Photographer Natasha D’Schommer may be the most serendipitous person I’ve ever met, someone who makes the most of moments that fall into her lap, moments like crashing her car into someone’s yard in St. Louis Park. The daughter of a TV reporter, she grew up learning that curiosity leads to discovery and, ultimately, revelation. We ate at The Kenwood restaurant, directly between an art gallery and a bookstore, which is precisely where D’Schommer, 42, lives her life.
Why photograph rare books? How did that start? I went to college south of London and had an amazing Shakespeare professor. His dream was to get his hands on a first-run Shakespeare portfolio.
You got your hands on it. My aunt worked in development at Princeton University. A photographer didn’t show up at a cocktail party; it was one of those moments where you make a choice and your life goes in a different direction. My aunt said, “My niece can do it.” I said, “Sure, I’ll do it, for free, as long as the next day I can see the Shakespeare portfolio.”
It happened. I was there for just one hour. I had my camera out, but my dream was to pick up the book and smell it—with my hands, no gloves, just totally naughty.
D'Schommer recently attended a concert and dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Prince of Wales.
Naughty to smell a rare book? It’s like a museum—you get the sense you’re not supposed to go smell the thing. I pulled it up to my face. It was exactly what I wanted: cobblestone, rosemary, incense.
Can you smell it now? I can. The librarian came around the corner and screamed, “She smells books! She can stay as long as she wants.”
And now you’re at the University of Minnesota. I crashed my car into the front yard of Wendy Pradt Lougee’s home.
Pardon me? It was snowing, my car slipped, and I crashed into a front yard and got stuck. The woman in the house, Wendy, came out and helped me shovel my car out of her front yard.
I’m not sure I would have been so helpful. I sent a thank you note, and it was on a card with one of my photos. She called me back and said, “We’re looking for someone who can make our rare books exciting.” She’s the president of the entire rare-book library.
What’s the lesson? Just crash into the right house? Exactly. That life’s sending you a message. I do try to take that now, when I have a really bad day: just wait two days. Anybody can take a picture of a book, right? Give it a shot. [Laughs.] Everybody’s a runner, too. Some people run faster than other people. It’s like anything else. How hard do you think about what you’re doing? How serious do you take it?
Are you in Minneapolis because it’s a good place to work or a good place to live? It’s both. But you have to do some serious sword-sharpening. It’s a competitive artistic place.
This is an era when we don’t value the physical book. I feel like I’m finding lost art. People say, “We don’t have any strong portraits of women from the 17th century.” But we do. They’re there, but you have to be looking for them.
What’s the most valuable book you’ve handled? I’ve photographed the four rarest Bible books.
Do you feel something when you touch them? I get the same celebrity nervousness. I was shooting Beethoven’s sketchbooks and Emily Dickinson’s letter, and I put them together: Let’s have these two people meet!
Some people will read this and think you’re crazy. I’m trying to show the madness of creativity. Beethoven’s manuscript has pages he tore out. If I get to be one of those crazy guys, I’ll take it.
The restaurant: Chef Don Saunders ran Fugaise and In Season before he opened The Kenwood, a true neighborhood spot that is generally open Tuesdays to Sundays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and feels like it’s been there forever, even though it’s just shy of two years.
What we ate: D’Schommer had the smoked trout salad, with fish so creamy, so delicate, and so tender. I had the burger: beef topped with gruyère cheese, a fried egg, and pork belly. It was a giant mess, but well worth it.
My lunch date: D’Schommer won a $25,000 McKnight photography grant in 2005.
Jason DeRusha anchors WCCO-TV’s morning and noon news. He also asks some really good questions.