking a few questions and,

sometimes, putting on some music.

One day, working with a client who wasn’t so comfortable being photographed close up, Schafer put on the late Etta James’ classic “At Last.”

Close your eyes and listen, the photographer advised.

The portrait turned out beautifully.

In another connection between music and image, Sarah Shea, the Port Angeles-based jazz singer, chose Schafer for the cover photograph on her first CD, “The Nearness of You,” released last summer. She wanted to support a local business, and said Schafer turned out to be exactly the right person for the job.

Referring to her portrait that graces the CD cover, Shea said: “I think this speaks for itself. I think he is a great portrait photographer.”

Schafer has a natural ability to put a person at ease, she added. “He is just a funny, nice, genuine guy.”

He’s also a versatile artist, one who is entranced by all manner of images. A cross-section of his repertoire can be seen on Facebook: an imposing shot of the Holland America cruise ship that called here in April, portraits of tiny babies, eye-candy views of Hollywood Beach, still lifes of bicycles.

Then there are his portraits of others encountered on the city’s streets and alleys. One of the striking images that made the Professional Photographers of Washington conference judges rise up and take notice: “Ozette Warrior,” an image of James, a Native American and veteran Schafer met downtown one day.

Another award winner, titled “Eye of the Beholder,” is a portrait of Gordon Hempton, the activist for quiet in America’s national parks who splits his time between homes in Indianola and Joyce.

Together, these images won Schafer the Best in Show, Best Portrait of a Man and Best Portrait Overall trophies at the conference.

In “Beholder,” Schafer used Hempton’s gnarled hands, positioning them to cover his face and frame his piercing eyes. This technique is one example of how Schafer uses lessons learned from other photographers, living and legendary.

Among them are Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz, who used his wife Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands to strong effect.

The difference between an artist and one more guy with a camera, Schafer believes, is an interest in continuous personal and professional development.

“Classes and conventions are huge for photographers,” he says. “People think you can get everything for free off the Internet,” in terms of education. To his mind, there’s nothing like face time with fellow professionals.

Photographer tells subjects’ stories with light, lenses We all get weary now and then, Schafer says. Running a photography business is difficult in a world where just about everybody with a smartphone considers him- or herself a good-enough photographer.

We’re living in an era of images everywhere, images proliferating from digital cameras, phones and tablets, on Facebook and Flickr and an apparently infinite number of social sites.

For Schafer, an obvious zest for his work, plus tenacity, have brought him through the challenging times.

“You’ve got to work yourself out of any rut you get into,” he says, adding that seminars he’s taken over the years are powerful tonics. At a conference many years back, for example, he took a class with Monte Zucker, a master photographer, and learned how to use light in a whole new way. And just last fall in Port Townsend, he took a class with Darton Drake, another inspiration. The class “turned my world upside down,” Schafer recalls.

Schafer started his lifelong study of photography at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash. This was long before the advent of digital cameras, so he learned the basics of developing and printing. And he continued to make pictures through the years but didn’t start a business till much later.

He and his wife, Donna Matyskiela, came to Port Angeles from Vancouver in 1989, and both found positions at Kmart; they came not necessarily for those jobs but for their son, Dylan. They wanted to raise him in a small community; Schafer says now that this was one of the best decisions he and Donna made in their 29 years of marriage. Dylan’s now a schoolteacher in Connecticut.

This week, Schafer will be shooting one of the granddaddy community events, the 117th annual Irrigation Festival. This is his 10th year as the festival photographer; his documenting of the past decades’ parades, princesses, Strongman Competitions and Logging Shows flashes across Irrigation

Schafer’s love for such community events comes across in the images. This is, after all, how he started out: celebrating people, across the age spectrum, out participating in community life.

One of his first projects, as he was just starting his photography business, was taking pictures of 4-H students and their animals at the Clallam County Fair. He sold about 150 5-by-7 prints off of a picnic table there.

These days, Schafer is busier than ever, with clients, newborn to senior. His personal projects range from the “Yank ’em off the Sidewalk” portraits to the graceful shape of the calla lily, a longtime fascination. It all comes together on his Facebook page and at www.

“I love doing still lifes by window light,” Schafer says. “I love photographing on the ferries

. . . the more you do other things, the more it enhances what you do [for a living].”

Sure, Schafer is always looking for ways to attract clients, and to stand out amongst the competition. But he has managed to marry art and business, love and livelihood. In the end, the fees aren’t what drive him.

“I don’t do this because of the money,” Schafer says. Then, with characteristic gusto: “I’m a photographer!”

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