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Best of ASMP 2009

Photojournalist Iris Schneider’s personal project to faithfully document the 1930s-era painted murals in her local Temple took a sharp turn when she was asked to transform her images into a collaged backdrop. Despite being outside her element, she persevered, talked to others and made tests. Working step-by-step with guidance from others, she learned new skills, expanded her vision and gained a fond appreciation for the dual capabilities of technology and art. With her collage of the much-loved mural now installed as a permanent backdrop, she is already on the lookout for her next assignment.

Iris Schneider


Project: Photographic documentation of 1930s-era Los Angeles temple mural and the commission of a collaged backdrop for a temporary sanctuary.

© Iris Schneider
All images in this article © Iris Schneider

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

IS: I have been a photographer since 1973, when I took a leave of absence from teaching for the New York City public schools and began my freelance career. One of my first jobs was a story published in the New York Times about an elderly woman and former chess champion from England who taught chess to children after school at the elementary school where I taught on the Lower East Side.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

IS: I joined the ASMP in the ’70s, and rejoined recently upon leaving the Los Angeles Times where I was a staff photographer for 27 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

IS: I have always been a documentary photographer, and enjoy chronicling life in its complexity and humor.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

IS: I have always liked my wide angle lens.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

IS: I feel that I appreciate the ironies of life and try to capture that in my photography.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

IS: The backdrop was created on my computer as a collage of my images and was then enlarged, transferred and printed onto a translucent plastic material that rolled down like seamless paper and spanned the stage, 18 feet high and 22 feet wide.

ASMP: What is the historic background of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple murals?

IS: The current Wilshire Boulevard Temple building was built in 1929, and the murals were commissioned by the Warner Brothers, who were temple members. Hugo Ballin, whose murals also appear in Los Angeles City Hall, The Griffith Park Observatory and the Los Angeles Times lobby, chose to depict the history of the Jewish people.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: How did you learn about the impending temple renovation that initiated your project?

IS: I knew that architect Brenda Levin was working on a renovation project at the Temple. I also am a Temple member and heard that the main sanctuary was going to be closed and the murals restored. At that point, I asked to document the murals as a personal project. I also offered to create a Hockneyesque collage of the Temple building and was not sure if I would use the interior or exterior of the building as my subject. So I began documenting both inside and outside of the Temple structure.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: What was the scope of your original mural project?

IS: When I first began shooting the interior of the sanctuary, I was really doing a personal project. I’ve always loved the murals and wanted to record them before the work on the sanctuary began.

ASMP: While doing the original photography what cooperation did you receive from the temple staff? Was any special equipment or access required for this?

IS: I had great cooperation from the Temple staff, who let me in whenever I wanted. I brought a ladder and tripod. The floor is pitched toward the stage and this posed quite a challenge as I tried to get on an elevation where the lines of the murals would be straight. After I was done shooting, I burned a CD with some images, which I gave to the Temple.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: Please talk about the commission you received to create the collage for an alternate worship space. Did you use any specific resources in negotiating compensation for this?

IS: After the designer contacted me about making a backdrop, I tried to figure out how to bid this job. I talked with an architectural photographer and other photographer friends of mine and checked with the ASMP for suggestions. The difficult part was figuring out how many hours it would take to create the collage on my computer, never having done anything like this. I also decided that I probably would need to reshoot some images since I did not shoot the originals thinking that they would be blown up to such huge proportions. The designer and backdrop technicians made a test from my original images to see how they held up. Everyone was pleased, but I felt that I needed to reshoot at longer exposures and a smaller f-stop to try and preserve the quality and resolution. I also shot some raw images to see how that would affect the quality.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: You used Photoshop to compile the collage. How much experience with Photoshop did you have when you began the project?

IS: I had also done a collage of the Temple façade using layers in Photoshop. The mural project was my second collage, and this one went further in terms of cutting out images and layering them over each other.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: What particular Photoshop processes did you use to create the collage, and how did you learn those techniques? Are there any specific resources that you found to be helpful in your progress?

IS: I used Photoshop and created a layer for each photograph that appears in the collage. I also used clipping paths to cut out segments of the photos and layer them onto the collage. I asked friends who were more knowledgeable than I about the clipping paths, worked trial and error and read some tutorials on saving large documents after crashing my computer. The image with all the layers had gotten very big.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: Did you collaborate with the theatrical set designer in making this collage? If so, how did this collaboration work?

IS: This piece was a true collaboration. It was an example of two visions coming together. When I first heard that the Temple was going to use an alternate sanctuary, I envisioned somehow using the photographs of the murals on the stage. It was eerie when I got the call from the designer D. Martyn Bookwalter, asking me to do that very thing. But his vision included cutting images out and layering them. This was something I had never done and, as a journalist, had always made a point of avoiding. I never even crop my photographs, so this was a real departure into different territory.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: Describe the digital workflow process for acquiring, manipulating, assembling, and printing the mural collage. How many images were used, and what was the substrate and size of the final work?

IS: I began with a scaled down canvas based on the original size of 22 feet by 18 feet so it could fit on my computer screen. As I was working on it, I realized that I needed to save the image as a Photoshop document as it was getting too big to save as a jpeg. I learned as I went, after losing several versions as I tried to save them when my computer crashed. The documents were just too big. I began saving as Photoshop documents, and saving as I went along after I added each image to the canvas. Other than cutting around several images, I did not manipulate or change the images in any way. 18 images are used in the final collage.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: You describe this project as pushing you beyond your comfort level, how far outside your comfort level did you go? Having experienced this do you have any insights or advice to share with others who might be interested in a new creative challenge?

IS: Martyn’s vision included some layering of images and I brought him three successive versions to look at. Each time, he encouraged me to push further and explore the artistic avenues. I reluctantly got better and better at cutting and layering the images and ultimately loved the final product. I would encourage others to experiment and push the boundaries of their experience without prejudging.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: What collaborative efforts were required to assemble, print and mount the collage? Did you participate or have a say in any of these tasks?

IS: In every way, my input was asked for and respected. That is part of what made this process so fulfilling. I worked with people whose opinions I respected and felt that respect was returned. My colleagues were professional in every way, and really good at their respective crafts. The backdrop was made at JC Backings, where television and movie backdrops are shot and made, and they were professional, supportive and helpful in every way.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: Has your work on this project resulted in any new clients or markets for your work?

IS: Not yet. I would love to do another project like this, and am thinking of how to contact theater designers or architects who might be interested in collages like this of their work.

© Iris Schneider

ASMP: How might you utilize the Photoshop techniques you have acquired in the future?

IS: I plan on doing more collage work and hope to use my new skills in these new projects.

ASMP: How long will your collage be used as a backdrop, and what will be become of the panel after retirement?

IS: As far as I know, the collage will stay up permanently. The main sanctuary will be closed for about two years, but even after it reopens, I believe this collage will stay up as a backdrop in the Piness auditorium, which will remain an alternate worship and public event space.

© Iris Schneider