Nancy Rica Schiff’s job as a photographer doesn’t exactly land her in the offbeat career category, but it has opened her eyes to less than traditional professions. Schiff’s book Odd Jobs, Portrait of Unusual Occupations, published in 2002 by Ten Speed Press, is the classic case of a photographer dealing with years of publisher rejections before finally getting a contract and discovering success.
As it often happens, the project had a serendipitous beginning. In 1989 while photographing at the Hollywood Race Track in California, Schiff noticed a strange-looking character on the track at the end of every race.
“I discovered that his job was to time the races and I thought to myself, not too many people set out to become race timers!’’ Schiff said via email. “That got me thinking about other unusual jobs and traveling around the country to find them.”
Schiff did exactly that, combing the country capturing the eccentric among us through black-and-white photography.
“My criteria for odd was simple: There had to be a twist of some sort,” explained Schiff. “Perhaps there was a gender reversal for example, a male bra designer or a young man testing tampons. In fact, ‘testing’ professions became a whole chapter. Or perhaps the job dealt with death or a forbidden but funny subject—or maybe the job was performed by only one person on earth.”
It might seem natural for someone with an odd job to have a corresponding personality. Not necessarily, said Schiff. “For the most part, the subjects I photographed were a delight to work with and very responsive. Many of them were happy to participate in the publicity and enjoyed their newfound notoriety.”
Because of the success of Odd Jobs, Schiff produced a second book, appropriately titled Odder Jobs (also published by Ten Speed Press). The projects have been transformative to both photographer and subject alike. Schiff described a couple of experiences that really left an impression.
“Climbing Mount Rushmore to photograph the ‘Crack Filler’ was the experience of a lifetime,” described Schiff. “Not to mention being squished into a small space in a custom-made trailer while hundreds of cows passed under me being artificially inseminated.”
As for her subjects, many contacted Schiff afterward to discuss the impact the images had on their lives.
“The ‘Odor Judge’ who is on the cover of Odd Jobs remarked to me after the book came out that her friends and neighbors knew where she worked but they didn’t know what she did there,” Schiff wrote. With two books under her belt, is there anything left for Schiff to capture?
“An odd job I never got to photography is of a ‘seat filler,’ ” wrote Schiff. “I have an image in my mind of nine people in a square format. Eight of them highly recognizable but the one in the middle is a complete unknown.”